To The Powers That Be: Fix Special Needs Education
The educational system in America could have totally failed my children.
By Jenn Kneice
I have been asked to contribute to the education rhetoric. This is an especially hot topic for me. The educational system in America could have altogether failed my children, in particular my oldest son. I thank God for choices in education (i.e. in Ohio: the Jon Peterson scholarship, Autism Scholarship, Charter Schools, Voucher programs, the opportunity to homeschool and even private religious schools). However with FAPE and IDEA I believe public education should serve EVERY child, getting them to their HIGHEST potential.
First I will share our personal, bleak experience. Secondly, I will present the dark problems that I see. Thirdly and lastly, I will share any sliver of hope I can come up with.
My son was born in 2001. He was born healthy at 6lbs, 6 ounces. He was delivered at 37 weeks and 6 days gestation. I loved him with all my heart. His sucking mechanics were very strange. He had low muscle tone at his sixteen-week appointment and physical therapy was prescribed weekly through fifteen months of age (when he walked.)
We placed him in a Christian preschool where my mother worked. The preschool teacher became alarmed almost immediately; she said “his brain isn’t letting him do certain things. We need to watch him closely.” While playing on playgrounds, mothers had questioned what services he was getting. Adults in stores told me more than a few times they thought he was autistic during meltdowns. I just really loved my son!
I thought if the child could memorize every type of dinosaur, if he enjoyed organizing his trains by color, type of train, etc., then surely he was a brilliant child. His lack of vocabulary, strange articulation, and horribly quick temper didn’t concern me. I thought he was one sweet guy.
However, about the second week of kindergarten (where my son’s dad was employed at the Church where his school was located) the teacher met me in the hallway. She angrily prodded me. “What are you hiding with your son? Are you kidding me? He doesn’t belong here. I’m meeting with leadership about him.” I was stunned... I had told her before school started what the preschool teacher had said. The school ordered a private psych evaluation, and dyslexia was diagnosed.
At this point I lowered my standards. Judge if you must, but I decided my goals for my oldest son were going to be:
- I wanted him to be independent and able to live on his own.
- I wanted him to read at a level where he wouldn’t get lost in an airport.
That was it. Those were my goals. It’s not like I wanted him to be a rocket scientist or something, so for the remainder of my story these two goals were at the forefront of my mind.
Here is where public school failed us.
I began calling the school district where the private school was location for “services.” They told me it was not their job to help my son. I called the school district where we resided and the very woman who now facilitates my son’s IEP meetings is the lady I first dealt with. I would ask her for help and she would hang up on me.
I was at wit’s end. The private school told me several times a day they were not equipped to teach my son, a child with “special needs.” The Neuro Psyche wanted me to place my son in a private school for children with dyslexia and ADHD (which he currently attends, best school EVER!) At the time, the school’s yearly tuition was $14,000.00. There wasn't a snowball’s chance in hell that we could swing that!
I homeschooled my son. I entered him in a publicly chartered virtual academy. The Virtual Academy took on my school district. We were able to access the IEP. It should have never, ever been that difficult! I was only a mother wanting to help my very bright son.
It Gets Worse:
The Virtual Academy suggested many times that my son was autistic. I was getting the ticket to the clue train that this was probably correct. Finally, at eight years old my son was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome.
During this time I took my son to our local elementary school for speech therapy because it was on his IEP, and I wanted a bird’s eye view of what school might be like for him if we went the public school route. I toured their STACK wing for autistic children. It appeared they only swung on swings, played with blocks, and were yelled at all day long. No way would I put my son in that mess!
The public speech therapist was a ray of sunshine too. She kept stating with his IQ (high 50s – low 60s), he probably was incapable of learning. It seemed her joy to remind me that a few years ago those children were considered mentally retarded. I cried.
My gut knew my son was smart. I would not give up.
I toured Autism specific schools, all of them in town. They were a train wreck. They were all dead ends. I wanted my son around children to blossom socially; I could not homeschool him forever and stay sane.
When I was at the bottom of my rope, I found the pricey school that was first suggested to us at the bottom of the Autism Scholarship list.
He goes there now. He is at a sixth grade reading level, and he has been on the school’s honor roll and made the Dean’s List almost every quarter. Attending there since second grade has been the greatest celebration of my life. Skiing, fencing, roller skating, repelling, rock climbing and more have filled his social calendar at the school. Public school, could you even come close to that?!? He is in advanced math. At sixteen years old, he is looking to attend a typical four year university. Straight A's have graced his report card through high school thus far. And you said he couldn’t learn? Shame on you!!
