Monday, March 28, 2011

Endings

Girl Scout cookie sales are over.  My troop of five girls sold 1,674 boxes of cookies, 58 of those going to the Wounded Warriors in Bethesda, and held 15 cookie booths.  At 68¢/box, troop proceeds are $1,138.32!  Last year we earned about $350 more than this year selling 801 boxes more.  Selling each box for 68¢ this year vs. 60¢ last year really made a difference.

My girls are going to Great Wolf Lodge, Encampment, and several local events to spend that money down!

Sadly, this will be my last year as a Girl Scout leader.  I have only five girls.  One is a Brownie and needs to be in a Brownie troop rather than being a tag-along in her sister's Junior troop.  Two don't want to continue in Girl Scouts next year.  One definitely wants to continue, and one (my daughter) is sitting on the fence.  I found a troop for the "continuer" and the fence sitter, so we'll go ahead and register those two girls, the Brownie, and the adults, and I'll revert to being an active parent in the troop, not the troop leader.  And if my daughter decides that she's done with scouts after a few meetings (or when the workload of STEM6 crushes her), we'll just go inactive.

I'm not sure I'm going to adjust well to this change in status.  I really like Girl Scouts.

We're also not going to do AWANA next year.

This is my daughter's last year in elementary school and my son's last year in middle school.

And trust has been broken and confidence is gone with my school system's special education department.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Follow the bouncing ball.

We said that we wouldn't accept the "credit" for the changes to the application.  We reminded them that we had never mentioned the application but that it was mentioned in front of us by them in response to our saying that our children had been accepted based on their own merits, using the same (published) eligibility criteria as their peers.

We laid out our concerns about the changes:  1) concerns with the validity of the additional assessment as a predictor of success and the potential to use it as a tool to screen out our children; and 2) concerns that the requirement to handwrite the application essay might put undue burden on children with fine motor issues.  Regarding the handwritten essay, we also expressed our surprise (though a better word choice would have been "dismay" or possibly even "outrage") that this change had happened since each of us had mentioned that our children produce a better product when they type than when they handwrite.

So why did it take us a week to respond?  Because Drafts #1-8 responded with emotion, and the message was likely to have been lost.  Drafts #9-11 were less emotional but still contained too many pithy comments.  We knew we were on firmer ground with Drafts #12 and 13, and we hit a finalized version seven days and 15 drafts into it.

The ball is back in their court again.  Not to repeat myself, but wouldn't it be something if...

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Something

Wouldn't it be something if...
  • the "need" to change the STEM application process hadn't been mentioned by the Executive Director of Special Education in direct response to my friend's statement that her son had gotten into the STEM program on his own merits? 
  • the changes to the STEM application process had been what we were after?
  • the timing weren't suspicious?
  • the changes to the STEM application were going to be used to program for students with social or oganizational skills issues who had the high cognitive ability to make it into STEM based on academics rather than to be used to screen out 2e students?
  • the chosen assessment tool for the evaluation of non-academics were a valid tool for predicting success in STEM?  
  • there were nothing retaliatory or punitive in these actions?
 Wouldn't it be something if...
  • we had been able to get answers to our initial request for clarification and guidance on how to implement the IEPs of students already accepted into the STEM program rather than to have someone delete from the STEM website what limited guidance it had contained?
  • the Executive Director of Special Education and the Supervisor of STEM addressed the problem they claim this really is -- that parents don't realize that STEM is for highly abled learners who are also strong in social and organizational skills -- by stating publicly the eligibility criteria other than academics?
  • 2e children were welcomed into STEM for their strengths and gifts instead of being screened out because of their deficits?
  • the Executive Director of Special Education and the Supervisor of STEM realized that limiting STEM to "perfectly gifted" students -- born out by their actions despite their words -- eliminates the very students with unique talents in math and the sciences who get straight A's and win science awards?
  • the Department of Special Education had a history of and reputation for ethically working to the spirit of the law?
  • there were nothing retaliatory or punitive in these actions?

Saturday, March 12, 2011

We said/She said

What we said:
Thank you for this second reply with an update on the activities of the STEM/Special Education Task Team.  We appreciate knowing that our topics were discussed.

Your first reply to our 3/7/11 "request for a response" to the central question of whether or not STEM is for the "perfectly gifted" stated that you will be sharing with us the responses we are seeking after the final decisions of your discussions have been completed.  We are looking forward to hearing that information soon.

