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Saturday, February 4, 2012

Getting an Education

In a previous post I mentioned that my first weekend at PIP (Partners in Policymaking) was life-changing.  In the next two weeks we are facing a life-changing decision, mostly due to the things I learned at PIP.

As you may know, due to Cainan’s medical diagnosis, he has been in a special class since Kindergarten, at a school that is not in our neighborhood, in a classroom that is segregated from students who do not have disability.  The class is blended with kindergartners through 2nd graders, so he’s had the same teacher since Kindergarten.
I think this has been a good choice for him for the last three years.  It was a very safe environment, with low class size and extra teacher’s aids.  He got a lot of individualized attention and help with school work.  He has made vast improvements in his maturity, behavior in class, and academics.  With that being said, he is still functioning below grade level academically, according to State standards (of course, he had some assistance in getting behind thanks to the school district, itself--but that's a story for another time).

The natural progression expected of him is to move into a blended 3rd through 6th grade, segregated, special-education class at another school that is even farther away from our home.  I did not question this decision until three weeks ago.  My thinking is that he has been successful in his current class; I like the low student to teacher ratio; I don’t have to worry about other kids without disabilities picking on him or being mean to him; and I know he receives specialized attention.  The other alternatives, like being in a regular classroom, never entered into my consideration…until PIP.

Here’s the questions that were raised in my first PIP class:

  • What kind of life do I want for my son (and does he want for himself)? Is it a life where I expect he will not get a regular job, but instead go straight onto SSI Disability after school and live below the poverty level for the rest of his life? (Uh, no)

    •  Do I expect him to graduate from high school and attend college? (Yes)     

    • Is he going to do that or be successful at it by avoiding the real world and interaction with peers? (it doesn’t seem practical to expect him to live in the real world but keep him separated from it)

  • If I expect Cainan to learn the skills necessary to function in real life situations, including social skills (which are his greatest difficulty right now) does it make sense to have him in a segregated class where most of his classmates also have social skill difficulties or with typical peers who have natural social skills?  (It makes sense that immersion with peers would help him learn how to interact appropriately with others in real life situations.  Isn’t that the best way to learn a foreign language or anything for that matter?)

  • Have I ever asked Cainan what he wants in his education, what’s important to him, what his opinion is regarding his school or class?  Has he ever been included in his I.E.P. meeting? (Embarrassingly enough, the answer is no.  While I am the parent and I make the ultimate decisions for what is best for my child, his opinion should be important to me too.  In the past, he has been to young/immature to have a strong sway in the decision making progress, but he’s older now and I’ve never asked him his opinion.  I’ve also never had him be a part of his I.E.P. meeting where we’re making decision regarding his education and setting goals he’s expected to meet.)
Here’s a quote from Chief Justice Earl Warren’s opinion on the matter of Brown vs Board of Education.  The language has been changed to indicate any segregated group instead of the specific ones referred to in his opinion:

Such considerations apply with added force to children in grade and high schools. To separate them from others of similar age and qualifications… generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone. The effect of this separation on their educational opportunities was well stated by a finding in the Kansas case…

Segregation…in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the [segregated] children. The impact is greater when it has the sanction of the law, for the policy of separating… is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the [segregated] group. A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn. Segregation with the sanction of law, therefore, has a tendency to retard the educational and mental development of [the segregated] children and to deprive them of some of the benefits they would receive in an [] integrated school system.

We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of "separate but equal" has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. This disposition makes unnecessary any discussion whether such segregation also violates the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Chief Justice Warren was, of course, referring to racial segregation, but his point is clear.  Segregation has a negative effect on those segregated.  Further, in 1975 our nation found it necessary to ensure that children with disabilities receive a free appropriate public education just like children who don’t have disabilities.   The Individuals with Disability Education Act (IDEA) specifically requires that children with disabilities must be educated in the “Least Restrictive Environment” (LRE).  That means:

Each public agency must ensure that—
(i) To the maximum extent appropriate, children with disabilities, including children in public or private institutions or other care facilities, are educated with children who are nondisabled; and

(ii) Special classes, separate schooling, or other removal of children with disabilities from the regular educational environment occurs only if the nature or severity of the disability is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily.

If you know us, think about Cainan…

Does the above description regarding why a child can be removed from a regular class fit him in any way?  Other than some “supplementary aids” to assist him academically and with his diet, is his disability so unnatural or severe that he should be removed from peer groups and educated in a separate environment? 

All of this information was pretty eye opening for me.  I always thought I was segregating Cainan for his own protection, keeping him in the best environment for him to learn and insulate him from a cruel, harsh world.  But the reality is, we live in a cruel, harsh world and the more he is isolated from reality, the harder it is going to be for him to adjust to it when he must.  By beginning a regular education with his peers, he can enter into that real world as a child, growing up amongst kids who are a part of his generation and will be making decisions about his future.  Doubly, having a personal relationship with him, may change the way many of his generation view people with disability.  If you’re never exposed to people with differences—if they’re locked away in “special” classes, then how can you ever relate to them or form accurate opinions about them?  How will you ever learn that they are people just like you, with the same dreams, hopes and expectations in life?

When I got home from PIP I began asking Cainan about school.  He knows he will be leaving his current class next year as he enters third grade—we’ve been trying to prepare him for that transition.  But when I asked him if we would like to go onto a class with 3rd through 6th graders who have disabilities, like the class he’s been in or attend a regular 3rd grade class with kids his age, guess what he said?  He wants to be in a regular class.  We talked about it repeatedly and he insists he wants to be in a regular class with kids his age.  Further, he’s also made it clear that he wants to be in that class at the same school his brother goes to—our neighborhood school.  Isn’t that a completely reasonable and normal request?

It’s also come to my attention that Cainan’s current class is not the best setting for him anymore.  He’s in a classroom with students who require “extra attention” and Cainan’s getting a little left out because he’s well behaved.  That means either he’s going to get less teacher attention or he’s going to learn behaviors that get him the teacher’s attention—that doesn’t sound like a good environment either.  

Now I am faced with a lot of research to do in the next couple weeks before his I.E.P. meeting.  I’ve already met with the principal at our neighborhood school who seems completely amenable to the possibility.  I still need to check out the classes and 2nd & 3rd grade teachers there.  I also need to meet with the principal at the school the district wants to send him to, five miles from our home, and find out why it would be better than our neighborhood school that’s less than a mile away.  Maybe there’s some advantage I don’t know about besides the special ed class.

I’m also realizing I may be up against a real fight in advocating for my son to be removed from his “special ed” class and put in with peers.  I don’t relish conflict but I’m prepared to do whatever is necessary to get my son the education that is best for him and that he’s entitled to by the laws of our country.  

It occurs to me I wouldn’t even be writing this post or preparing for this battle if it weren’t for the designation of “disability” on my son.  Because of his disability, we have had to fight in every aspect of his life, from reaching milestones, to basic gross and fine motor skills, to diet and health needs and now for education.  While I feel like I’ve become on expert on his condition, his physical, emotional and medical needs—I’m realizing how behind the curve I am in advocating for his education.  I am grateful and excited for PIP.  Without this eye-opening experience I wouldn’t have even realized what I was depriving Cainan of by keeping him stuck in a label, in an assumption of his ability, in a system that expects him not to be as successful as his peers.

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