Nathan is Hebrew and means "gift from God" - we couldn't have been more blessed than to have been chosen as his parents!

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Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Integrated? Self-contained? The Education Trials Of A Family With A Child With Special Needs.

Entering Kindergarten is supposed to be a time of bittersweet joy.  A time where you talk to all the moms in the school district about the best teachers, participate in the “register your child day” and ride the school bus!  All leading up to the day where your pride and joy gets on the school bus for the first-time and you stand there crying your eyes out because in that moment you realize that your little baby isn’t so little anymore. That the little baby you’ve protected with every fiber of your being is now off on their own.  It’s terrifying and gratifying all at once.  Well, at least I think so.  

See, it’s not like this if you have a child with special needs – you are robbed of this delightful experience.  Well, at least we are. And, for all of you optimists out there, I know everything is what you make it, but there’s far more to this experience and decision-making process than most people can even fathom.
A Little Background

We’ve been preparing for Nathan to begin his elementary school journey since he was about two years old.   We bought property and built a house in one of the best school districts in the Capital Region – the district has won national blue ribbon recognition for their academics – the nation’s highest educational award.  Not only that, but the school district has INTEGRATED classrooms from kindergarten to 5th grade.  An integrated classroom combines children with IEPs (Individualized Education Plans for kids with needs) and typically developing children.  There’s pull-out for speech, occupational therapy and physical therapy and there is a special educator in the room with the regular teacher for half the day and a teaching assistant. It’s not a typical classroom, but one for children who need extra attention, learn things a little slower and need support. Well, at least that’s how I define integrated.  Sounds good, doesn’t it?  Just what Nathan would need to help him be the very best he can be while making sure he gets the extra attention and services he needs that his “typical” classmates do not.        

When it came time to register Nathan for kindergarten, I stopped by the Special Education office of the school district to discuss Nathan’s needs and whether or not we should hold off another year before sending him because he was still refusing to pee on the potty and needs assistance with his lunch.  At that time, I articulated my desire for Nathan to be placed in the integrated room if there could be assurances that potty training wouldn’t be a problem and if he would have help with his lunch.  I was assured he would absolutely have help in those areas, so not to worry.  It was the first time that I was actually excited for Nathan to begin kindergarten, but it was short-lived.

Last week, the Director of Nathan’s Preschool let me know she received an email from a teacher who would be coming to observe Nathan.  It’s common that the special education director and the teachers come in and observe the children prior to our annual IEP meetings, so they have some idea about the needs of the child and appropriate placement.  But what threw me off was that this particular instructor wasn’t from our home school, but another school about 15 minutes away – two Towns over – a self-contained “skills class” teacher.    Self-contained classrooms are where the children with the most significant needs are placed.  The classrooms have about 12 students, one special education teacher and two assistants.  The classes are combined, which means they include multiple grades in one room and the students are “included” in activities with typical peers, like lunch, playground time and for specials (gym, art, music..).   It’s a very different environment. 

The news took my breath away.  I felt betrayed by the school district and Nathan’s current teachers.  What happened since my meeting till now that prompted this major change in plans?  I immediately sent an email to the Committee on Special Education (CSE) Assistant Director, who I know through volunteering as a parent member for IEP meetings and let him know I was not amicable to Nathan being placed into a self-contained classroom.   But, I couldn’t let it go, so I called the Director of Special Education to find out exactly what prompted this email and soon-to-be visit from the self-contained classroom instructor. 

The CSE Director had come to observe Nathan a week or two before the email and she explained that she believed, and his current Preschool Special Education teacher confirmed, that he should be placed in a self-contained “skills class” for two reasons: the delay in his expressive language skills and he needs assistance staying on task.  Although, she did admit that once redirected, Nathan is compliant.  She also acknowledged he is engaged and a willing participate in classroom activities (always the good with the bad).  He already has lots of prekindergarten skills, but she feels that the integrated kindergarten class has too many students (23 now compared to 12) and that Nathan’s current teacher feels he would benefit from a smaller class size (yeah, so would ever child in kindergarten) and that he would make greater language gains in the self-contained environment (always good to focus on perceived rewards when you’re the person who holds the decision-making power).  I agreed that he has language delays and that he needs redirecting to stay on task.  I’m his mother – I get it, but disagree that it is reason enough to put him into the MOST restrictive environment, which is exactly what the school district is required NOT to do – they are suppose to place children in the least restrictive environment.  Well, their also only required to give him a sound basic education, but I’ll save this for another time.  I explained that Nathan has been in a learning rich environment for four years. He began toddler school at 18-months old and already has many pre-readiness skills.  He knows his letters, numbers, colors and shapes.  Does he have trouble with tracing? Sure, but it will come.  He has no discipline problems and plays well with other children.  He waits his turn, loves books, says please and thank you, and can spend extended periods of time away from Mom and Dad. He can run, jump and skip.  He can walk backwards and up and down stairs.  I could go on and on, but these are all on the kindergarten readiness check list. Oh, and he is now starting to pee on the potty! 