Thank you again.
What she said:
STEM is a program open to any student who meets the eligibility criteria. There is no “perfectly gifted” criteria. The application is a multi-layered holistic process which includes assessment and performance data, parent information and teacher information. Based on your concerns about STEM this year, the application process was expanded to look at the whole child rather than placing primary emphasis on assessment scores.

Again, I thank you for the concerns and information you shared which greatly helped refine the SMCPS STEM Program.
 Analysis to follow.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The favor of a RESPONSE is requested.

Both my children have to reapply to the STEM Academy -- applications are due very soon for the 2011-12 school year.  Guess what?  The Parent Recommendation Form (which I call the "qualities of the learner" form) that parents have had to fill out now also has to be filled out by the applicants' teachers, and now if the "almost always" (from the choices of almost always, often, occasionally, rarely, and never) response is selected, parents and teachers have to give an example.  Here's the form:
Ease of Learning – I enjoy the challenge of problems, assignments, and issues.  I learn quickly.
Adaptability – I approach ideas and problems from a number of directions.  I find alternative means of solving problems.  I think about ideas in new ways.
Initiative and Enthusiasm – I am a highly motivated, independent worker.  I seek additional tasks; am intellectually curious; and stay actively engaged in activities.
Persistence – I stay with tasks and relate progress on tasks to accomplishment of larger goals.
Reliability and Integrity – I am scrupulous and punctual in fulfilling obligations.  I readily take responsibility.
Reasoning – I use logical, analytical reasoning and/or creative, divergent thinking to consider ideas or solve problems. (Originality and elaboration of thinking)
Communications – I communicate effectively.
Organization – I manage time, resources and materials; meet deadlines; and divide tasks into subtasks.
Leadership Qualities – I show respect and tolerance of others’ views.  I am willing to accept the ideas of others, and I contribute to the group process.  I influence others in a positive manner.
Success – I display the ability to succeed in a challenging program.
When we saw the expansion of the use of this form, my friend and I recognized that our fears had been realized.  What we feared -- and we told this to the Superintendent when we met with him in October -- was that the application process would be changed to exclude our twice-exceptional children, children who are highly abled learners with Asperger's.  Oh, no, said he.  The STEM Program is to be inclusive.  Well, in September when the Director of Special Education showed up unannounced at my meeting with the Supervisor of STEM and said to her, with me sitting right there, that STEM is for students who have strong social skills and are good with organizational skills, and perhaps they'd have to examine the application process, I think that we had reason to fear.  When that same scenario was repeated when the Director of Special Education showed up unannounced at my friend's meeting with the Supervisor of STEM, the writing was on the wall.

During those same meetings as well as subsequent communications, the Director has said that it is a problem with communication -- parents just don't understand that STEM is for students with high cognitive abilities and strong organizaional and teamwork skills.  However, nowhere in the STEM literature (including in the just-revised brochure) does it make reference to anything except academics.  The only possibly-non-academic reference that I can find is that "at the secondary level, candidates will be evaluated based on their past academic performance, dedication to advanced learning, and their desire to pursue STEM careers."  It doesn't mention anything about being an independent worker, managing time well, or "influencing others in a positive manner."

We recognize the expansion of the form for what it is:  an attempt to identify students who are not "perfectly gifted" and keep them out of STEM.  We have quite a bit to say about the form and application, including that the form is subjective, that it collects information from teachers who, in our experience, have not understood our children, their needs, or how to meet their needs, and that the new requirement of having the student essay be handwritten is discriminatory.  We also have quite a bit to say about erecting barriers that exclude our children from STEM, including that if they eliminate STEM as an option for our children, they still aren't programming for 2e students with Asperger's, and that the teacher recommendation form contains questions about qualities of the learner that 2e students, especially those with Asperger’s, are unlikely to have demonstrated if their needs (especially for academic rigor) have been left unmatched and their strengths have been left untapped thus far.

My friend and I see all this, and we know that we have to combat it.  Two days ago, we sent this email to the Executive Director of Special Education and Student Services and to the Supervisor of STEM. 
This is a follow-up to our meeting on 2/1/11 where we discussed recommendations for meeting both sets of needs of 2e children with Asperger's (academics and special needs) within the existing middle school STEM Program.  Now that [the Supervisor of STEM] is back, we hope that you have been able to hold your STEM/Special Education Task Team meeting to discuss our questions and recommendations.  Because [the Executive Director of Special Education and Student Services] is the Superintendent's designee regarding our recommendations and questions, and because [the Supervisor of STEM] is the STEM supervisor, we are directing this email to both of you.

