This is Simon's last week of school. A year ago, we were wondering what this year would look like, not crazy about the idea of him landing in the over-crowded public middle school. As I wrote last year, we decided to put him in a growing private school that generally caters to kids with learning differences. Again, the concern was that he'd get lost in such a huge school at a time when we're trying to figure out what the best way for him to learn is. We didn't feel good about taking him out of public schools, because I really believe in them as an institution, but we didn't feel like we had much of a choice.
A year later, the results are mixed, at best. On the positive side, this was an enormous social opportunity for him. Autism tends to cause you to overlook some differences in people, and I think that made it a lot easier for him to make friends. He had a "BFF" within the first week. On the negative side, the academics were, uh, not ideal. Their intention is to meet kids "where they are," but the problem in this case is that they didn't really have an objectively serious way of evaluating where he was. They said they evaluated him early on, but if they did, there was no transparency. If that weren't enough, grades were arbitrary, and more or less all A's. If we observed him struggling with homework, how is he doing work perfectly in school? They spent like two weeks messing with Rubik's Cubes as "math." The material he was learning was a lot of repeat stuff from fifth grade, and so we're concerned that he's a year behind.
It became apparent to us by the holidays that the school emphasized accommodation over accountability. The goal seemed to be to keep the kids happy, and by extension their parents. Our struggle at home was already trying to balance accommodation with accountability, and frankly they were making that even harder. If I could generalize about Simon's greatest challenge, it's that anything that makes him uncomfortable causes struggle. Whether it's preparing some food item for the first time, or learning a new math concept, or having to understand a word problem, he goes from zero to freak out pretty quickly. I'm sure we're responsible for reinforcing that pattern to some degree, but school seemed to make it worse.
This was causing a fair amount of despair for us. It was a little of "what have we done" and a little "what do we do now" despair. Over the course of the last four months, some things started to come into focus that brought us clarity. The first is that a new middle school is opening up near us, which will relieve pressure on the old one. The down side is that new buildings tend to lack the fun electives and organizations that kids can get involved in, and no matter what they say, we know from three different elementary schools that new buildings never have enough in the way of ESE support. Then his previous elementary principal got transferred to the old middle school, and we saw an opportunity there. We talked with her and went through the process of getting him assigned to the old school, and despite a denial of our request, made the case on appeal and got it done with the endorsement of both principals. So he'll have a familiar face there, and it happens to be one that understands what he needs.
The IEP process is still somewhat challenging, but at the very least we'll have autism and anxiety called out on it, which will entitle him to certain kinds of services. And for all of my concerns about school crowding, at least I know that the public schools have specific curriculum targets and will measure his progress appropriately. I think this is a critical time for him to either like or hate school. I know it will be hard socially (trying not to project my own experience there), but getting to take a video production class or something technology oriented will be a big deal for him. He will have those opportunities. I am convinced through non-academic activity that he's a smart kid, and it's my hope that we can unlock that with the right approach for learning. To help him catch up, Diana is going to work with him over the summer using online resources.
Also, he's half way to graduation, which is unreal.
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