Here’s how we left it – I agreed that Danny and I would visit both classrooms, get a feel for what they do all day, how the room is run and what would be expected of Nathan and then we’d talk again.  In the meantime, I met with Nathan’s current special education teacher and the director of his school to figure out what  was actually said to the school district, so we were fully in the loop about what was being said about our son because it was being used against us and legitimizing their self-contained decision.  Also, the special education teacher from DPS’s self-contained class, the special education teacher from another self-contained classroom in another school and the integrated kindergarten teacher for our home school district came to observe Nathan.  The only report I got from the observation was they were “perplexed” about why we wanted Nathan to be in an integrated kindergarten class next year.  REALLY?

Do you see how complicated this is???  Isn’t it CRAZY?

The next day, I had a meeting with the Director of Nathan’s current preschool and his special education teacher and come to find out, the special ed. teacher did state that Nathan would be better served in a smaller class, which is code for self-contained. We discussed my desire for Nathan to be in the integrated room and why it was so important.  Nathan is at a critical stage in his life, where he needs typical models in a fun learning environment.  We have a “pre-IEP” meeting with his current team next week to discuss their recommendations for kindergarten goals and frequency of therapy services, so we’ll see.   I’ve been given their report about how Nathan is doing, but not their goals for next year yet.  I’m expecting those tomorrow. 

A few days later, we visited the integrated classroom in our home district and the self-contained room at an area school district.  These visits only solidified our pursuit for inclusion for Nathan.  I’ve gone on and on, so I’ll be brief here.  The integrated room in our home district was bright, cheery, full of ABCs, tracing, dancing and happiness.  The teacher was absolutely AMAZING!  Sign language was part of the lessons – even the kids were signing their songs!  Just what Nathan needs – a combination of expressive language and sign.  We noticed there were 12 different transitions throughout the day, which wouldn’t pose to much of an issue for Nathan with a little assistance.  What I found interesting was that the Special Ed. Director for the school district had made a comment about how the kids could spend 30-minutes on one type of activity – writing for example, but what I noticed is that yes, they do in fact spend that amount of time on an activity, but they’re not doing the same thing for 30-minutes.  We noticed they’d be on the carpet dancing, then to the tables for tracing, then back to the carpet for a smart-board activity. The lessons lasted maybe 5 or 10 minutes at most.  I honestly don’t know very many kindergarteners who can sit and do reading, writing, math and what not for 30-minutes at a rip without getting up from their desks for hours on end.  This classroom also has a teaching assistant and a special educator for half the day. 

The self-contained classroom was very different.  The first thing we noticed was that the room was dark – no lights.  We were told they do that because some of the students have sensitivities to light.  Ummm - No, thank you.  During our visit, we observed a reading lesson being conducted with the kindergartener and the second-graders.  It was such a different environment.  No sign language and by the way, they don't use sign language in class. No singing. No music. It just didn’t seem fun or anything like the integrated kindergarten room.   During this reading lesson, the students were sitting at the table while the teacher read the book and asked the second-grader reading comprehension questions (the students never moved the entire time we were in the classroom).  The lesson seemed appropriate for the second-grader, but as I said to the teacher, it wouldn’t be appropriate for Nathan.  It would be story-time.  I couldn’t see the educational value in this exercise for Nathan. Reading books is always educational, but this had a different intended goal.  Some other things we didn’t care for – the kids eat lunch and go to the playground with first-graders not kindergarteners and there was one comment that mad eme cringe and told me everything I needed to know about the culture of the school.  When we were discussing the integration of the class with the typical kids, the teacher made a point to mention that when the school does really special activities like cooking or big projects, they “let us” participate as well. She was excited, like this was something really special! Huh? “Let us?”  There it is – the us vs them mentality.  We preach inclusion, yet there are very real divisions between the typical classrooms and those with needs.   
In all fairness, we loved this teacher too.  She was great with the kids and honest with us. We very much appreciated her time and readily admit we only had a snapshot of the rooms to work with, but the snapshots were of two very different environments.  Absent the perfect scenario, we are going to ask that Nathan be placed into the integrated kindergarten room with a shared-aide to keep him on task and provide assistance when necessary.  I’ve placed a call into our school district’s Special Education Director to discuss our visits and our desires for Nathan and am awaiting a return call.  

This process is far from over and we could be denied our request.  If that happens, we’ll take the necessary steps to make sure Nathan is in the most educationally appropriate, least restrictive environment.

I’ll keep you posted.  We should have a resolution to this current situation by May 22nd.  The self-contained teacher made a comment about how we were going to have a long meeting, so this ought to be REALLY fun.  I’m not backing down and I’ll bring my A-game.  

Just think – we have 12 more glorious years of this ahead!!  Good thing I’m a bad ass with broad shoulders.  Stay tuned.