Thursday, January 14, 2016

Rhetoric and the Self-Contained Classroom

Dear Jules,
Let me begin with the fact that you are, as they would have said in Worcester, Massachusetts, "wicked" smart.  You consistently communicate very complicated suggestions (actually, more like instructions) to me, your dad, and your friends.  They are things like "I want you to wear that coat and zip it up just like mine."  Last night, at 3 a.m., you decided that you wanted me to take you to the potty, so you opened your door, came down the stairs in the dark, came into our room (with a child-proof lock on it), took my hand, and had me take you potty...and then fell back asleep.
You've never had behavioral issues, your teachers love you, and you just received this from the school you attend in the morning:

I was so proud when we received this, mainly because of the notion that students in "special education" might not receive awards or recognition or be seen as readers, as intelligent.

In general, I've been in a really good mood about your prospects lately.  Like I said, I know that you are smart and funny and have incredible willpower.  You don't have a ton of words yet, but I know that the thoughts are there and that the words will come.

So I was incredibly excited to tour local schools and see what the best "fit" for you might be.  This is what other parents do, too, and I went to a tour of a magnet school during which the leader tried her best to "sell" it to us.  Later, she intimated that she knew very little about the special education process at that school, that you would have to take a proficiency test, but that they "couldn't stop us" from applying, but for that brief hour, I felt courted.  I felt special.  I felt like my kid matters, like these people might want her at their school.

I was even more excited about a school targeted toward the arts and music, since music is really your strong suit.  I went to an open house there, only to be told that we don't zone for that school, and that the only special education students there (who don't zone) are in the "autism room."  Hmm, an entire room full of kids with autism?  Sounds educationally sound to me.

I went to our home school and (still do) feel very excited about it.  They actually do want you there, they said you would be included in "regular" Kindergarten, and they showed me the special education area where they might pull you out for extra help.  It's a beautiful school, I saw a number of students with disabilities, and even the principal was excited to have you.  It's not as much school choice as I wanted, but it felt good.

And then I called your teacher and found out that your IEP team (this is a team of teachers and therapists designated by the school district--we are in the Charleston school district--) had already been discussing your "placement" for next year.
Wait a minute, I thought.  What about school choice?  And technically, parents are part of the IEP "team," so why are they "discussing" this without us?
Then the teacher told me that what would be best for you would be a "multi-cat" classroom.  Well, I did not know what that was, so I looked it up, and it's a classroom for kids (K-2) with "multiple" disabilities...maybe one step up from the autism room.  But, they told me, you could still go to music and gym with the "typical" kids.

So why does this piss me off?  When you were three, we started looking at school options and were told that a PIC (preschool intervention class) would be really good for you to learn some more basic skills.  We had planned on enrolling you at a private preschool--for which we had been on a waiting list for two years--, but we figured a semester of PIC would not hurt.

When we went to enroll you at said private pre-school, the school district people told us that the IEP (the document written by these groups which ostensibly include us) specified that you were to be in a "self-contained" classroom: in other words, in a classroom for kids with disabilities.  Every single article I have read has argued that inclusion is more effective for kids with disabilities, so I had only envisioned the PIC class as a step to integration.  When Dad and I told them that we wanted you at the private school, they pulled all of our school therapy services and made us sign a document saying that we "rejected" them.

Well, you still had--and have--your private therapists, so we figured that, in six months, we could apply to the school district (once they saw that you were able to be in an inclusive classroom) and have them send speech and OT to the private preschool.

This happened for A SEMESTER, and then we had the IEP meeting from hell, in which they basically told us that you needed more therapy than they could give you at the preschool, and that you should go back into a PIC class.  I cried, we fought, but "the team" had already basically decided that you would do PIC in the morning and the private preschool in the afternoon.  I made them promise me, up and down, that this was not the beginning of "self-contained" classrooms for your school career.

And now this.  Now this "multi-cat" stuff.  I did some research and found this powerpoint for principals and lead educators.  If you're also a special needs parent in SC, you should read this, but if you're not, I will sum it up with one telling quotation:  "Change the name of the self-contained programs and USE THEM!"  They call them multi-category, but that, as the quote so succinctly says, is just a change in name, not a change in perception or function.  And I am terrified that, if the "team" puts you in this K-2 program, we will hear the same rhetoric after 2nd grade: that you are better suited to whatever they will call a self-contained classroom then.

We will fight for you to be placed at your home school, where they were excited to have you, and if that does not work, we will look at private schools, but we refuse to relegate you to what used to be the "resource room" but became the "special needs classroom" for the rest of your education.

I'm writing this long post because other parents have been asking for advice.  Maybe they don't feel as strongly as I do about inclusion, or maybe their children are more verbal than mine and can communicate more effectively.  I honestly believe that the school district people think that they are doing what's in Julia's "best interest," but I don't think they know how smart you are.  Like me and like your Daddy, you tend to be really quiet until you really know someone.  So I'm not writing this to bash anyone, but as a warning that this rhetoric if the self-contained classroom ("it's only for a year, and then she can transition to a typical Kindergarten") seems to lead to more and more of these self-contained classrooms.  And when I teach students in our REACH program (a program at the College of Charleston for students with intellectual disabilities) very few, if any, come from this background.

So I am angry, I am hurt, I feel like my dream of schools wanting you has been taken away (even though I found out that they get money from the state for each child with a disability).  I feel like the idea that I'm a partner in your education is also just rhetoric, and, again, I feel like we have to gear up for a fight.

I should not have let my guard down.  I should not have believed that printed awards and weekly summaries of how well you are doing mean that you could be included with my neighbors' kids in our neighborhood school.  The hardest part about this is that I hate fighting, but I will fight and keep fighting until you are in a school that sees you the way I see you:  as too smart for your own good.

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