February 11, 2005

school thoughts

In general, I like Damian's school. It's a friendly place, the teachers seem compassionate and fun, he's having a good time. But more and more I find things that bother me. And more and more I realize that what I�m seeing is not a fault of the particular school but of the school system as a whole. Or, well, fault may be the wrong word. Let's just say a mindset that I don't fully embrace.

An example: I went in for parent-teacher conferences back in November, I believe. The teacher said Damian's doing well. He's right where he should be with reading comprehension, for example: he knows all his letters. Say what? He's READING. First grade level, at least. Real, albeit short, books. I mentioned this. The teacher said, "I wouldn't know." She only can test him in one way. And it doesn't really matter to her � to the school, to the system � that he can do better. Challenge him? Teach him at his level? Um, why? That would take differentiated instruction, we don't have time for that.

Okay. Well, we can continue to give him real books at home, I guess. And he likes school. I know he does. He thinks his teacher is funny. Which she is. She has a good heart, too. This is not her fault. Not the school's either, they have a curriculum they have to implement. They do a good job of it. No, this is simply the way the system is designed.

Another example: I picked Damian up from school a few weeks ago. He was holding a triangle on a stick. Tommy Triangle, apparently. Why? They're learning about � wait for it � shapes. Um, yeah. Five-and-six year olds. Do any of them really not know the difference between a circle and a square? They're spending weeks on this curriculum rather than any of the myriad more interesting, valuable and perhaps even educational subjects they could choose? Say what? What are they going to learn next? Colors? Man.

One more example: Today I stood chatting with another mom after I dropped Damian off. She knows about his diagnosis (I'm perhaps too up front about it, but her kid has play dates with Damian and, well, I wanted to be straight about it all). She was telling me about how I should volunteer to work in the classroom, that I could then see what goes on and my fears would be assuaged. She said Damian fits in well, does fine. I said, "Well, sure, I know the teacher says he answers readily when she calls on him, but he doesn't ever raise his hand and volunteer his own thoughts." She laughed, then explained. None of the kids volunteer their own thoughts. That's not what it's like in there. It's a one woman show. The teacher instructs by entertaining, she presents the curriculum in a lively and engaging way, but the kids are really just sitting there, listening and observing. Oh, she calls on them, asks questions, makes sure they're understanding the lesson. She's a good teacher. But this is not interactive learning. This is passive.

Damian has learned a few things this year. He knows the legend behind Chinese New Year, for example, and he learned a dab and a dash about Martin Luther King. His table work and homework have been a godsend because it's enabled him � no, forced him � to get used to writing, coloring, and gluing, things he'd heretofore avoided like a fifth grader avoids cooties. But I don't believe in this style of education for him. For anyone, really, but especially not for him. Passive is easy, passive doesn't stretch him. Only active, engaged, hands-on, challenging kinds of lessons will help him grow into the man I know he can become.

But we can't afford any of the wonderful progressive private schools in town (and they might not accept him with a diagnosis anyway), and I would go out of my mind if I homeschooled, as would he � he learns more readily from anyone else but Mommy (though I�m tempted even so). So what's left? Do we go the distance with this passive, impersonal learning style? Am I simply overreacting? Maybe I am and maybe he'll be fine over the next few years at his current school. After all, we may be in Toronto by third grade, and anyway, maybe this is just my idealistic parent mindset and there's nothing wrong here. Damian certainly doesn't mind not being challenged to grow. But it doesn't sit right with me.

As it happens, I know of a brand new charter school opening next year near here. It's based on a constructivist, hands-on model like the magnet school I so desperately wanted to get Damian into last year; in fact, the two schools are in touch, the established site sharing information with the new one to get them up to speed faster. This new place sounds perfect, at least on paper. I do of course realize that the first year (or more) of a new institution might be rough around the edges, might involve lots of kinks and knots and puzzles as they figure out how to run a brand new school. But I also know now that the most important elements of my child's education are the philosophy and the teacher. I don't know if they've hired teachers yet, but their philosophy is wonderful. We're going to apply on Damian's behalf, see what happens.

Posted by Tamar at February 11, 2005 12:00 AM

Good luck with that! You're questioning the same things I did, and it only gets worse as they get older, more micromanaging, with less interaction. It's why we're homeschooling, though I can say that if there had been a fabulous option for schooling, I would have gone that route. It's been an adventure in letting go so far.

Posted by: Kelly at February 11, 2005 06:05 AM

Sounds like an interesting place. I think you'll really, truly love being involved with a school from the ground floor up. The school Em goes to is seven years old this year, which means that the very first class of kids who've been here since kindy are graduating in June. Those kids' parents are so dedicated to the school, it's unbelievable. We have this amazing parent involvement, unmatched by other schools in our area, because the parents have literally been part of building the school.

Not to mention that they've all become such close friends through this all. I think it would be great for you.

