Early into the school year this year Cookie began to have noticeable problems. A girl who was so excited for the first day of school, she couldn't stop smiling, a girl who used to cry because it was Saturday started to cry because it was a school day, a girl who came home in tears every.single.day telling us how much she hated school. We knew something was amiss, but couldn't quite finger what it was. Our very verbal girl could only talk about how "Bad" her class was. She could only express anxiety about going into her classroom filled with different kids and a new teacher. She would extol the virtues of her teacher and discuss how wonderful Mrs. was. But, her classmates were another story. Upon discussion with her teacher, nothing was accomplished she held it together at school, teacher thought Cookie appeared happy.
Cookie attends a wonderful neighborhood school that is full inclusion for special needs children. This was a plus during her kinder year, as her bestest, most favorite person in the whole world was a boy with cerebral palsy in her class. Their mutual love for another was sweet and encouraging. She would only have a birthday party where he could attend, cognisant of his special needs. She loved to have play dates at the special needs park near the house, she insisted on a play date at the local kid's museum so he could play with her. These things warmed my heart and made me proud of the person she was becoming.
Then came first grade. Her class did not have more special needs, but different ones...one's where children were not yet identified, needs where children had violent outbursts and cruel practices. These things scared her and upset our child who needs order and rules. These children didn't follow rules, these children had "special" rules that only applied to them, while everyone else had to behave. While we were trying to pin point what exactly was making her anxious and upset, I visited the classroom. I witnessed an overstressed system with too many special needs kids in one class and not enough support staff. I witness at least 3 unidentified children who desperately needed help but had not gotten it yet. I witnessed a phenomenal teacher, who despite this was doing an amazing job at educating. What I witnessed in 3 hours in that classroom is going on across this nation. What I saw explains why it is so hard to hold on to excellent, wonderful, well trained teachers. They are stressed and strained, they are being asked to accommodate without the help or resources to accommodate. Children who have well educated active parents, who are by all means normal and not exceptional or special needs are being ignored and left to their own devices in order to help others whose glaringly special needs have to be addressed. The normal average kid is being lost in the shuffle.
While all this was going on, Cookie was bitten by one of the special needs children when there was a substitute in the classroom. A bite that was not looked at by a nurse, a bite where I was not notified, a bite that left a mark. I had to hear about it from Cookie on the way home after school. There were two identified special needs children, but only one aide...two high needs children, one non-verbal, in a wheelchair, who had to be hand fed and another who had a tendancy to run away, yell obscenities, and physically harm others and only one aide. I can almost guarantee that each of those children's IEPs stated they were to have one on one aides, yet there was only one aide because in the other two 1st grade classrooms there were also extreme needs and the school had not had NORM day yet to hire another aide. Children, who need help and were not receiving it. And a classroom full of other children who were not being educated because the teacher and aides were overwhelmed. In three hours I witnessed the teacher having to stop teaching almost every 2 minutes to redirect one boy, while the aide was busy trying to calm the non-verbal child from crying and moaning. These children deserve as much an education as my child. They deserve to be treated with kindness and respect. So does my child.
We scheduled a meeting with the new principal of the school. Basically, because we felt that the school was doing a piss poor job of meeting all the students' needs. Not just our child but all the children. But we felt our child was being left behind because of the number of special needs and not enough aides or help. Because I was a teacher, because I have been in the trenches, because I have been educated in IEPs and the proper educational lingo, I scared this principal. I said all the things they are frightened to hear...not meeting IEPs, not having the proper aides per student as stated in said IEPs. Setting themselves up for lawsuits. They made changes fast.
They began to identify the children in the classroom, they began to bring in the counselor more to work with all the children. They have been amazing at changing and trying to help every child. We did our own work at home with Cookie. We sticker charted good days. We encouraged positive talk and she had to think about and tell me three good things that happened every day. We set aside 10 minutes at night to discuss the things that caused her anxiety and upset her. Slowly things got better. I firmly believed the school and us were a team. Her teacher and I touched base daily. I finagled to be in the school more even if they didn't like the time I could be there. I became more visible than ever.
I never thought having the special needs in Cookie's class was a detriment, I have always thought she gained so much empathy from it. Yet, when does it become too much? This question is being asked by educators and parents on both ends. How does one advocate for their child with special needs without harming the rest of the students. How does their special needs child begin to navigate the world if we are excluding not including. Those with money and lawyers get the aides, get the tools for their children those that have nothing get nothing. They get shoved around and told "well this is just how it is."
Cookie's friend is being told he has to leave the district. His parents got divorced, his mother could no longer handle it. His father became a single dad. His father works two jobs to make ends meet. He is this child's only caregiver. Imagine how hard it is being a single parent and then add a child with extreme needs. Add a child in a wheelchair. Now find affordable housing to accommodate your wheelchair bound child. He is getting bigger, you can no longer keep carrying him up and down stairs. The state has a program to help you, but the only housing available for you is .1 miles out of your child's school district. The school your child attends is one block from the only other people who are qualified to care for your son, your parents. They are in district, you are now out and the school says you can finish out the year, but you need to register in the other district. Do you blame them? They have to provide busing and aides and therapy for your special needs kid. They don't get enough money from the state to cover your child. That spot can go to normal non-special needs kids. You can apply for an out of district transfer, which they allow for some parents who are close to the district lines and whose parents can prove it is a financial burden or strain or work in district. This man does, his only help is in district, yet they deny him, while allowing normal kids in.
I want to help this man. He is a friend, and yet, at the same time I felt that I harmed them. The guilt is there. I complained about all the special needs kids in the classroom. Well that's being solved. Not only are they kicking this kid out, they are kicking out the biter, too. What I really complained about was that their needs were not being met. This man does not have money, he can't afford a lawyer. It is all so political and upsetting and no one is winning here.