Thursday, February 17, 2011

Woot. Yippee. Really.

It's cookie time.  Girl Scout Cookies are in; I picked them up Monday -- all 116 cases of them -- schlepped them into my dining room, sorted them by girl, and started in on my daughter's orders.  Some are bagged and ready for delivery/payment; most are covering the dining room table...


Cookie booths start in a few days.  We're scheduled for 15 of them over the next six weeks.  Oh, sorry:  We're scheduled for 15 of them over the next six weeks!!!  =)  Woot!  Yippee!!  I actually like cookie booths, but not all my girls do, so it gets to be a bit of a drag sometimes.  And frankly, booths are exhausting.  It's not just cookies and a table.  There's a lot of prep work:  A cash box with start-up money, paperwork (permission forms, health history forms, cookie booth tally sheets, deposit slip for running to the cookie depot if necessary, "I really do have this booth at this time" sign-up sheets), the right amount of cookies, a supply of bags for big orders, snack and water bottle, cell phone and cookie people's numbers...  And crazy hats.  Yep, that's our thing -- We wear crazy hats to get attention.  See, we're not allowed to call out to passersby.  We can smile and say, "Hello," but we can't assault bombard attack even ask potential customers if they would like to buy Girl Scout Cookies.

Then there's the booth itself and the cycles of busy and slow, monitoring the girls for appropriate behavior and money handling, being ready to chit-chat with the customers who like that, being businesslike with the ones who don't, explaining that no, we don't have such-and-such type of cookie anymore, and yes, they were great, and yes, they should bring those back again, and yes, cookie prices have gone up, but it's the first increase in eight years, and for us, it's about supporting Girl Scouts more than the cookies.  We get to keep 65¢ per box, and if we sell a thousand boxes, we get to keep 68¢ per box.  My girls are working towards their trip to Great Wolf Lodge and are learning money management and business skillls.

I'm not sure how to explain what happens afterwards.  It's a bit of a scrum as we break down the booth and load up the car with whatever is left.  But that's when my work begins.  I have to count all the remaining cookies, do the math, count the money, figure out what we keep and what we send to Council, assign cookie sales to girls' accounts for incentive tallies, set up a bank deposit, and enter everything into the cookie system.  I'll tell you, my nerves take a hit until I've verified that the cookie tally equals the amount of money in the tin!

So the next time you're out and see Girl Scouts doing a booth, a kind word to "the cookie mom" would be much appreciated.  So would exact change.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Apples and oranges

When my friend and I gave our recommendations for helping 2e/Asperger's students have both sets of needs met in the middle school STEM Progam, we said that the nutshell version is to know the learner and the learning.  Therefore, most of our recommendations centered around training -- special educators, general educators, people in the trenches, administrators at central office.  Training everybody in 2e/Asperger's.  We recognized that saying so may have been insulting.  But the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and the eating has shown for years that they don't have a recipe and have substituted some essential ingredients.

I had a second meeting last week to try, again, to get the conditions removed from my son's IEP.  I have some things to say about conditions, but not today.  While in that second meeting, the Director (of Spceical Education) got off topic multiple times, and even referred back to the big meeting a few days earlier.  One of her points was that it can be difficult to determine when an accommodation actually interferes with a program like STEM.  She offered a couple of analogies.  The first was about a student with significant mental retardation (with an IQ of maybe 53) taking a chemistry course with lots of supports; sure, you can set up the situation, and with enough supports, the student may get something out of it, but...  The second was about a person with a profound hearing impairment (loss?) joining the choir; she could join, but she really wouldn't advance.

I've thought about those two analogies since that meeting, and I've come to the conclusion that we're talking about apples and oranges.  (I don't mean to offend people with more experience with MR or deafness.  I hope that I'm describing the analogies.)  The student with MR will have maxed out his ability level prior to attending the chemistry class; the person with profound deafness does not have the ability to hear.  But this is where I think the misconception lies:  A highly abled student with Asperger's has deficits in his social and organization skills, but he has the ability to learn in his deficit areas -- just not a superior ability.  This may be the true area of misunderstanding at the central office level.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Be damned

I've been writing recently about having received a letter from the Executive Director of Special Education and Student Services.  The letter was in reply to my question about the legality of the phrasings on my son's IEP, but it also contained a description of the instructional methodologies of the STEM Program that she authored.  I needed to address the content of that description separately as I believe that it shows a misunderstanding of and a prejudice against twice exceptional children, what they need, and what parents are asking for when educating their children.  I hope that my friend and I were able to show that highly abled students with Asperger's do indeed belong in the STEM Program even though they are not perfectly gifted, as the description implies they should be. 

