Tuesday, February 7, 2012

My Personal Conclusions

As I've mentioned numerous times, we are preparing for Ballerina and Music Man to leave the preschool world and enter kindergarten in the fall. We are fortunate that we live in an area that offers several programs for young students with autism. And, in order to be prepared for their placements meetings, we have visited 2 such programs.

The first one we visited was a school-based learning center. This is what I had always thought of as "Special Education" growing up. It is a program in a typical school that addresses the special needs of its students. There are opportunities for mainstreaming. Early on, these opportunities are designed to be during specials (gym, art, and music) as well as lunch and recess. As they grow, more time will be incorporated into the day. Additionally, if students can handle the experience, there are opportunities for them to spend additional time in a typical classroom, just without the added supports that they are currently accustomed.

We are fortunate that our "cluster's" learning center is located in our own home school. This means that it's the school that is just down the street from our house and the school that Big Brother has been attending for the last year-and-a-half. I am involved in this school's PTA and volunteer in Big Brother's classroom weekly. I'm recognized by many of the staff, especially in the office, and have gotten to know several other members of the school community. This is all a good thing. Additionally, I have taken the opportunity last year to speak with the kindergarten teacher to learn what is expected of her students when they enter this program.

Both Dad and I left with the impression that both Ballerina and Music Man would succeed here. We weren't certain at that moment if this was an ideal placement for them, simply because it was the only program we had visited (to date) and just had nothing to compare it to. For Ballerina, there was still one more program to consider. For Music Man, there was at least one more, possibly a third.

Today, we went to visit that second school. This school is also an academic program, but unlike the Learning Center I described a moment ago, that's part of a standard school, in this case the entire school is special needs. This bothers me. How can they learn to interact with typical peers if there are no models and no opportunity for such interaction in a school setting? But we visited anyway, knowing it was a strong possibility for Music Man and a decent possibility for Ballerina.

This school is NOT near our home. It took a good 30 minutes to get there after rush hour had ended. If either child would be attending this program, they would be heading over there during the extended rush hour for this area which means the commute would add upwards of 2 hours to their already long day. But Ballerina has had long bus-rides in the past. So we knew that shouldn't be a deal-breaker.

The tour of this second school was very interesting. Every classroom has a "Promethean Board" to be used as a learning tool. Additionally, in every classroom there is 1 teacher and 2 para-educators and the class sizes are anywhere between 6 and 10 students -- in the other school program, it's 1 teacher and 1 para-educator for upwards of 12 students. There are more opportunities for hands-on work. There is always speech pathologists and occupational therapists on-site.

But something else disturbs me about this school. It is an academic program so they wouldn't fall behind and would meet the minimal criteria to pass each grade level, but academics is not necessarily the emphasis in the classroom. They work on behavior modification and life skills as well. This really isn't the case at the other learning center. At the school-based learning center, there is a far more academic focus.

My children are very intelligent. They prove it to me over and over again. They are manipulative, endearing, challenging, and autistic. They surprise us nearly daily with the many things that they can do. I want to push them to be all they can be. I know that seems strange to say when we're talking about kindergarten programs, but because of the issues they will face as their academic careers advance, they NEED a program that will push them now so that they can face the challenges that lie ahead.

I truly believe, sitting in this chair this evening, that both of my children belong at our home-school's learning center. And Dad agrees with me, not because I told him to but because this is the conclusion that he reached based on visiting these programs. They should be placed there because I believe this program will challenge them but is still restrictive enough to address their many needs. And by being in an academic environment alongside typically developing peers, it will give them the opportunity to learn to successfully interact with them. Because when they leave elementary school after completing 5th grade, if they are going to continue in an academic program, they will need to do so in a mainstream setting, unless things change before then. I also want this to happen for more selfish reasons. If this does occur, all 3 of my children will be in the same school. Ballerina and Music Man will be back together, just as twins SHOULD be (in my opinion).

I hope that the team of teachers and educators agree with us. I welcome discussion because that will most often lead to making the best decision for the kids. But, in this case, I want us to start on the same page. What a success story this would be!

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