Sunday, May 18, 2008

Returning to the fray :)

Time certainly passes quickly, doesn't it?

Thanks to a timely sermon this morning at church (on the topic of Jonah, the call to make the world a better place, all the reasons we try to avoid this call, & why we should answer it anyway) I realised that I've been away from blogging for far too long, & need to jump back into this community. I've come to understand that part of the reason I took time away from writing & sharing was my participation in the search for a new minister for my church. Not only was it very intense & time-consuming, but so much of the process was confidential & I worried about inadvertantly letting something slip while blogging. But the search is over, we successfully called our new minister last month, & it time to get back to the discipline of writing. One thing that I did discover during my break was that I felt a bit of a relief to be out from under the magnifying glass of looking at (& writing about) my family & my life on an almost daily basis, so I'm going to try to keep that in mind as I find a new rhythm for writing.

So... last night Charlie & I hosted a meeting of parents from our school who have kids with IEPs & who are concerned about how the IDEA law has finally filtered down to our local level & will be making perhaps significant changes to our school next year. Brendan's school is a private alternative school with a well-earned reputation for doing a great job of educating kids with IEPs. About 20% of the kids at school (of around 100 total students) have IEPs & they are all integrated into regular classrooms. Of the 13 parents who met last evening, about half have kids in Brendan's class, & many of us have found this school to be our last resort for educating our kids, having either had bad experiences with our public school districts, or having been advised that the public schools couldn't provide the appropriate environments for our kids. The beauty of our school is that it's able to provide the "least restrictive environment" while also providing the (sometimes intense) support that our guys need, all in an alternative education setting, which means no standardised testing, the use of multiple & creative ways of getting the information across, hands-on learning with lots of field trips, plenty of outside time... I could go on & on :)

Up until now, our school has been able to hire & train their own consultant teachers by contracting with the school districts to provide these services to kids with IEPs from those districts. Paying our school to hire their own teachers actually saves the districts money, for various reasons, so everyone's had their needs met. Kids needing OT, speech, PT, etc. were served by providers sent to the school from the districts in which each kid lived, which meant a lot of people in & out of the building, but it basically worked. This past year, New York State's appeal of the IDEA law failed, & now it is illegal for private schools to use public funds to hire their teachers... Our school is too small to hire these staff without using funds provided by the school districts. Also, instead of having the district in which the chid resides provide funds & services, it's the district in which the school is located that administers all of this. On one level, this has worked well this year, since just one OT, speech therapist, & PT providing services for all of the kids in the school makes it much easier to communicate & co-ordinate space. Unfortunately, our school is located in the poorest & most disorganised school district in the area... it's the district that we actually live in & although the service providers have been top-notch, the administration is a whole other matter. Sigh. According to the law, as the State is interpreting, the district is required to allow parents & non-public schools to have a say in who will be placed in their facilities, but the reality has been anything but encouraging, with shell-games being played with who the actual district contact person is, calls unanswered, funds withheld (the school finally hired an attorney to work on this).

What we are anticipating for next year is that our present consultant teachers will be gone. Brendan's teacher, Cherie, has been with him since 3rd grade & knows almost instinctively what to do when he's having a tough time with tics or OCD moments, so that most of the time he misses little or no class time when they pop up. We shudder to think what will happen to him with someone brand new, no matter how well-meaning, has to take the time to learn how to help him along. Also, right now Cherie is able to float between Brendan & her other kids, using her time efficiently & effectively, keeping things moving along throughout the day. We have no idea how the consultant teachers sent by the district will be assimilated into the classroom. Will they send a different one for each child with an IEP that requires consultant teacher hours? Will they send one to work with all of them? How many hours will they actually be in the building? If Brendan's IEP says he gets 5 hours daily, what will happen to him when they're not in the building...? We do know that the district is not allowing any time on IEPs for the consultant teachers to actually consult with the classroom teachers. What's up with that?

The other issue is that not only will they be sending their own teachers into an alternative school with a very specific education philosophy, but they will not be assigned until the day before school starts. How on earth is our school to maintain it's educational philosophy if a portion of the teachers either don't buy-into it or don't have time to even learn what it is? Extra added excitement is that our school will not be supervising any of these teachers, so there's no recourse if the new teachers don't get or like the way we do things...

Hence our concerns & our meeting last night. It was interesting to meet face-to-face in a group with people, many of whom we've known on an individual level (or not- being the door lady I know a lot of the parents at school that Charlie doesn't). Some of the parents we know because their kids are Brendan's closest friends, but this was the first time we've worked together on any kind of advocacy. It was good to hear what the parents of younger kids at school are thinking, too, & to understand their concerns. Our school's director, Paula (who's also the parent of a college-age kid who went through the school system with an IEP), was there to update us on the "shape of things to come" & field questions & suggestions for responses. It probably goes without saying that people came with radically different concerns, from "how do we change this stupid law?" to "how do we get the district to listen to us?" to "how do we make sure our kid functions in school next year?" (that was our particular concern). It was comforting to share our stories, about our kids, struggles with the school systems, about why we've chosen this school for our children. Charlie & I shared our frustration with Brendan's recent IEP meeting, in which we were told (after 45 minutes of what we thought was a normal annual review meeting) that they were "not authorised to approve his IEP as written" (which is almost identical to his current level of services) because his needs were too high... The CSE chair suggested moving his 3-year re-evaluation from next fall to, essentially, right now in order to prove that he needs what we're asking for. (When the permission for testing form arrived last Friday, I had it signed, copied, & back to the mailman before he left the neighbourhood. They'll get it back tomorrow... this is how serious I am about my kid's services, thank you!) Our family has been slogging through the special ed system for 7 years now, so we're not so much worried as wary... We we glad to hear, too, from other parents that their kids' annual reviews had gone better than Brendan's.

In the end, we decided to work on the situation from a few different directions. One of the parents agreed to draft a letter requesting that the district comply with state law by allowing the school & parents to be active participants in the selection of the teachers to be placed in our school next year. We'll all sign this & a packet of the letters will be sent not only to the district contact person but the school board president & the superintendent of schools. Charlie & I said we'd head up the group looking into helping the school fund a part-time consultant teacher hired by the school, to co-ordinate the new staff & particularly to work with the oldest kids (Brendan included). We talked about strategies for upping the ante, if the district decides to blow us off :) I'm left feeling guardedly hopeful about next year. I am still frustrated that a federal law can work against the best interests of my child's educational needs. I feel angry that so many uncaring people have the power to make things difficult for him, to affect whether or not he'll make it to high school or college, for goodness sake! It's just idiotic. I am glad to be part of a group of people of good will who want to work together to make things right. It's a very good start...

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