Life. Love. Family. Our Perfect Imperfection. Living life as a Catholic, homeschooling family with three amazing, unique boys, a too-oft serious, frustrated and anxious but also loving momma, and a fun-loving, hardworking dad.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

From Public to Private to Specialized to Charter: Our Education Journey So Far

Since yesterday's post disappeared and erased over half of this, I had to try and rewrite it. I hope I didn't leave anything out! And hopefully the internet won't eat it again ;)

When Ethan was about 18 months old, and we were still living in Southern Maryland, we had him evaluated through the early childhood education program. This was our first experience as parents with any kind of "school". Ms. Kim was awesome. She came out to the house for several months, 1-2 times a week and worked with E and us, getting him to sign a few things, talk, socialize, etc. We also did some play group activities.
Once we moved back to our hometown in Ohio, Ethan was 4 and Alex was 16 months. We were living with Jason's family for a few months, in our old school district and decided to wait on preschool for E and worked with him at home. In March, we moved across town to a different school district, one of the best in the area, and put him in their special education preschool for a couple of months, knowing he would start kindergarten in the fall. He did well, and the teachers were really nice.
Kindergarten was interesting. From Aug to December, E was in the same great district, in a great school, going half-day with a bus ride. They worked with us, got him his first "official" school diagnosis as well as an IEP (before school-age it's called something different, as it's family based rather than individual) and he was doing well. His teacher, the aide and the other students adored him.
In December, while Jason was in Afghanistan for contract work, we moved from our rental home to the house we purchased across the street from my in-laws. Which meant a change in districts, and schools. For E, this was a big change. Half-day to full-day, 23-25 kids to 32+ in the class, regular clothes to uniforms, bus ride to no bus service (too close to the school, so he was considered a "walker", and I drove him each day), and he did not really adjust well. I was somewhat excited because it was my old elementary school and I had mostly good memories. A lot had changed in those years though. I turned over all his records including his IEP and assumed it was being put into effect. After about a month of phone calls, early pick-ups due to meltdowns/crying, E telling me kids in his class were stealing his lunch (5 year olds!!!) and other bullying, I spoke with the teacher. I waited that long, because I knew there would be an adjustment period and learning period. However, that day I found out something that angered me. His teacher knew NOTHING of his IEP. It wasn't implemented, and it was somehow LOST!!!! I was pissed! Jason wasn't home yet, but if he had been, oh boy. I should've realized after the first day that we were going to have problems, after all, I witnessed 2 kindergarteners fist-fighting in the classroom... At the end of the year, we pulled him out of there.
There are so many options for school and our next choice was a private Catholic school.  It was my in-laws parish and my sister-in-law was attending there and Jason, his brother and sister had all graduated 8th grade from there. The principal knew the family and was nice, so I spoke with her and told her about Ethan's autism diagnosis and school difficulties in terms of behavior and meltdowns. She let me know it should be fine and so at then end of August 2008, Ethan started 1st grade. In the first few weeks, while Jason was already working in Michigan and commuting, I got many phone calls, either to come get him, or saying he was "getting an attitude and being disrespectful" but once it was explained what he said, it was more of a matter of him correcting the teacher or telling her he didn't "need to do" such and such - the lack of a filter of what to say and what not to say and to whom. Not saying my child is NEVER disrespectful, but the majority of the time, he was/is  being overly honest and speaking his mind without the INTENTION of hurting feelings and therefore not being disrespectful as there is absolutely no intention behind it. If that makes sense. And he has since learned to censor what he says a little better ;) Anyway, by mid-October, I was brought in to speak to the principal and was told we should start looking for a different environment because she wasn't sure it was working out and gave me a number to call for an organization that she thought worked with special needs kids including kids with ASD. I told her I would look into it. After 10 days or so, and doing my own research and not really finding anything, I hadn't heard any more from the school and I figured everything had settled down. The same day I got a letter essentially kicking Ethan out due to lack of resources for his "condition". Really? I had been up front and she said it would be fine. At the time, I was very hurt and angry, so I pulled him out and went to speak with her. She said something along the lines of "well I thought our last conversation cleared it all up and you were going to have him enrolled elsewhere by now. I called those people and apparently they no longer work with kids with ASD, only FAS. Sorry." Mind you, I couldn't even get in touch with "those people", so we got our tuition money back and didn't send him for a few days.

At this point, we found S.A.I.L. (School for Autistically Impaired Learners). They rented some rooms at a different Catholic elementary school and had one-on-one aides for each student in a multi-age and multi-grade class, and also the possibility to integrate into the Catholic school's regular ed classrooms if and when the students were ready. E started there in November and they quickly integrated him into the classroom and realized he was academically advanced. With our approval, they moved him to second grade and by January he spent most of his time - with his aide in the classroom, too - in the Catholic school's 2nd grade classroom. At the end of year, we sent E and Alex both to their summer school session, as they had a peer-to-peer program that Alex could attend as a typical peer. The director of S.A.I.L. felt that no matter where E went the next year, with the right supports, he could ideally be in the regular classroom full time, whether with an aide or a "safe place" if necessary to decompress.