To address the misunderstandings and prejudiced thinking behind the STEM description, I worked very hard to remove my emotional response to the many levels of inappropriateness contained in that letter from the Director.  In addition to the inappropriateness of the content itself, the tone was pejorative.  I'm not going to share the letter here; suffice it to say that the people to whom I did show it were insulted for me.  Then there is the appalling fact that such a description came from the Executive Director of Special Education and Student Services.  Whether or not the ideas are "information received from personnel involved with STEM" as the Director later told me when I asked the source, she presented the description to me as coming from her and also as a fact.  Additionally, this description was sent to me personally, the parent of a child with Asperger's who is a STEM student on an IEP; no one else received this description, as far as I can discern, nor can it be found in any publicly available resource.

I believe that any director of special education should be championing our students, yet I feel that this description and the implicit acceptance of it keeps them back by promoting misunderstandings and prejudice.  It says that perfect giftedness is acceptable in STEM; anything else is substandard and therefore unacceptable.  I don't understand why this idea, now clearly on the table, isn't being fought tooth and nail by every person in the department.  I don't know what is happening behind the scenes at central office; I don't know how the Director responds when I'm not around.  My knowledge is based on what I see and hear, and what I see and hear is distressing.

Ironically, just today I came across a policy revision that is up for approval at this week's Board of Educaiton meeting which includes:  "The overall organization plan of the school system will be designed to facilitate the philosophy of educating every child, each to his or her fullest capability.""  I haven't yet found the actual philosophy statement itself -- only this reference to it -- but I'm ever hopeful.  I need it, just like I need the Mission Statement, to protect my child:  "Each to his or her fullest capability" means that my son will have both sets of needs addressed.  As stated several years ago and confirmed this past week, Special Education won't supply gifted curriculum, but they will support our children if they get it otherwise.  My child is in STEM getting the academic rigor he needs; now we're going to planfully address his social and organizational needs, description be damned.


Sunday, February 6, 2011

Call me perplexed


Last month, I received a description of the STEM Program from the Executive Director of Special Education and Student Services, as a courtesy for my information.   The description contains a number of disturbing statements, and my friend and I have determined that they all boil down to the need to know the learner and the learning. 

I've pulled out the five most concerning statements from the description.

1. “The teacher will not do the student’s critical and creative thinking for him.” 

Well, holy cow.  Who asked her to?  Highly abled students with Asperger’s are able to think for themselves; parents consider placement in this program because of the (typically untapped) high cognitive abilities of their children.  The point is that when properly understood and supported, the natural cognitive abilities of highly abled students with Asperger’s are developed to their full potential.

2. "If a student is unable to meet the rigor of all components of the curriculum and the program structure, then the student should reconsider his schedule and take alternative science and math courses." 

My understanding as a parent is that part of the purpose of the STEM program is to take highly abled learners (identified during the application process) and teach them the workforce skills that they will need in their careers.  The statement implies that all students already possess the skills that they need and therefore the skills will not be taught.  Children are not made with a cookie cutter.  Even within the subgroup of nondisabled highly abled learners, skill sets will vary.  It is unclear:  Will the skills be taught, or are students expected to be perfect at everything before they get there?  Definitely looking for clarification on this point.

There is an additional point to the above:  Alternative science and math courses in middle school don’t exist.  There are no honors science or honors social studies courses.  There is honors reading, which STEM students may take or not, as matches their abilities.  While honors math also exists, it just doesn't engage students the way that the integrated approach in STEM does.  STEM attracts our children like a magnet.
3. “Culminating projects require each student to put forth maximum effort to accomplish a team project.  If a student cannot engage effectively in teamwork, then the student would be unable to participate in an essential component of the STEM program."

First, I have to make a clarification:  Culminating projects are only a part of teamwork, and teamwork is only a part of STEM. 

However, that is not really the main problem.  The main problem is that this statement implies that students with disabilities do not put forth maximum effort to accomplish a team project.  It also implies that their nondisabled peers do.  The implied message is staggering:  Having a disability means that a student doesn't try on group projects.

Not only does the very next sentence not relate logically -- that effort is the determining factor in effective engagement in teamwork -- but it doesn't allow for the fact that effort is personal regardless of having a disability.  No one puts in maximum effort all the time; it's not possible.  Additionally, part of developing teamwork is learning to work with others of varying skills, strengths, weaknesses, and capabilities. 

High cognitive abilities do not automatically pair with high social skills, 2e or not.  Positions in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are often filled by people with Asperger’s, people who have the cognitive abilities and interest base in such careers.  Adults who have not had appropriate interventions growing up have varying degrees of success socially and interpersonally in their jobs and may not advance in their jobs or possibly even keep their jobs.  But it’s not hopeless.  With direct instruction, students with Asperger’s can learn appropriate social routines for group work. Training our students with Asperger’s now, while young, will ensure increased positive outcomes in college and the work world (making them “college and career ready”).

4. “When approving their children for participation in STEM, parents of disabled and nondisabled children need to be aware of STEM’s rigor requirement for independent thinking, requirement to engage effectively in teamwork, work within specific timelines, and the intensity of the assignments,”  

While I don't agree with most of the description, logically, for parents to make the recommended determination about the appropriateness of the STEM Program, this program description needs to be public knowledge.  Currently, it is not.  Small parts of it can be found in the STEM brochure, but that's all I've been able to find.