How many kids out there have been told the above lies by the speech therapist, and the parents have swallowed the poison? Their kids are in sensory rooms, failing at life. This fact breaks my heart!
Problems with American Education:
1. There is no clear federal guideline or any accountability on how IDEA and FAPE are carried out (currently, the IDEA website is down since Nancy Devos took office as educational secretary – check for yourself. It isn’t there.) It scares the crap out of me! I fear we will have a significant amount of children who are illiterate.
2. If children are difficult to educate, I see many of them being kept in “low IQ rooms,” or on a “Life Skills Track.” This is similar to the above problem. My caring mommy heart says only children in a severe, non-communicating state should ever only be on a life skills trek. Why? I know nonverbal children that (although it has taken them years to learn) are now reading. Every child can be educated. We MUST change the way we teach them. Orton Gillingham's method in my opinion could help a vast number of children. It is systematic, it is multisensory. Yes, it would cost a butt-load of money to retrain American teachers' language arts. However, it will cost a great deal more to publically house all of these illiterate “Life Skills Trek” individuals.
3. Our standards in education are too low. What we are doing now is not working. Children on IEPs in Ohio cannot fail grade levels; I see children being passed through education who have no clue what is being taught. It must improve or America is very doomed.
4. Public schools are either afraid or just don’t want to spend money on personnel to educate these children. Many need an aide, one on one, to help them focus and learn. Yet if a child is diagnosed autistic, they get a great deal of money from the government in subsidies. The local public schools will argue that the money given from the government is not enough to employ aide services. Look at the numbers. I call BULL.
5. Public schools are billing Medicaid thousands upon thousands of dollars for children who are on Waivers (that’s the word on the street). The districts are making a lot of money off of Medicaid. This practice in and of itself could put a great weight on the American Fiscal Unit.
1. We need to look at each child... not as a dollar sign or a trash can that money is poured into, but as a tiny seed that needs to be watered and nourished to grow. We must look at each one’s individual needs and provide for each one differently. (Isn’t that why IEPs are called Individualized?). I don’t see how this can be done fairly without a set of guidelines from the federal government. Even now special needs families move from state to state trying to do right by their children (with whatever state has the best “services.”) All states should provide the same amount of effort, finances, and education to each child if they are truly states of America.
2. http://www.childrenofthecode.org/states that the American government prepares our prison sizes based on the illiteracy rate. Knowing that, wouldn’t it be more cost effective to simply do right by each child?
3. I don’t think we need an ax at the federal level. If anything, the feds need to set forth a clear guideline about what Fair and Appropriate Public Education is (FAPE). I believe at the federal level we need a scalpel, not an ax.
4. I believe we need to stop Common Core. It is teaching the kids to be knock-out test takers. This will not help kids get safely through the airport. (Just saying.) We need to look at education systems that are producing educated children and reproduce it here: (Montessori, South Korea, Japan, Singapore, Finland, Netherlands, etc.).
5. We need to hold the states accountable to clearly educate children. Not to be successful test takers but to be fully functioning, free thinking, wise adults in the areas that count (reading, personal finance, social skills, careers, personal care, automotive care, etc.) The public schools I’ve been to remind me of military schools, rigid and fierce. I wouldn’t perform well in that atmosphere. Let’s put more emphasis on play, let’s play games and not be tested in gym class, let’s bring toys back into elementary schools. For goodness sake, our children are young for too short a time anyway. Celebrating their youth can only produce much less anxious, free, happy children. Let’s give the kids a whole thirty to forty minutes to eat lunch (I’ll clean up the poo if that idea made you soil your pants. I’m used to it.)
6. The federal government needs to accept the responsibility for the epidemic of special needs children in this generation. I don’t know what has caused it, but looking around at the public schools there is a ton of children that need extra help. There is no denying they are there. Our future generation is more important than "Bridges to Nowhere” or saving the wolves (per say.) These kids need to be supported. Locking them away in facilities like the 1950s frankly scares me. We cannot revisit those days. Great people such as Temple Grandin and Stephen Hawking might not have had a chance to impact our world if they had grown up in that bleak, dark time. Let’s do right by these kids and watch how high they soar.
This concludes my “two cents worth.” While I’m not an educator, I know the current state of education is scary in America. Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. Please bring back the federal government’s special education website (its absence makes me feel very antsy as a Mom to four children with special stuff going on). Dear Powers That Be: please communicate the method for your madness. If your America disapproves of your methods, please listen and adjust. It’s for the kids. You are in service for us, the people. We really are relying on you to do good by us. Please don’t let us down. Doing stuff without stating why is no way for us Americans to live. We are the land of the free and the home of the brave. Be brave. Let us know what you are up to, please? Thanks in advance.