During our presentation, we asked a set of questions.  (Please refer to our follow-up email "Follow-up to the 2/1/11 meeting" sent 2/3/11.)  To date we have not received an answer to the central question we posed at the 2/1/11 meeting:
The description of the STEM Program we reviewed during the meeting presents the idea that STEM is for one particular type of student and conversely is not designed to allow for individual differences even among highly abled students.  Is STEM restricted to highly abled students who already have highly developed teamwork and organizational skills?
Or, if preferred, another way to ask the same question is:
Is the STEM program only for "perfectly gifted" students?
We have seen the recent changes to the STEM application for all levels for the upcoming school year.  As parents of four children in the STEM Program, we need clarification about the intended target student population.  We would appreciate your response to this question in either form as soon as possible.

Thank you.
We receive this reply almost immediately:
The work committee has had an opportunity to meet and I will be sharing with you the responses you are seeking after the final decisions of our discussions have been completed.

Thank you for your patience.
Late this afternoon, the Director sent the following:
Thank you for your interest and questions concerning the STEM program applications, pre-requisite skills, work load assignments and the curriculum content. The workforce committee has taken your concerns under consideration and reviewed  them from both a special education perspective, a developmentally appropriate perspective and for skills and content. As a result the application process has been reexamined and refined to ensure that all aspects of the whole child is included, not just data points from assessments. The team  worked with principals  to consider how students are prepared to enter STEM at points other than fourth grade. Also addressed were the points raised concerning how instruction is differentiated and what is a developmentally appropriate assignment and project.

Thank you for  raising your concerns and for your participation and input in the process.
My initial thought is to reply with one of these two responses:
And...?
OR
The favor of a response is requested.
I have so much more to say, but right now, the options for how to proceed are squirreling around in my brain.  These include but are not limited to:
  • involving the Office for Civil Rights
  • involving a special education attorny or advocate
  • requesting another meeting with the Superintendent
  • requesting another meeting with the Superintendent, the Executive Director of Special Education, the Supervisor of STEM, the Directors of Elementary and Secondary Education, etc.
  • involving the press.
We need to work through them, and then we need to choose wisely and proceed carefully. 

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Draconian and ugly and available

Tonight my friend and I are going to the school system's meeting to give public input on the budget.  We'll stand together while I say the following:

We have spoken to the Board of Education several times in the past, and we appreciate the opportunity to do so again for this year’s public input on the proposed school budget.

Between us, we have five children, four of whom are school-aged and are in the STEM Program (in grades 4, 5, 6, and 8).  Our children clearly need academic rigor, and they get it in STEM.  Two of those four children also have Asperger’s and need special education services, making them “twice exceptional.”  While our school system does not have a separate program for twice exceptional students, we have been working hard to meet both sets of needs of our children within the existing STEM Program.

The impact of the current economic situation on the school system’s funding is dire.  Typically, programming for highly abled learners as well as programming for students who have special education needs are often considered to be “extra” and are among the first to be cut.  They aren’t extra for our children.  They are an essential and integral part of the education of our children and children like them.  We know that the proposed budget cuts will impact our children, from the reductions in categorical spending to the possible loss (by furloughs) of teacher training days to just the general stress levels of staff that have to do even more with even less in both their work and their home lives.  The potential for the academic and behavioral backsliding of our children is a very real concern with the current level of funding -- and it’s even scarier when we recognize that there could be more cuts.  We can only hope and pray that staff can meet our children’s needs without the money necessary to do so.

We understand that these are among the most difficult budget years our school system, our county, and our nation have faced in a very long time.  We understand that cuts have to be made.  While we can’t in good conscience come to the Board of Education and advocate for any one group of students above another, we can come here to ask the Board of Education to support the superintendent’s proposed budget.  We believe that he has done everything in his power to present a thoughtful, intentional budget that shows caring for all students, individually or by groups.  We recognize that this budget will have a negative impact on students, staff, and families, but we also recognize that it is the least draconian of all the ugly choices.  We understand the bitter situation of having to accept the least inappropriate of what’s available.

We don’t think that the real problem lies within Central Office.  We believe it lies in the lap of the funding sources.  We can’t fathom how education isn’t a top priority with the county commissioners, how maintenance of effort that leaves a $14m deficit in the school budget is OK, how having the lowest per pupil spending in the state is OK, or how the dramatic drop in the percentage of county funding for the school system over the past number of years is OK.  Our next job is to make the Board of County Commissioners aware of where we put our priorities and where we believe they should put the county's priorities:  funding the school system.  So we’ll go to the BoCC meeting on April 26th and do the best we can to convince the commissioners that our priority, education, should be their priority.

Thank you.