Friday, February 18, 2011

Special Ed Middle School Search -- Oh, What a Trip Its Been!

To recap, we've been searching for a good public middle school -- district or charter -- that has (1) small grade size and (2) a caring and committed special ed staff. We started in September with Ben in Inclusion at a new elementary school, having left our previous elementary because it simply wasn't working for him. In October, the District opened up every middle school to Inclusion students, but in touring some of those newly-Inclusion schools, we got, ahem, less than an open welcome. Panicking and with our annual IEP deadline fast approaching, we made the decision to switch Ben out of Inclusion and into RSP, while maintaining all the same support he had in his old IEP. That was December. By January, we kind of realized that we'd made a mistake: (1) it does seem that all schools really are going to take Inclusion kids; (2) the Inclusion designation appears to give one a bit of a leg-up in the assignment process; and (3) the likelihood of getting into one of the smaller K-8s we so like was virtually nil. We then spent most of February arguing (1) whether to switch Ben back to Inclusion and (2) which really large middle schools to put down on our list. At the end, we decided to keep him RSP (which I know I'm going to regret) and we put all the large middle schools that my other half and I were fighting about at the end of our choice list. So the list we put in for SFUSD is: 1) Rooftop, 2) San Francisco Community; 3) Claire Lillienthal; 4) Aptos; 5) Hoover; 6) Giannini. Having said all this, our really first choice is not a district public school, but rather a charter: Gateway Middle School. It is new and all, but the high school just blew us away, and we are confident that Gateway will be great for Ben. We are in their lottery and crossing our fingers that we get in as we will most definitely go there, especially, if, as we imagine, the best we can get from SFUSD is one of the larger middle schools on our list.

If I could offer some lessons from our experience, it would be the following:

1) SFUSD must do a better job of providing information to special ed parents about the process. If two reasonably educated parents can still screw things up this bad, then something's wrong with both the transparency of the process and the actual process itself.

2) Parental choice really matters in special ed. I know the District wants to move to assignment processes that take away parental choice, but special ed kids are so different that parents must have some ability to pick their school. And while I think it is laudable that the District wants to offer all special ed services everywhere, here's a third thing we learned:

3) Not every school does special ed well. There are schools where principals are committed to special education, and there are schools where they are not. At some schools, the special ed professionals are fully involved; at other schools teachers barely tolerate them. Special ed families need to look for schools where special ed kids are going to be valued and supported. And it is tough to find out that information -- I'm hoping that one of the lasting values of this blog and other sites is to offer an open forum for special ed families to comment about the pros and cons of different schools' special ed services.


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  2. Speaking as a special ed parent, perhaps it is not advisable for SFUSD to offer special ed services everywhere. Doing it well in fewer locations seems a far cry better than doing a mediocre job at many. Having more choice is no choice at all if the school you receive is inadequate for your child's needs.

    At the Committee of the Whole meeting last week the Superintendent remarked on the poor ability of the district to do large scale reform, which is what the special ed redo is- large scale reform.

    As for the issue of choice for special ed, under the circumstances you describe middle school special ed parents will find the feeder system highly inadequate if they are assigned to a school that does not meet their needs, much in the same way as language families feel disenfranchised. Every student interest group, whether it is special ed, bi-lingual, immersion, gate, music, etc., feels that it ought to have the ability to choose an appropriate school. If a child is high achieving, a parent can make a good case that a school without AP/honors is inappropriate and she would be right. If the child is a talented musician, a school without a music program hardly seems the right choice. Every child is special and every one deserves an appropriate placement. It is also true that the needs of one child are no more important than the needs of another. We should not get into a frame of mind that some deserve choice more than others. Every group thinks it is more deserving of special treatment.

    As the special ed commissioner, Rachel Norton would find herself in a bit of a conundrum were she to support choice for special ed while she is supporting the Board’s decision to have feeders in middle school. (I’m not saying she does.) While middle school is a different animal than elementary, many special education parents feel some middle schools are far better than others when it comes to providing different types of special education services. At the elementary level, the cutbacks have forced some RSPs to do inclusion. While these teachers may have the credential, they don’t have the experience. This is an example of what happens when you ask every school to do everything, particularly in a time of dwindling budgets for some. Be careful what you wish for.