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The Journey Out of Not-So-Special Education

This blog post was written by Emma Margraf, a foster parent and advocate

My first parent teacher conference was two and a half years ago, at a public junior high across town from my house. Jane is my teenage foster daughter, and she had been placed at my house for a couple of weeks, and I had no idea what I was getting into. Jane had never learned most of what she was supposed to; after ten years with neglectful parents and three years and 7 placements in foster care she didn’t know how to count money, measure time, or do her multiplication tables. She was in the resource room all day with all of the other children they didn’t know what to do with. I knew so little – but it was surprising to me because my first experience with Jane something they didn’t seem to see — hearing her recount every plot point in the Twilight series and falling in love with the movie Wall E. Say what you like about the vampire novels, but this version of her seemed so incongruous with the one I saw at school, where the only concerns they had were for her discipline. The conversation was about all of the things they were asking her not to do – and there was a very long list.

Over the course of the next six months she got suspended more times than I can recount; some of the suspensions meant she was sent home, and some were in school. When she got suspended in school she was set down in a room by herself and allowed to read Harry Potter books – her very favorite thing—all day. What seemed obvious to me – that whenever she was lost in uncertainty she did something disruptive so she could go read books – was not so clear to them.

A few weeks after my first parent teacher conference I asked Jane what she wanted most in her life. She said that she wanted out of special education, and she wanted to get off of medication. When I started bringing these goals up with teachers, principals, and school psychologists I got the same reaction from all of them – a mix of pity and condescension. They knew it was hard to see a child with so many limitations, and it was hard, they knew. But medication was complicated, you see, and there were these test scores to prove that she was exactly where she was supposed to be. And my favorite response: we could test her again, but we know what the outcome will be already.

The thing is, I ask questions until I get an answer that seems to make sense. It’s my nature. I kept asking why she was on these medications, and no one knew for sure. I kept asking what they were doing for her, and no one had a way to evaluate that. I kept asking what progress she could make academically and how we could go about that, and they said she would likely never learn her multiplication tables and that she didn’t need to. None of this made any sense to me – in my regular every day life multiplication tables are the one form of math I need constantly – to be a person in the world. They said she couldn’t learn.

Meanwhile, I was teaching her. I taught her to measure time and count money. I signed her up for private swim lessons and within three months her teacher said she was skilled enough to pass the swim test at camp and survive if she fell off of a boat (my father is a sailor, this has always been his measurement of swimming education success). She learned to manage her own schedule and get herself on the bus in the morning. At school, I couldn’t figure out what, if anything, they were doing. They didn’t give her homework, and she seemed to have free unsupervised time on a regular basis where she would get online and instant message me.

I emailed her teacher/special education case manager one day in total exasperation, asking him to give Jane some positive reasons to participate. He wrote back saying that he does say positive things to her everyday – but couldn’t provide any examples right then. What he could provide was a list of the negative things he needed me to support them on today. I remember the day I got that email very clearly – it was the straw that broke my back and all I could think was “This. Is. Impossible.”

So I started looking into private schools. I asked a lot of people a lot of questions. On the suggestion of a friend of the family I found an alternative school in a rural part of town in a beautiful old building with thirteen kids in the class she’d be in and an arts program that was integrated into the rest of the curriculum. When we pulled up in front of the school for a visit Jane said, “I can go to school here?”

She could, and she did. She had an amazing year there. She learned about buoyancy and displacement, built contraptions that conducted electric current, and memorized 68 lines of Shakespeare for the class play. She went on a class trip that included hiking in the Grand Canyon and a visit to the missions of Santa Barbara. When she called me from California the first thing she said was: “Mom, do you KNOW how FUN it is to swim in the ocean?!”

After the year ended, the options for private school seemed too limited, and so Jane followed many members of her class to the local public high school. Early on we discovered that she had jumped seven grade levels in reading in the last year. (When I mentioned this to her teacher from the private school he kind of cocked his head to one side and said, “Huh. I’m not really sure what that means, but it sounds great.”) She tested out of two of the three areas of her Independent Education Plan. This was phenomenal, I thought. If she can do that in a year, what else could she do?

I really should know better. In the first conference to set up her high school schedule, they told me that community college would be a great option for her, or maybe a vocational program? I said, “She’s in the 9th grade. Let’s not make that decision today. If she isn’t able to go to a four year school, that’s ok, but we’re going to give her the opportunity to try.”