Since Jason had been working and living most of the week in a rental room in Michigan and coming home on the weekends, it had been an extremely long year. We realized that it was time to be a family again in the normal sense and sell our house and move to Michigan. We found a rental house and started searching for a good school. The very first week we moved there, Jason had to travel for work, and school was scheduled to start. We were still looking at houses and different areas, so I was driving around with the boys one day and happened upon the charter school. I called and talked to the vice principal the Thursday after school started and we set up a walkthrough and meeting for the following day. After explaining E's diagnosis yet again, and detailing our previous experiences, we were welcomed with open arms. E started 3rd grade Monday morning. That year was a little rough, as there were many adjustments, and the teacher for the first part of the year had moved from K to 3rd that year and was somewhat unorganized and the teacher that took over after the winter holiday break was tougher, stricter. I was called a lot but mostly to keep me in the loop. 4th grade was better for E, as his teacher was organized but fairly laid back and Alex started kindergarten with the nicest kindergarten teacher ever! The following year, Alex went to one week of 1st grade before they came to me and asked if they could test him and move him to 2nd grade, which I agreed, and his teacher that year was amazing! Ethan also had a better year yet again, even though his very sweet and caring teacher went out on maternity leave in February. Luckily she was replaced with an equally good substitute. There were also a lot of changes here at home, having added a new member to our family in Jan 2012. 6th grade for Ethan, his teacher was so great and had a good insight into ASD and special needs and we decided on a self-contained class for E as we felt the rotating classes on top of his anxiety might prove to much for him. We were so glad the school offered it. Alex was lucky to have Ethan's old 4th grade teacher teaching 3rd last year, so we already knew it would be a good year.

So far this year, it's been a good year. Alex is in 4th and his teacher is trying her best to academically challenge him - he's still reading above grade level (mind you, chronologically he should only be in 3rd this year) as well as most other subjects he's doing exceptionally in. E is in the self-contained 7th grade - per his request - and seems to be doing well behavior wise, and academically, he's being challenged despite also being ahead of 7th grade level in many subjects (again he should technically only be in 6th) and his teacher is doing a great job of helping him learn coping skills.

While it seems like we love our school - which for the most part we do! - there are some silly, little things (maybe some not so little, too) that irritate us.

1. The school is preschool through 12th grade split into four buildings, with a small gym, a big gym, a main office, music room, resource rooms, mtss rooms, media/library, small library - not really functional, small cafeteria and warming kitchen. I feel that if the school had been planned/built differently it could be more efficient.

2. The cafeteria is small and there's no "real" kitchen. Had they planned appropriately, they could have put in a real kitchen and had more lunch options and not had to cater the lunches, therefore avoiding the need to pre-order lunches a month in advance. We don't personally buy school lunch, as we don't like the choices (only one choice each day, and not so "real" food) but if we were late one day or something, we don't have the option to just send money in to buy lunch that day. Also there is a big kitchen in the preschool/library/spanish/resource room building attached to the "little" gym/multipurpose room. If it were me, I'd have just made it useful and used the multipurpose room as the cafeteria and used the kitchen that's already there. I think it's fully equipped! They could offer choices to the kids and make fresh, homemade foods in there... But that's just me and I'm not in charge ;)

3. The administration. I LOVE LOVE LOVE the teachers. The administration is somewhat lacking. I don't think they are bad people, just maybe not in the right positions for who they are. If that makes sense. The lack of organization and seemingly communication is appalling. Also there seems to be a lot of gossip, "high school" behavior, not just within the admin, but all the staff, teachers included. I may be misinterpreting, but sometimes, I want to remind people they are adults. But it's also some of the other parents too! I will probably get some slack for this...

4. The parking lots. Is it just me, or do people just not know proper etiquette when it comes to driving and parking? Or maybe they can't read the big bold yellow paint that says "NO PARKING"!!!!! It drives me absolutely nuts! And then I get looks like I'M the weird one! Really? I'm following the arrows, and parking in a marked space. Or I let the pedestrians have the right-of-way. Regardless of how others drive and park, the parking lots are not large enough for the amount of growth the school has had. There just aren't enough spots. I know they are planning to expand the elementary lot.

5. Expansion. I know there is talk of adding on to the HS building and moving middle school over there, which would actually be a great thing.

6. Currently no PTO. As well as lot of junk sold at games/events, bake sales (at least last year) during lunch periods and popcorn sales on Fridays. Popcorn CAN be healthy, however after helping last year, I've decided I will NOT be allowing my boys to buy popcorn from school. They will bring popcorn from home, made with less oil and salt, and no artificial colors and flavors. Although, I ran out of time today so I let them just this once.