Posted by: Tiny Coconut at February 11, 2005 11:58 AM

Are you LAUSD? The charter is a good idea, but you may not want to wait for it to open. I don't know what part of town you live in, but one option might be to get Damian into a school with an SAS program (stands for School for Advanced Studies). This is kind of like a gifted magnet for those of us who couldn't win the lottery and get into the gifted magnet -- and they DO offer differentiated learning.

Posted by: Donna at February 11, 2005 09:59 PM

Don't be too pessimistic about the diagnosis, many private schools will accept special needs kids.

I hear you on a lot of these things; my son is in a special school for kids on the spectrum and it seemed like they were always teaching him things he's known since he was 18 months old. He's making terrific progress though. I'm freaking at the thought of him moving to regular public school in a few years, because it seems beyond terrible, yet I think homeschooling would quickly make me insane. I'm hoping we can afford a good private school. (Words I never thought I'd hear myself say/type... but sadly, it's easier to work to earn money for private school than to work to change the system...)

Posted by: sleeky at February 12, 2005 08:24 PM

When we were getting ready to move back in 1976 I had several long talks with the headmistress at the Episcopal school where my younger daughter was enrolled. Since she was doing reading in the fifth grade class (she was in fourth grade) I wanted to know whether she would do better by skipping fifth grade. The headmistress recommended against it (she's an October child) but said I should continue to supplement her education at home.

That's my suggestion to you--it's not full-time home schooling--but taking advantage of learning opportunities.

My kids leaarned many of their letters from peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Get the square bread, then cut it vertically into four pieces--soldiers. Then, cut and E. They would eat out the two smallI's then eat the E into an F, or they'd eat out the middle bar and have a C or a V.

Good luck--you can supplement what the schools aren't doing.

Posted by: sue at February 13, 2005 02:57 PM

Trouble is, you can't undo the really crappy things the schools *are* doing.

Posted by: sleeky at February 13, 2005 10:53 PM

I want to thank everyone for your thoughts!

Kelly, I'm sensing the same thing, that this kind of schooling gets more confining as the kids get older. That worries me, obviously!

TC, I'm SO glad to hear that about Em's school. It makes me feel a lot better about the whole starting-up part of this.

Donna, I will definitely look into SAS if the charter school doesn't pan out (we should know within a few weeks if we get in for the fall).

Sleeky, it's a moot point at the moment for us (private school around here costs about $15K a year, which we don't have), but I've heard a lot of negative stories about private schools in LA and special needs kids. There are a select few that are nicer -- primarily the Jewish day schools -- but by and large, they just say no. My hope is that we can afford private school by the time we get to Toronto (assuming we do move) and that Damian's issues will be, well, less of an issue there. He also may grow out of them more, to boot. (Private preschool here is a different matter, BTW. I know some really nice ones that accept high functioning spectrum kids, no question.)

And Sue, I concur with Sleeky, though my concerns are more that if the environment in a school isn't conducive to interactive learning, my child will withdraw from social interaction as well, and all he'll learn from the school is that he can get away with being passive and relatively unengaged in that kind of setting. A bad lesson and one he's already picking up. (More on that soon.) If he were a typically developing kid, I'd be far less concerned because we do already supplement what he learns in school, and he's a quick study. But this is about his development as a person. Thus my worry.

Posted by: Tamar at February 14, 2005 01:42 PM

Funny.... my boy is in a private Jewish preschool in addition to his special ed. school. Are we Jews truly more compassionare and accepting? ;-)

This may all hit me sooner than I expected... today I learned that Bam's teacher thinks he should move on to a program where he can get more social interaction. I'm all for that, but will he also be getting more "school"? Of the kind I don't want him to get? I guess we can only wait and see.

Posted by: sleeky at February 14, 2005 06:55 PM

Applying to the charter is a great idea, as is the experiential learning in N.J. should you end up there. The cookie-cutter, rote, passive aspect of our public school drove us back to private school, where we originally started out. We so wanted to be supportive of our schools, but once there, the reality smacked us upside the head.

My brief experience with a charter school here in San Diego left me with the utmost admiration and respect for the people who run and teach there. It's so much more . . . dynamic. I didn't hear a whole lot of "Well, this is the way we do it" or anything like that. Aidan was working above grade level in a lot of areas, but because of his age, we didn't want him bumped up a grade, so they accomodated him without hesitation. Which is as it should be everywhere. (Since it was a part school/part homeschool charter, our time there was limited. The homeschooling didn't work for us either.)

Good luck, Tamar. I hope that wherever you are, you find the educational situation that is best for Damian in all ways.

Posted by: Athena at February 24, 2005 07:17 PM

I know nothing about Charter schools, but my son is mainstreamed into public school and they recognize that he is a reader, his special ed teacher put him into the AR program and he is now reading at a 2.7 grade level. He is in kindergarten. They didn't want to put Kyler with other spectrum kids, because they felt that it would be detrimental to his education and what he has accomplished.

Posted by: Linda at February 25, 2005 08:01 AM