Monday, August 8, 2016

Update: Going the Distance for Inclusion

I am thrilled to update the blog with news of Gwyneth entering public school once again, and this time fully included in a first grade co-taught classroom. Over the past year, we have gone to great lengths to make this happen. Last October, I wrote about my frustration and disappointment that Gwyneth was missing out on a typical Kindergarten experience. We had decided to continue to homeschool, but we were also deciding on making some huge changes in our life as a family.

First, we put our house up for sale. We had been working for months to make improvements on the house and clean it out to be ready for the real estate market. We priced it low. We began looking for areas inside Atlanta to live and send the kids to school. We looked at public and private options. We had heard rumors of a public elementary school that was allowed to practice an inclusion model as a sort of experiment for the district. We weren’t sure about the houses in that neighborhood and kept our search broad at first.

We wanted an overall lifestyle change - being closer to Atlanta meant a much shorter commute for Reid so he could actually be home to see the kids on weekdays. We also wanted to be closer to all the great parks and restaurants and communities and medical professionals and events that Atlanta has to offer.

During our house search, many of the areas we looked at checked off most of the items on our lifestyle list, but the schools were always a big unknown. We looked at schools that were “good” because they had an IB program or high test scores or were in an affluent neighborhood. But would a highly rated school be the best place for Gwyneth? Would they push back on including her just as our previous school had done? There were no guarantees and I expected to have a fight on our hands wherever we ended up. So the rumored inclusion school kept popping up in our minds. After we discovered we had a fourth child on the way - due in mid summer 2016 - we narrowed our search from townhomes to houses with yards. This change made it unlikely that we could afford to live in the affluent, “good” school areas.

In early 2016, our house was sold and we viewed some houses for sale in the area of the inclusion school. I decided to go into the school to get some information. The principal welcomed me into her office and explained that every classroom in the school has two teachers: a general ed teacher and an inclusion teacher for kids with IEPs (aka special ed). Because they practice this co-taught model, the student body is 20% kids with IEPs. They also have 25% in the Gifted program. There are Paraprofessionals in the classroom as well, so the overall adult to child ratio is much lower than the district average.

After meeting the inclusion school principal, I also stopped into the front office of the next nearest elementary school. Rather than getting a warm welcome, this principal spoke to me at the front desk and gave me the generic legal-speak responses to my questions about inclusion. I was told “her placement would depend on what the IEP dictates” several times. I realized that any other school in all of Atlanta would have this same answer. Inclusion is never the beginning for a child like Gwyneth. Before she has set foot into the school, she is labeled and segregated with only the promise of some unattainable situation where she could prove herself worthy of joining a regular classroom. How could she possibly show her capability to learn in a regular classroom if she is not allowed to be there in the first place? It seems like everything is set up backwards.

So we found a beautiful house near the inclusion school, purchased it, settled in, had our baby in June and prepared for school to start in August. I was able to visit the school and see how the inclusive Kindergarten classroom worked. It looked like a wonderful situation for Gwyneth. Her little brother Ryker, being five, was ready for Kindergarten and is already taller than his big sister. So when I registered the two kids I asked for Gwyneth to repeat Kindergarten once again. I was still clinging to my wish that she could have a happy Kindergarten year. But the principal pushed back on placing her in K; she had turned eight years old and the principal made me realize that I was wanting to hold Gwyneth back in the hope that she would be at grade level and not behind. So I’ve had to come to terms again with the fact that Gwyneth will always be behind - academically and physically - the other kids around her. We have settled on placing her in First Grade. Today is the first day of the school year.

The school had an open house last week to meet the teachers. It was an incredible feeling to have each of my school aged kids treated the same. We found their classrooms and their teachers and signed them up to ride the same school bus (other schools have separate buses for special ed kids even if their siblings attend the school). Gwyneth’s general ed teacher was just as interested in meeting her and talking to me about her as the inclusion teacher was. They were both so wonderful. It is such a relief to know that Gwyneth will be spending every minute of her day with the same group of kids because she truly is a member of the class. She will go to Art, Music, P.E. and French with the same kids. She will go to the playground and eat lunch with them. She will finally have the chance to build friendships and maximize her learning. I’m really looking forward to a great school year and many more years to come. Middle school and high school will be challenges to take on in the future, but I believe we will be better equipped to fight for inclusion at those schools with Gwyneth experiencing years of inclusion (and “proving” herself) in elementary school.

Happy back-to-school everyone!

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