31 for 21: The difficulty of finding a good school for a “special needs” child

I met a mom this week who has a child with a severe vision impairment. I wasn’t sure if I should say “I’m sorry” as I don’t like it when people say that to me when I tell people that Luke has Down syndrome, but was I supposed to in this case?  I decided not to and we just talked about how different experiences can be in a school district when you have a child with “special needs” (yes, I haven’t come up with a better “label” but if you have one, please share!). 

The term “disability” can cover so many ranges of abilities and skills that one cannot just say a school district is great with special needs because individual circumstances vary so much.  When we started looking for a bigger house, I researched local school districts because it was important to me that we (and Luke) would feel welcome and that the school district would be willing to consider parental input as well as what is best for the child.  When we first looked for houses a year after we got married, we focused on top ranked schools and our old school district is ranked in the top 10 in the county.  But now that we have kids, we have found that good test scores and high rankings do not necessarily make a good school. Good test scores gets the school more money, perhaps, but if you have children who are outliers and the school is rigid, it may not be a good fit. 

I was a little skeptical when calling our old school district about Luke because they were a bit arrogant on their approach when I visited them to discuss our older son and gifted education, to which their response was our model works for most kids and if it doesn’t work for your child, best to take them somewhere else (which is what we did).  But our options are more limited for Luke because of the additional services needed, but I was stil hopeful thinking that maybe they put more focus on children who don’t score as well.  Our old school district is more test scores focused so they said placement in a general Ed classroom would be “assessment” based. I asked what that meant but they were very vague. I asked if there could be exceptions made but they kind of gave me the run around, and they just said that the decision of whether a child will be placed in or out of the self-contained classroom is based on tests done every year. I think she thought her answer would make me feel better, but it didn’t. To me, it felt even more disruptive. So if your child did well one year and was placed in the general Ed classroom, but for whatever reason, didn’t do well the following year, he or she would then be placed in self-contained. This didn’t feel right to me and would be confusing to a child and potentially devastating to their self-confidence. 

I was also told that the school had separated from SEDOL and that due to limited resources, the self contained classrooms would be shared among three local districts. So although this may be a step up from being bused to a completely self-contained school miles away, it still would mean having to get used to a completely different set of typical students for elementary, middle and junior high schools. This also seemed disruptive.  

But this mother I had spoken to this week had a good experience with our old district, which may be very well the case.  Although her child has severely limited vision, it doesn’t mean he cannot keep up with the other children academically. Now this is the rub. I think many school districts think it is very difficult for a child with Down syndrome to keep up with the general Ed classroom academically, which I’m sure is definitely more work in almost every case. But the ones who won’t even try, are the ones to avoid in my book.  So my gut was telling me to look elsewhere. 
And you can’t easily identify those school districts because that philosophy doesn’t come across in high test scores and rankings or even in special needs education profiles (where it tells you what % of time is spent in general Ed classrooms) because those profiles do not break down the kind of disability (which includes any child with an IEP for anything like ADHD, dsylexia, hearing impaired, Down Syndrome). So your search can’t be based on what most parents would judge a school by. So a school that looks great “on paper,” may be a very poor fit for your child with Down syndrome (or gifted or anyone that doesn’t fall within the normal bell curve). 

You also have to be careful when talking to other parents who have children with special needs. It is easier to fully include children with a learning disability like dsylexia or a hearing or vision impairment because there are tools to assist with the curriculum, but there is usually no adjustment to the curriculum itself. But with a child who has a cognitive impairment/delay or is intellectually disabled, the waters become muddy as the curriculum usually has to be modified to that child’s capabilities, which requires more work. 

When I first started my search, several families urged me to consider the Deerfield school district.  When I first called and talked to the woman in charge of student services (or whatever the title is called who is in charge of IEPs), I was hopeful. They said their preferred placement was in the home school and tried to support the child in their local environment. However, when I kept digging, I found out that if the curriculum had to be modified in any way, the child would have to move to a self-contained classroom. So they would under no circumstances (at least I was told) modify the general Ed curriculum. I was floored. So Luke would probably be fully included for elementary likely with some pull out services for math and reading I’m guessing (that they provide in each home school), but that at some point, he would have to move to a self-contained classroom as I am guessing he probably wouldn’t be able to do the exact same homework assignments as his peers. So a district that was highly acclaimed by several families would not be a good fit for us. 

You also have to specific about feedback from families who have children with Down syndrome. Not everyone believes in full inclusion for their child, and not every child is a good candidate for it, but someone who isn’t interested in inclusion may also speak highly of a district that doesn’t truly support inclusion. So a generic stamp of approval, even from a parent with a child with Down syndrome, may still not mean that same school district will be a good fit for you and your child. 

So what to do?  You have to sit down and and think hard what you are looking for from a school district. No one is going to guarantee that your child will be fully included for their entire education in their district. They don’t know your child and their needs may change as they grow. So for us, we wanted a district that would be willing to listen to us and work with us to determine a plan that would be best for our child and help us execute that plan. We also wanted to be in a district that would be open to the concept of inclusion, even if we later determined that Luke wouldn’t be a good candidate, we still wanted to be in an area that supported the concept philosophically. 

So with that thought in mind, I set out to call 8 different school districts including our old one. A few never called me back, which I took to be a bad sign. I was surprised and disappointed that there weren’t more districts that were more supportive of inclusion. I wonder if the cuts in funding combined with the over emphasis on standardized testing (among other things) is what has caused this trend. In our old district, they have adopted an individualized model and end up clustering like-minded together to more efficiently and cost effectively teach to each child so groups of children could move at a pace similar to their peers. Unfortunately, this also means that “like-minded” ends up resulting in self-contained classrooms for children with a learning disability. I was under the impression that this customized model is well suited for gifted children, but I was surprised that there are districts who do both gifted and inclusion well (such as our current district from what I hear and hope to be true and I didn’t even know they also cater to gifted education well until after we moved). So the two do not have to be mutually exclusive.  In fact, I have heard that classrooms where children are fully included have less bullying, more sensitivity and an increased understanding of the material as explaining it to someone else helps reinforce their lessons as well as build leadership skills and increase self-confidence. 

In the end, we narrowed it down to 3. The one where we ended up had the best combination of location, house and neighborhood feel. We feel that this is the place for us, and I felt very welcome when I visited the local school in person with Luke in tow. It took a lot of work and I’m hoping that we made the right choice, but my gut tells me that we have. 

Now what to do if you can’t move because you have other children to consider or other reasons? I will still recommend doing your research both on your current district and other local ones. Try to find out what other local schools are doing well so that you know what you are aiming for or want. If your district is just inexperienced but willing to work with you, this can be a huge plus. Just try to work collaboratively and be reasonable and realistic as most districts are resource constrained. Try to be accommodating as well and help and get involved with the school, especially if you already have children in the district. I believe that having a good solid working relationship as a foundation will go a long way to having a collaborative relationship for giving your child with Down syndrome the best education he or she can get. 

And if your district isn’t so supportive?  Reach out to other families and see if it would be helpful to group together and have more influence with numbers on your side. You may also want to look into hiring or obtaining an advocate or lawyer. Legally, your child has a right to be educated in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) and you have rights through IDEA (Wright’s Law is a great source if you have to take this route). 

Talk to others online (there are many online support groups on Facebook) and seek out their advice. There is a wealth of knowledge out there and many people willing to help. No matter what your journey and how tough it is, know that the destination is worthwhile and the rewards will be worth it. 

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