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Monday, March 17, 2014

Why We Chose Public School for Our Twice-Exceptional Child

Finding the right school for a child with a unique learning style can be very challenging. We recently shared information on CHART comparing public vs. charter vs. private schools, as well as a list of Triangle area schools that may welcome students with autism. Schools have been very much on my mind since my son's early days of preschool.

My son is not the typical learner - he is a Twice-Exceptional (or 2e) student, meaning that in addition to being on the autism spectrum, he is academically advanced. From the time he was diagnosed with Asperger's at age 3 1/2, therapists have been saying that they can't imagine how he will fit into a public school. So began our quest to explore every educational avenue in the Triangle to see if we could find a school that would be better suited to our special learner.

While our son was in preschool, we looked at numerous elementary schools that were reputed to be good for kids with autism or unique learning styles. What we found is that many schools had some appealing features, however no one school had everything he needed. There was the private school that has a curriculum that is creative, but not flexible. Our hyperlexic child who could read the word "hippopotamus" by age 3 was not going to thrive in a school that insisted children not be taught to read until the 3rd grade.

In speaking to parents of other 2e kids, they found that typical (ie, not special needs) private schools enjoyed their child's academic abilities, but had limited patience for the challenges caused by their autism. Additionally, they generally offer no OT, speech therapy, social skills groups, and the like. So we crossed those schools off our list.

Then there was the private school marketed for kids with autism that my husband said, "Just wasn't there yet" - it didn't feel quite developed and academic rigor seemed to be lacking. There are schools like Mariposa, which have an excellent reputation for children requiring intensive remediation, but our son doesn't require that level of support. (And many of the special needs private schools are very pricey, due to the low student-teacher ratio.)

So then we looked at a charter school we had heard was autism-friendly. Our first impression of the charter during an open house event was very positive. The environment seemed peaceful and the school was visually uncluttered. The size of the school seemed good too - an entire K-12 school that is smaller than our current elementary. Small class sizes. No gifted education until 8th grade, but maybe the smaller classes could allow for sufficient differentiation?

We were excited...until we had a private meeting with the head of special education there. He made it pretty clear that our son was not the kind of student his charter school was seeking. There was a list of reasons: class sizes were small, but they had no classroom aides, meaning no one to give our son extra support if he needed it. A one-to-one aide? Oh no, they would fight that tooth and nail (yes, the EC Director actually said that to me). And the other parents would be upset if my son's behavior disrupted their learning, because it was such a big deal to them to get their kids into this charter school.

The final straw was when the EC Director told me all about a high school student they had with Asperger's who needed no support and received no services - even though she had no social skills at all. So much for "an education that emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs and prepare them for further education, employment and independent living" as required by IDEA. I personally found it outrageous, given that lack of "soft skills" are one of the leading contributing factors to the extremely high rate of unemployment for adults with ASD.

It is important to realize some of the differences between public and charter schools. Charter schools are free because they are publicly funded, but they do not necessarily offer everything a public school does. Nor do they have to take all comers like your neighborhood elementary; charters can have admissions lotteries, applications that are intended to weed out certain students, or a climate that does not make everyone feel welcome. That attitude is exactly why parents of kids with special needs or low test scores need to be very concerned about the corporate education "reformers" pushing charter school expansion in North Carolina and across the US - most (though not all) charters do not want the more challenging students and they have ways of pushing them out.

This journey brought us back to our neighborhood public school. While it is true that public schools are not by nature designed to embrace unique learners (and don't even get me started on excessive standardized testing!), we started looking at what the local elementary does have to offer, which is great staffing:
  • A stable administration that sets a positive tone for the school
  • An excellent OT who understands sensory issues
  • A gifted ed specialist that embraces Twice-Exceptional students (and can start working with kids as early as Kindergarten)
  • A slightly larger class size, but the teacher is supported by a teaching assistant
  • An EC assistant to provide additional support for the whole class during more challenging times like lunch and specials (not a one-to-one)
  • A social skills group
  • A resource teacher

Ultimately, we found that only the public school could provide the staff needed to support our son's areas of strengths and challenges, so that is where he started Kindergarten. Has it been perfect? From our son's perspective, I'd say no, because he offered to give up school for Lent. From our perspective, no, because it is hard to provide sufficient differentiation in a classroom where kids have such a variety of needs.

However, it has been a very good year. Our son is happy, has friends, and is well cared for by the school staff. So while public school may not be perfect, it still has a lot to offer. And that is why we believe that supporting public education is important and that our society has an obligation to preserve the only schools that truly welcome all comers.

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