I asked the Executive Director of Special Education about the source of the description, and she responded that the description was her "own summaries of the STEM program based on information received from personnel involved with STEM."  This just leaves me shocked.  I knew that many administrators were unaware of the needs of twice-exceptional students, but I had not realized the degree to which such students were misunderstood.  And to be misunderstood to this level by the very person who oversees both sides of their education is just plain disturbing.

A major problem identified here is the inconsistency between the implication of the statement and the assurance my friend and I each received separately from administration in the special education department:  Our children will be supported in STEM.  In practice, that support has been only limited, and it hasn't been until well into this school year that the separate assertiveness of my friend and myself has gotten more of the supports implemented for our children.  It appears that only relentless determination of individual parents will get 2e/Asperger's students what they need from special education.

But there's more about this statement.  Prior to their entrance into the STEM program, students with Asperger’s may not have had their need for academic rigor met.  Their skills may have been left untapped, and their success may be difficult to predict.  This is absolutely our situation.  My son had never been in a situation like STEM -- appropriate rigor, interesting content, cool tools, academic peers, defined group roles -- and no one on his elementary school team thought he should go into STEM.  We ourselves had our own concerns, but we knew that this placement was the best possible match of what was available in the school system, and we had to try.  If highly abled students with Asperger’s are not given the opportunity to try, they cannot reach their potential.  (As proven by the personal experience of my son, when we expect more, we get more.  When we deny them the STEM opportunity, we expect less, and we get less.)

5. “Having a disability does not preclude a student from meeting with success in STEM, but neither does it guarantee that the student will meet with success." 

This statement from the description of the STEM Program provided to me totally flabbergasted me.  It took me quite a little while to think of a coherent response.  This statement reinforces the idea that not only are administrators unaware of the needs of 2e students, but they also misunderstand them.  My hope is that what my friend and I have done in responding to the description of the STEM Program has helped to address the thought processes behind this statement, and we asked the general education administrators who heard what we said to take our input back to the STEM personnel who may have such misconceptions about twice exceptional children.

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If the skills (other than high cognitive abilities) contained in the description are being taught (and not expected to be demonstrated without being taught), the ideals of the STEM Program are not incompatible for students with Asperger's who have high cognitive abilities or for other students who have high cognitive abilities and a typical continuum of development of other skills; however, they may need differentiated instruction or explicit instruction for success.  (I have to note, though, that the needs of middle school students with Asperger's would be significantly reduced if these skills were appropriately addressed at the elementary school level.)

I am definitely unclear as to whether developing the extra skills is part of the curriculum or if the skills are a prerequisite.  If STEM is for students who already possess the skills, a huge opportunity is being missed to develop a variety of highly abled learners, including students with Asperger's, to their full potential.

I believe it is unrealistic to think all highly abled learners possess social and EF skills to the extent described.  If students are to have these skills fully developed prior to their participation in STEM, then the program excludes bright students who may need the teaching of the skills in order to develop them.

All of this makes me ask the Executive Director of Special Education and even the Superintendent of our school system these questions:
  • How do you reconcile this description with the laws related to accelerated program accessibility?
  • How do you explain to your partners in the community who are looking to the STEM Programs to “home grow” the next generation of scientists and engineers that you will not help train this group of people who typically have natural talents in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics to be career ready?
  • How do you appropriately test for anything other than academics for all applicants?
  • How do you incorporate those skills into the application process?
  • Critical:  If not STEM, how do you program for students with Asperger's who have high cognitive abilities?
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So what did my friend and I do to combat this complete misunderstanding of twice-exceptional students with Asperger's and how to appropriately program for them?  Our best hope was to address the questions and concerns contained in the STEM description through respectful, collaborative meetings with the appropriate staff and administrators.  To that end, we met with the Executive Director of Special Education and Student Services, two special education supervisors, one of the county's two autism specialists, the Supervisor of Instruction for Gifted and Talented Programs, and the Director of Secondary Schools.  We followed up by submitting our talking points from that meeting to the Superintendent of Schools.

We're now in a holding pattern for having submitted our recommendations "homework" and for refuting the STEM Program description.  As the various administrators consider our input, my friend and I have to think about our next steps.  We'll meet again to brainstorm what those might be.  In the meantime, I have to decide how to proceed with the fact that I was on the receiving end of an unprofessional letter -- unprofessional and inappropriate in both content and tone -- yet another example in a long string of such incidents.  How much is too much?

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Love

I was just on Facebook and saw my friend's link to her new baby's professional photos (here, dated 02.01.11).  This is the new, precious baby she gets to keep.  I am so flooded with happiness for her and her husband.  As I watched the slideshow, I thought, this new life doesn't replace Matthew's, and it surely doesn't take the sting away from Matthew's death, but it does give them a living, responsive place to put all that love that they have.  As I said (here), what a precious life of faith, hope, and love.