Just this past week, my friend and I had a meeting with the Superintendent of Schools. (He had asked for the meeting; he said that he wanted to hear our stories.) So we made the appointment and we fretted over what to say and how to say it. And each time we got a new piece of information on the STEM practice of conditioning our children's IEPs or had another straw drop on the camel's back at school, the focus of our talk shifted. In the end, we just told him our stories.
We told him...
That we were grateful for the meeting and appreciated his time. I was reminded of one of my favorite quotes: "The devil once offered to sell at auction all his tools save one -- discouragement. 'For,' said he, 'if I have that, I can get along very well without the others.'" (Helen C. White) After 10 years of my son's being in the school system, I can see why the devil would have said that. The Superintendent's having asked for this meeting gave me hope.
We told him...
That General Education and the Special Education staff are lovely, sincere, dedicated, patient, and kind. The Special Education staff can be great at what they do, especially remediating academics. (That doesn't happen to be what our kids need, but they're good at it.) The two Autism Specialists are wonderful; they "get" our children, and we're very grateful that they're here. Over the years, much has been tried, much has been done, but even acknowledging that, we can't deny or ignore that there are problems.
We told him...
That we came to him with really strong fears. We didn't want others to misinterpret why we were there. We didn't want others to be offended or to become defensive -- we knew this was going to get around, if it hadn't already. And we told him how very afraid we were that there might be repercussions, whether towards ourselves (even though we came with no hidden agenda), towards our children (any of them, including our other two children in the elementary STEM program), or towards children with IEPs who apply to STEM (who need this program for a variety of reasons).
We told him...
That we didn't need to get bogged down in the history, but there were a couple of critical pieces that he needed to know. When we had spoken at the Board of Education meeting in support of the Vision and Goals (here) in September, we needed that vision so that we could meet both sets of needs or our children. Where our children are now (in STEM) and why we feel we've had to choose between getting their special needs met and getting their academic needs met has its roots in their ES years.
My friend's son had been in general education, monitored and helped through each day, but not explicitly taught executive functioning and social skills. A few times in 5th grade, he had some math enrichment, and late in 5th grade, he started a new social skills program that seems to work for him. My son had been in general education in 1st and 5th grades and in the school system's Autism Program 2nd - 4th grades. The Autism Program is different now from what it had been then; however, neither it nor general ed. had been a match.
There are lots of details we could have given the Superintendent, but the point is that our children languished -- a strong word that I used intentionally -- they languished academically with an imperfect understanding of how to address their needs as people with Asperger's. The Superintendent's Vision, the Student Handbook, etc., say that we'll chart a course to excellence to fulfill the promise in every child. They don't say that we'll be satisfied with mediocrity as we meet the minimum in every child.
Again and again in elementary school, I had made direct requests for academic rigor for my son, yielding little from the Gifted Department and nothing from Special Education. In fact, Special Education finally said (more than 3 years ago) that it was not their obligation to provide gifted curriculum for students, but they would work with it if it were otherwise gotten. (In point of fact we are the ones who have "accepted excuses.") That's why I've tried to inform the Board of Education about the need for enrichment for all children at the elementary school level. I couldn't have it for my child because it didn't exist for all children. I firmly believe that if we had had appropriate programming for our children in ES, they wouldn't need so much to be successful in the middle school STEM program.
In short, nobody knew the learner or the learning, and nobody expected much. What we were seeing was the by-product of their boredom compounded by their lack of social skills.
We told him...
That we had heard about the STEM program and the many positives: it's an awesome, well thought-out, well structured, in-depth exploration of the Science/Math curriculum; students are with their academic peers; it's "school made interesting" from our children's perspectives, with engaging curriculum, field trips, technology, and fun and interesting applications. And in 6th grade, students start out with social roles in labs explained and assigned -- not insignificant for our children! In short, it's a program that covers the children in it.
When this opportunity presented itself, we had a lot to think about. In my case, we had dismissed it because of the application questions, which do not speak to my child's strengths. (I'm fairly sure I looked at them the first time and snickered.) However, our doctor at CNMC had encouraged us to reconsider because, she said, "This is where kids with Asperger's shine." My son hadn't been making it in general education without a lot of supports, but many of those supports were for environmental conditions. This program had the rigor and the academic peers, and he bought into it. He had never been tried in a placement that was this close to a match.
We also had to consider, if not in STEM, where? His home middle school had an Autism Program, but our experience with the elementary Autism Program had been poor -- though we have since heard the middle school Autism Program might now be better. Additionally, regular middle school had no more rigor than any other middle school -- Honors Reading and Honors Math aren't enough -- and Special Education had already said they wouldn't get it for him.
