June 3, 2011

Educating Alex - the Middle School years

Alex completed sixth grade in our IL school district. Her team consisted of her special ed teacher, speech therapist, regular ed teacher, school counselor and a dedicated aide. This model worked well for Alex; she was able to transition in and out of regular education classrooms, and with the assistance of her aide, her curriculum was modified.

Alex played softball, tennis and special soccer that year. We also took the kids skiing in the winter and Alex participated in the adaptive ski program in Crested Butte, CO. Looking back, I was comfortable with Alex’s progress academically and through sports.

As far as socially, middle school is hard. Although Alex knew all the kids in her class, her delays were so evident, and her extraordinary characteristics so obvious, she did not have any girl friends her age. She knew this, and it was a tough for her.

Alex was invited to a couple parties by a few nice girls in her class. This does not mean the girls in her class were not nice to Alex; they were just at a different place in their lives. Boys, puberty, social status and peer interactions became very important to these new teenagers. Alex was no longer on their radar screens.

The school counselor implemented peer buddies, so there was always someone to sit with Alex at lunch or during breaks. Mainly Alex’s best friend Sarah was her social interaction. Although Sarah had moved to a different town, we saw her family on the weekends and the girls had many sleepovers. To Alex, this made up for the girls at school; she could say she had a “best friend” too.

The summer after Alex’s sixth grade we made the decision to go on a grand adventure. We decided to leave our friends and family and move to Colorado. John has always wanted to live in CO, after his post college ski bum days. So, when the opportunity arouse he asked us if we wanted to move. I believe he never expected (or hoped) that we would say no!

Alex’s middle school was great about preparing her file for the CO school district. Her aide prepared notes to help her new aide (oops, there wasn’t a new aide) understand how she learned. The IEP was transferred (oops never read), as where her 5th grade testing results. I was comfortable that all the information needed to help Alex succeed in a new school district was prepared and sent. I now realize, I was very naive, rural school districts are an animal all to themselves.

As an aside, I have tried to avoid writing about the last two years of Alex’s middle school career in a negative fashion. They were very challenging academically for all of us. However, socially they were good, and Alex met some nice, caring and considerate girls and boys. But, I remind myself, I promised to document and this is now a part of our history; good or bad, it is part of Alex.

The first thing I learned when we relocated was Alex was classified as “severe”. Huh? Labeling my child as severely disabled, not a good way to start. Apparently, this label determines the educational path in our school district. By being labeled as severe, Alex’s education was put in the hands of a third party provider.

I also learned, in rural school districts in Colorado, and other parts of the country, special education services are delivered by organizations called BOCES. BOCES stands for Board of Cooperation Educational Services, and in theory it is a great idea. Many rural school districts do not have the funding necessary to run special education programs. They “contract” to BOCES who provide the teachers and services in that particular home school system. In many ways this makes sense to me, in practice I did not see this work.

Alex became a “BOCES kid”, placed in the middle school, with a principal who had no responsibility for her education. Alex’s teacher was at the High School, she did not have a dedicated aide and there were only minimal speech services available. To the principal’s credit, although he was instructed to have a “hands-off” policy, he did not agree with it.

I worked with our BOCES representative, but I got so tired of hearing “we have no money” I got disgusted. Three months of this was enough, in January I met with the principal and asked that he take on responsibility for Alex’s education, he agreed. We were able to piece together a program that worked for the next few months.

On the positive side, Alex played basketball on the middle school team. The coaches were caring and inclusive, as were the kids. She joined the Special Olympic team and became more confident. These were good things that helped Alex grow and mature.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, there was separate effort underway to terminate the BOCES contract. The school district has a number of students in similar circumstances, and a number of parents working to try to get appropriate services for their children. Alex and I were not the only people in our beautiful valley who wanted more from our educators. A parent led task force made the recommendation which led to the separation from BOCES that year.

When Alex entered 8th grade she became the class of kids with special needs who were being educated by the school district. Once again, in theory this sounds good, but I do not believe a viable transition program, or additional funding, were put into place for this transition. Alex’s 8th grade year floundered.

I believe a lot of this was bad timing on our part. We arrived in our school district the last year BOCES was in charge, and that transitioned into the first year our school district was in charge. I guess I can understand the uncertainty and inability to commit to new policies and procedures. But as any Mama Bear will tell you – that doesn’t make it any better – it only raises one’s hackles.

I learned a lot during those challenging middle school years about my child, the educational system and the caring people that are dedicated to our kids. In some ways, I wish I didn’t have to learn this, but in many ways, it is good. If our experience can help the next set of young kids get a better education, it was worth the pain.

I have learned to be more articulate and direct with our educators. I have also learned there are many caring and professional people who are truly vested in the success of our children. This school district is no exception. I have met the most remarkable and compassionate people. We all want to work to create an atmosphere of team work and collaboration. I believe it will happen and I will discuss our efforts soon.

One final and important thing I have learned about myself; when push comes to shove and my daughter’s education is compromised; there is no compromise on my part. Only action.

1 comment:

  1. I love your determination to get the best for Alex. Transitioning schools is so hard. In WA the special ed moves each year. Beth attended 8 different schools, each one took time to learn the new teachers, rules, schedules.

    I'm glad Alex had such a great mom to fight for her!


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