And so I’m in another year of struggle. Conversations that were easy last year are like rolling a giant rock up a mountain. I switched her out of the English class that is designed to instill a love of reading – that goal has been met. I’m trying to get her out of a health class that’s not teaching her to be healthy. I took her to see the Picasso exhibit in Seattle and when she told her teachers about it they just shrugged their shoulders – a moment that was upsetting to me only because she’d been inspired by her day at the museum, listening to the audio commentary, picking out her favorite piece, and deciding that maybe Picasso was a little too moody for her.

Her teacher from last year came to the house last month for a party we had. He asked Jane and some of the other kids about school, and they said they were reading a Steinbeck novel and that it was boring. “Boring?” he asked. “You can say a lot about that story, but it’s not boring!” And then he drew them into a conversation about it, and within five minutes, their attitude was totally turned around – talking about Steinbeck became fun.

There are so many fights. Everyone one is digging in their heels: schools are great or they are hopeless. The problem is poverty, class sizes, teacher salaries, standardized testing… whatever it is, whoever is speaking insists that the problem they’ve identified is the one that needs to be fixed first. In the meantime, the clock is ticking on my child’s life and education, and I feel this incredible pressure, every day, to give her the help she’s asking me for. All I want is that five minutes where the conversation turns around and becomes what it could be, a discussion that’s fun to have.

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Parent-teacher dialogue, from a foster parent's point of view

This post was written by Emma Margraf, a foster parent and advocate.

I am a foster parent to a teenage girl who goes to public school. I’ve had her for two years, and in the time I’ve had her I have attended what feels like approximately 9 million parent teacher conferences, school meetings, back to school nights, etc. I have the access code for the online system where you can see what classes your kid has been late to and what assignments they’ve missed. I supervise homework time and answer the questions I can and challenge her with extra books and encourage her to ask for extra credit, extra help, and extra time.

The other day I read something by Kelly Munn, LEV’s State Field Director, that really struck home with me–in a post she wrote called the Blame Game. Why, in the education world, is everyone having a monologue with themselves? I, like Kelly, am that parent in the video satirizing parent teacher conferences. I give. That’s totally me. I’m sure a number of teachers dread my presence and hate my emails. That reaction – the one where you go on a tirade of all of the reasons why your child can’t do this, is a human response the veritable brick wall you run into when you go into a school and say: this isn’t working. A partnership is possible.

Now here’s where I am tempted to say something completely silly, like some of my best friends are teachers. They are. I believe they deserve higher pay, smaller class sizes, and extra breaks. My step-father is a college professor, my mother is a retired elementary school teacher, and for years I kept in touch with my high school English teacher who, when she discovered I’d already read Macbeth several times gave me leave from class and assigned me Julius Ceasar and Romeo and Juliet, without any intervention from my parents. Mrs. Barnett taught me to write. Her method is the one I’m still using in this article, except I buried my thesis at the end of the second paragraph.

I’m often told that teachers have 140 students, and that if they allowed for the concerns of every student they’d never get anywhere. And yet: concessions are made all of the time. Kids leave class for sports events and get make up time, kids leave sex ed because their parents have moral quandaries, kids do alternative biology assignments because their family doesn’t agree that evolution was how we ended up here. How is that different than when I ask for my child to be let out of a unit on mental health issues because of her background? How is that different than when I ask teachers to let her do extra credit to make up for an area where she’s deficient as a result of previous negligence? These are just two of my current concerns, on which I am in the middle of my 5,000th email. Partnerships are possible.

In the comments to Kelly’s post, there were some great responses, and one of them asked why we can’t get syllabi at the beginning of the year. That was a great suggestion. If assignments were available ahead of time then we’d know what we were dealing with. Technology has become fairly advanced, why can’t we plug in the assignments ahead of time instead of the missed assignments after the fact?

What if parent teacher conferences were actually student centered? What if they started and ended with the student expressing their concerns about the particular class, and making a suggestion for what they think they can do to improve their work? What if that conversation between my child and my child’s teacher was really only witnessed by me, and driven by my child? I’m not sure about all of you, but in that scenario, if mine felt heard, she’d pay a lot more attention. It wouldn’t have to be a long conference; it’s the quality of the conversation that matters, and if she heard something other than follow the rules or else, she would listen.

I understand the argument about teaching children to survive in a big world. However, if something isn’t working it isn’t working, and my kid needs to see that there are solutions to problems that seem insurmountable, because there always, always are. Conversations have been a prized tool for answering the profound questions of the world for thousands of years. Let’s have a conversation to see if we can figure this one out.

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