My friend also had a lot to think about, wading through the application questions and considering her son's needs for more monitoring than there is in general education in middle school -- they had been considering the middle school Autism Program. However, he would have the same grade-level work except for Honors Math, and he would continue to be bored. Then, when they were investigating STEM for their younger son last year, he said, "THAT's it; that is where I belong." They had to take that seriously, leaving them with the choice between the Autism Program for more monitoring by educators already trained in the needs of students with autism and STEM for the interest and the rigor. My friend raised all of her concerns with the autism team, and she, just like I had been, was assured that they could and would support her child.
And so our children applied and were accepted.
We told him...
That the STEM Program is fabulous. The STEM teachers inspire our children, present information in engaging ways, deserve all the accolades they've received. What we then talked about doesn't diminish that; we just had to talk about the holes.
I was told at the end of 5th grade at my son's transition meeting, without prior warning, that we needed to modify a few of his IEP accommodations to incorporate the idea "except as would compromise the rigor of STEM" -- saying that he could have the accommodation as long as it didn't affect the rigor of the assignment. I thought it odd and concerning, but we knew Special Education wouldn't supply rigor, and middle school had only Honors Reading and Honors Math. What else could we do?
Having to alter my son's IEP was bad enough, but when, two days prior to the start of STEM6, we were told "no accommodations in STEM," we were stuck. Of course, we wondered about the legality of such a statement; of course, we felt frustrated with the restriction on the implementation of my son's IEP. My son was ready to come to STEM, he wanted to be there, and we had no place else to send him. We had already tried addressing his special education needs in the general education environment with limited success; we had already tried getting appropriate rigor with limited success.
His home school had nothing different to offer -- just more of the same. And my son had already proved that when not engaged, unwanted behaviors appeared or increased. Those behaviors (not the cause of the behaviors) became the focus of his special education interventions.
I didn't understand it because the STEM page on smcps.org clearly stated that "appropriate accommodations and modifications will be made to address an IEP carrier enrolled in the STEM Academy." (And that statement didn't get changed until sometime within the past week. It now reads: "Are special education students eligible to apply to the STEM program? Yes, all students are eligible to apply to the STEM Academy." [Now try to convince me that reality hasn't changed the standard.]) All special educators that I talked to about this indicated that they didn't understand, either, and shrugged their shoulders. Even the Executive Director of Special Education, when directly presented with this information in the Spring of 6th grade, did nothing. My son was told that he couldn't "wear his glasses" for Periods 1 - 3 every day.
My friend had known in advance (because of my son's situation), but she still didn't understand it. At her son's transition meeting, she was presented with the same, to "make it more appropriate for middle school." She was told they had to add, "This will not compromise the STEM curriculum," and were also told, "This is what we have to do." My friend questioned it -- that her son could have full accommodations in Social Studies and Reading but maybe not in Math and Science. The response was that he would still have his testing accommodations. Her son was being told that he could "wear his glasses" for Periods 1 - 3 sometimes, but not all the time; maybe he would have to take them off and maybe he would be allowed to put them back on. They didn't know when that would be and who got to decide.
Our children's IEPs now carry conditioning statements (my son's going on 3 years).
We had to choose, and we chose STEM.
We told him...
That our children do get some Special Education services, and over the years, my son has gotten more within the STEM classroom. For both children, staff get training, and they can get help from the Autism Specialists, though the specialists must be invited/requested to be involved, and they have certain constraints on their involvement: they can only suggest/recommend a course of action, not mandate. [A few of the other services we had wanted to mention got cut as we got a little off track from time to time.] For sure, we weren't saying that the teams aren't trying; but they're scrambling after the fact. We're working on it.
We told him...
That our sons' grades look great by class. However, if you look through individual assignments, you'll see quite a spread of scores. Why are some so high? In part because of innate abilities, in part because of the huge stress we go through at home to make sure that the work is done, done well, done on time. And though other STEM students may come to class saying that they couldn't get it done (and therefore get an extension), our children aren't allowed extended due dates because they would compromise the rigor of STEM. We know that our children may take longer to do the work; "one hour per subject and stop" doesn't apply. We make sure it's done every night, no matter what it does to our families.
Why are some grades much lower? While some might say that a 70 or 75% is fine, as did the Supervisor of STEM a few weeks ago, we don't, not if the ability levels are higher. Ability vs. performance is a critical distinction. If with direct teaching of executive functioning and social skills, we can uncover the ability that's being masked by the deficits, then we know that the performance is not at the ability level. We also noted that 1) If these are PRODUCT grades, they're weighted at 70%! And 2) All STEM students signed a contract promising to maintain a B average. How can 70s or 75s be good?
