Wednesday, October 20, 2010

How Can You Tell If the Staff Is Going to Give up on Your Special Ed Kid?

So we've started touring middle schools and something happened at one of them that really hit home to us the core worry we have for Ben. I'm not going to name the school because it is not a school-specific issue, but I want to get it out because I think it is illustrative of what worries us the most about how a special ed kid is going to fair in a middle school. We were observing a particular class where the teacher was working on getting the kids to learn how to take notes from a book. Great, important skill. In the room was a special ed paraprofessional who was diligently walking up and down the aisle. There were approximately eight or so kids, however, who either did not have a pencil or did not have paper to write on. Obviously, several of them were special ed kids. Instead of working with them individually and trying to get them started, the para just seemed to be blithely ignoring what was going on. Neither did the teacher do anything about what was a substantial segment of her class that was simply not starting the work. Rather, she concentrated her attention on the kids who were in fact engaged in notetaking.

This episode crystallizes for us our worry about what might happen to Ben in a middle school. Either the teacher and para were incredibly poorly trained or had given up on those kids. Now it is possible that they were worried about a defiant response from some of the kids (these are middle schoolers after all) and didn't want to have something negative happen in front of parents. But I'm afraid it is emblematic to us of how staff at a middle school might end up giving up on special kids like our Ben. Middle schools are dealing with an array of kids who come in with all sorts of issues. They've got discipline problems, kids coming from troubled backgrounds, and then they've got special ed kids. (And, yes, some of the special ed kids are discipline problems and come from troubled backgrounds.) And then they've got non-special ed kids who they are also trying to teach. To us, it just seems like a situation where some kid is going to fall through the cracks.

It seems to us most likely that this could happen in one of the larger public middle schools. Of course, it is entirely possible that there will be teachers and paras at smaller-grade K-8's or charter middle schools who will behave similarly. We could opt for special day classes, but, at this point, we really feel Ben can function in a regular class and want to keep him mainstreamed. Private schools that specialize in kids with learning issues are not an option because financially we really cannot go the private school route.

So, we are now kind of lost as to what we should be looking for to find a middle school for our kid. We can't interview each and every teacher and para. So I'd like to ask if parents out there could help us come up with "markers" or traits of what a good public middle school for a special ed kid should look like to help us in our search. Should we be interviewing the administrators and special ed teachers and, if so, what should we be asking them? Is it better for a special ed kid to go to a school that separates out honors students from gen ed students or not? Does class size matter -- is it better for a special ed kid to be in a class with 25 versus one with 33-35? Does grade size matter or is there really no practical difference between a middle school with grade sizes of 100 or so versus 400 or so?


  1. How hard is it, really, to simply hand out some papers and pencils?

    I realize you are talking about kids who are in special ed, but it really doesn't matter.

    The teacher and the para professional should be warned, and then next time, walked out.

    But of course, with the union, this teacher has no fear (and clearly no love for her students.)

    This must go on everyday.

    If you are a teacher who is doing something like this, please exit the profession. Find another job.

  2. Don't think this is limited to special ed. After 3 years in one of the larger MS, I'm really wondering if we did the right thing for our older kid (the younger one is sailing through.)

    Interesting about taking notes: No one taught my 8th grader how to do this. Seems to be hit or miss if teachers do it at our school. My younger kid hasn't had any instruction but a friend of hers could tell me in great detail the mechanics of Cornell notes - which neither the 8th or the 6th grader had ever even heard of.

    I sympathize with you in your search.

  3. I don't think your concern is limited to a Special ED kid. There are engaged teachers who do a great job and there are poor ones. Talk to as many parents as you can about the schools you are interested in and go with your gut.

  4. Ugh. Sounds like Giannini.

  5. If I saw what you desctibed I would go straight to the principal and let her know what I had observed. I would write a complaint letter to the district and ask to speak with the assigned assistant superintendent.

  6. "If you are a teacher who is doing something like this, please exit the profession. Find another job."

    If you are a teacher that is NOT doing this - stand up to your union!! Tell them you want bad teachers fired. Tell them you want an expedited process to evaluate and remove poor performing teachers. The bad teachers are making you all look bad.

  7. Hi Joseph, I think that I was on the same tour with you this Monday at James Lick, where the male para seemed to be hoovering over two boys in the back of the room (hoovering, and not really assisting), and also walking up the aisle to hoover near some other boys. Present, but absent, if you know what I mean. As you said, some of these boys did not have paper, pencil, or even have the text book for the assignment!

    I tried to rationalize why they were allowed to sit there, with nothing to do but be disruptive. Did they forget their books again for the 15th time (oh Lordy) and was this was some sort of "punishment" so that they would remember tomorrow? Whatever the reason, the teacher should have provided pencil and paper. She could have loaned a book or asked some of the students to double up with a neighbor--the desk layout would have permitted sharing.

    I am crossing Lick off my list.

    Signed: Another parent in search of a middle school.

  8. I'm not sure if it makes sense to write off an entire school based on the behavior of one incompetent para.

  9. I have to timidly point out that it's at least possible that there's some reason that certain kids were left alone when they didn't get with the paper and pencil program. I can't even speculate on what that might be, but on the other hand, could a stranger helicoptering into the class really have full knowledge of each student's situation?

    Also, you honestly have no idea how disruptive it can be when a batch of strangers come in to watch a class -- quite likely more so with disabled kids.

  10. "it's at least possible that there's some reason that certain kids were left alone when they didn't get with the paper and pencil program"

    Perhaps. But as a teacher, I can't think of a decent pedagogical rationale for it: you screwed up, therefore you don't get to learn? It's what we all fear -- our kid being warehoused, whether for a period or for the duration of their education -- and special ed and learning-disabled kids are especially vulnerable. I say go with your gut on this one.

  11. I haven't been in your shoes. But I think I would ask the principal of each school I was considering for the names of parents of several kids who have special ed needs and are in the regular classes. I would talk to as many of them as would talk to me. And then I would talk to the person in charge of special ed at each school and ask some specific questions about specific scenarios. A lot of work, I know.

    Best of luck. I will be thinking about you and Ben and hope this develops very well.

  12. This is why our friends with a special needs child have back-burnered (though not completely abandoned) their careers to be sure they can spend at least 2 days a week in the classroom. You can fight and litigate to get your plan, but it's an ongoing struggle to be sure it's implemented on a regular basis. Hope you have a better experience than they have had.

    This problem is not limited to special needs kids. Our unassertive kid was pretty much ignored in a highly-ranked middle school.

  13. Sending your child to a smaller school with give you more information about the paras. Have you looked into Rooftop? I am the SPED staff person who commented earlier that you should be able to get a school named in your transition to middle school IEP (which the school should hold for you). You should also be able to write in during exactly what activities and times of day (such as: lunch recess, small group activities involving language skills, or PE) you child should get inclusion support.

  14. There must be private programs that offer financial aid?