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:
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. 

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