Though we hadn't planned to say it, we also pointed out that our children have been tasked with self-learning skills and concepts (e.g., evaluating internet resources, certain Science Fair steps, writing a bibliography in mandated formatting), and a number of these are being graded as product, not process assignments. I'm fairly sure I mentioned that my son had 94 summer assignments to complete.
Our emphasis to the Superintendent was that there's more to the success of our children than their academic success. The Executive Director of Special Education and Student Services has presented at CACSE meetings that our students need to be taught the soft job skills to be employable.
We'd like to see the school system jump on the bandwagon of prepping for college and career readiness by explicitly teaching executive functioning and social skills. Most of what our children need is good for all children, making them have a smoother transition into post-public school life in college or careers. With the explicit teaching of such skills, we can fulfill the promise inside each child.
We told him...
That there is no appropriate place for our children that addresses both sides of them.
Our children need both rigor and the ability for a highly trained special education team to have access to the STEM curriculum in advance so that they can proactively prepare the supports that are needed. They need executive functioning and social skills training within the STEM framework; these are their life skills without which they won't succeed in college, careers, or relationships.
They need appropriate rigor without conditions placed on their IEPs. Since we spoke at the BoE meeting last month, we've worked to address the fact that these conditions are in fact illegal. Even if you ignore the many times that we tried to get answers prior to last month, it still took our beating at the doors to get a response: The day before our meeting with the Superintendent, the Executive Director of Special Education and Student Services said that the conditions were not acceptable, and she stated that all such conditions on all the STEM students with IEPs will come off their IEPs and that they will never be put on another child's IEP again. (No timeframe or logistics were given.) This is great, but it's on paper, and the practice has to change, too. They are also still saying that there will be no modifications to the programs.
We also noted that the Office for Civil Rights specifically states that such conditions are also illegal in AP classes; we respectfully requested of the Superintendent that conditions be removed from the IEPs of students in AP classes, too, and if they are on the IEPs of students in the Academy of Finance or the Global and International Studies Program, then from those IEPs, as well.
As I told the Superintendent, my plan has been to get my son through the "horrors" of middle school by attending the STEM program, which is the best match of anything he's tried to date. If he wasn't accepted into the high school STEM program, or if he didn't want to be in it anymore, the back-up plan has been AP classes. (They are still not a program, but they are rigorous, and there are many choices). However, if the same condition exists in AP classes, there's no hope for my son.
We told him...
That now we have new problems:
• The Executive Director of Special Education and Student Services and the Supervisor of STEM are saying that STEM is an optional program and that it's not advanced, and it's not part of FAPE. We have to argue. It's one of the Pathways of our school system. It is advanced. And the "Dear Colleague" letter from OCR says this:
"Participation by a student with a disability in an accelerated class or program generally would be considered part of the regular education or the regular classes referenced in the Section 504 and the IDEA regulations. Thus, if a qualified student with a disability requires related aids and services to participate in a regular education class or program, then a school cannot deny that student the needed related aids and services in an accelerated class or program."
• They are saying that if STEM disappeared tomorrow, there would be a program for our children. We have to argue. Special Education has an Autism Program but won't get our children the rigor. (They will work with it if it's otherwise gotten; we've seen how well that hasn't worked out.) General education doesn't have the rigor across the board, nor does it have another rigorous program (in elementary and middle schools; high schools have the Academy of Finance and the GIS Program (still without modifications and just not interesting to our children).)
• They are saying that they need to look at adjusting the application requirements to include a certain level of organizational skills and ability to work independently. We have to argue. This is discrimination. The "Dear Colleague" letter is clear on this, too:
"[Schools] may not impose or apply eligibility criteria that screen out or tend to screen out an individual with a disability or any class of individuals with disabilities from fully and equally enjoying any service, program, or activity, unless such criteria can be shown to be necessary for the provision of the service, program, or activity being offered"
Note from my previous meeting with these two people a few weeks ago that they stated insistently that students with disabilities are encouraged to participate in the STEM Program, yet now they were talking of excluding a set of the very children who need this type of program. Should this happen, then there's really no place at all for our children
We told him...
That the current STEM program is a planned, coordinated, beautifully patterned quilt that provides full coverage for those who fit beneath it. Our sons don't fit; parts of them are left hanging out in the cold, and we at home are left scrambling to find other ways to keep them warm. A 2e program is a quilt, a planned, coordinated, beautifully patterned quilt that provides full coverage for all who are under it.
Our children at minimum need a quilt extension that gives them full coverage, making STEM work. Offering lots of gifted programs in general education is another way. Of course, a full 2e program would fit the bill!
He told us...
That our children would remain in STEM.
That he wants the STEM program to be rigorous but accessible.
That we had given him a lot to follow up on.
He showed us...
That he cares.