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Posts Tagged ‘Special Ed’

Beginning a New School and Knowing When It’s Time to Say Good-bye

December 5, 2010 2 comments

I always loved my school.  It was started before the first special education law , PL94-142,  when there was no entitlement to a free and appropriate public school education until age 21.  Students with developmental disabilities remained in an elementary school setting until age 17.  At that time, if they were independent travelers, they could attend an occupational training center to learn skills that would hopefully help them to get a job.  Students who could not travel by themselves were out of luck, they stayed at home.  That was until a sage man, Murray Beer, saw the need to have these young adults continue in a school setting.  He wrote a grant and thanks to Murray, the Brooklyn ASTC was born in 1975.

We were called the Adult Skills Training Center, a small school, 3 classes and about 15 staff.  We recruited students from the neighborhood and from the nearby Brooklyn Developmental Center.  We ran the gamut of students who aged out of their neighborhood schools and were sitting home watching television or hanging out on the streets getting into trouble to those who never attended a public school and under the Willowbrook  Consent Decree, were getting on a school bus for the first time.

I remember coming to the building with my colleagues about a week before the arrival of the students so we could plan and set things up.  The excitement was incredible, with energy and ideas abounding. We were going to do wonders with our unserved students.  We were trailblazers.   We collaborated and shared ideas and waited eagerly for the day that our students would arrive.  I still remember the first day,  some  students came via school bus, some by themselves,  wandering in to see what was going on, and others with parents who were so grateful that there was somewhere for their child to go during the day.  There was a zero rejection policy, all were welcomed.

We developed our own curriculum, consisting of functional academics and life skills.  We billed ourselves as a community based school whose mission was to promote social growth and to help our students to become as independent as possible.  Parents loved the idea, they yearned for their young adults to be independent and get out into the community.

Budget was an issue, there was little money for supplies. We scrounged for donations and used our own funds as well.  We wanted to do the right things for our students.  The staff worked as a team, pitching in whenever and wherever the need arose, handling behavioral issues, sharing students, and switching them informally so all could receive the proper supports.  There was no territoriality, we were a family and we wanted to do what worked for the students.   Parents were always welcomed and were encouraged  to begin a parent association.

Staying late or coming in early was never an issue.  We were so committed to our students, that was all that mattered.

We completed our first year, filled with learning , celebrations and happiness.  As we made plans for our second year, the dreaded budget cuts ensued.  I was not a permanent teacher, I lost my job; the fabulous  unit coordinator  lost her job and other staff was shifted around.  Staff excessed from other schools would be assigned in September.  What a terrible way to  end a glorious year of growth for students and staff alike.

As luck would have it, I was called back to my job at the end of September.  (This would happen for another 2 years until I became  a permanent  teacher.)   Like in most schools, there were personnel changes, some for the better, some for the worse.   At times things were difficult.   For me, what was  never difficult was to stay focused on the mission of the school, to increase social skills and teach functional academics to make our students as independent as possible.  It made sense.

Over the next 30 years, the location of the school changed.  The name of the school changed.  The population of the school changed.  The  focus on academics changed.  The edicts from the various chancellors changed.   I remained with the school but my role and title changed.  The wording of our mission and vision statement changed.  What did not change was my belief in what  the school stood for or my passion for the school, it’s students, staff and parents and  of course, my commitment to being a trailblazer.  Throughout my career, I carried with me (and tweaked) the lessons that I learned in 1975 and am proud that I always was and still am a trailblazer.  Keeping focused on doing the right thing for my students made it so much easier.   Then came directives from the  last chancellor, via the district superintendent, that I knew were not educationally sound for my students.  I found words coming out of my mouth that were their beliefs, not mine.  I was lucky, I had the age and years to retire so I wouldn’t have to continue to spew or implement what I knew was wrong.  Making the decision to retire was not an easy one. I loved my school and what it had become but after  so many years in the field, compromising my beliefs was unthinkable.  So I decided retirement was the right choice for me.  And when I left my school for the last time, I walked out with my head held high, hoping that my passion for the school, it’s students, staff and parents helped to make an impact on their lives.  I know that it made an impact on mine.

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The Other Side of the Table

September 1, 2010 Leave a comment

A lot of thoughts are going through my mind after being a part of the first #spedchat last night.  There were so many wonderful strategies and ideas shared by a very committed group of educators.  One of the discussions that I gravitated to focussed on  parents being involved in the IEP of their child.  This reminded me of a true encounter I had about 20 years ago.  I was a unit coordinator.   I was in charge of a few classes at an offsite of our school.  I was an experienced educator in the field of special education,  taught for many years, wrote a myriad of IEPS,  attended many trainings on the IEP process and did  turnkey trainings as well.

 I was asked by a colleague of mine,  Ms. D,  to accompany her to her son’s IEP conference at the Committee on Special Education.  The purpose of this meeting was to discuss  moving her son, who was already in a class for children with  disabilities, to a more restrictive environment.  His school felt that he wasn’t doing well in his current setting;  too many behavior issues.   Ms. D  thought  that I could help her negotiate the process and I was happy to assist.  Sure, I was a professional;  I held IEP meetings in the school many times;  I  knew how to write IEPs:  this would be simple.  Nothing could have prepared either one of us for what we encountered.

  We were greeted by a social worker who alleged knew Ms. D’s  son so well that he could make all of the recommendations for his educational future.  He rattled off the results of the tests, using terminology that was unfamiliar to Ms. D.   He listed all of the negative qualities of her 7 year old and made his case for why this child needed a more restrictive environment.   He monopolized the conversation and made Ms. D  feel like she was a bad, unconcerned parent.  (let me mention that Ms. D was a hardworking single  mother of 3, divorced from her husband, a drug abuser.)  If  Ms. D  asked a question, the answer was trite and flippant.   The psychologist  was a bit more compassionate  but certainly not an advocate.   I,  someone who is usually very verbal, was so shaken,  that I had little to say.  Ms. D and I left the meeting  feeling  angry and disheartened.  It was not the issue of her son being moved to a different school.  Ms. D felt that he would have greater supports and opportunities for success in an environment where the staff was more experienced in working with children with emotional disabilities.   She was optimistic about the change.  The issue for her was the way she was treated at the meeting.  The issue for me was the way she was treated at the meeting.

 As someone who takes every experience as a learning experience,  this was a big one.   I reflected on my school,  how we wrote IEPS,  how we embraced parents, how we made them feel (or not feel) welcome as partners in the education of their child and as stakeholders in the school,  how we valued their input and insights about their child…I realized that,  as much as I thought we were inclusive and welcoming,  there was certainly room for improvement.   Being on the other side of the table at that IEP conference taught me so much.

 A few things that I learned and believe:

 Parents need to be listened to,  no one knows their child better than they do.  They provide invaluable information that helps us to more completely understand and work with their child.

 Parents need to be acknowledged.  Though we may not always agree, we need to respect what the parent is saying.

 Parents need support.  Many have been beaten down by the system for  years,  told that their child is” less than” and made to feel that they are” less than” as well.  In our role as educators,  and in turn nurturers,  parents need nurturing too.

 Parents need ongoing information about the school,  its values, policies,  how the IEP process works and what their rights are.   Transparency is crucial.

 Parents need to learn and believe that they are the main advocate for their child;  their voice is stronger than any teacher’s or administrator’s.  Information about advocacy groups,  parent support groups and  agencies that provide service should be made available to them. 

 There is certainly much  more to add to this, which I hope some of you will. 

 So the end of this story:  Ms. D’s son flourished in his new school,  felt valued, and instead of getting a steady stream of negativity,  both son and mother received much positive feedback.   He is an adult now,  finished high school,  attended college and is a successful,  contributing,  working,  member of his family.  After the meeting I called the chairperson of the Committee on Special Education to complain about the lack of professionalism and insensitivity on the part of  the social worker and psychologist.  He assured me that he would address them.

Now,  over 20 years later,  I can thank that social worker and psychologist for the horrible way they conducted the meeting and treated Ms. D.   They certainly helped to change the way I  value and work with parents.