Not All Back-to-Schools Created Equal

For two of my three sons, back-to-school time is exceedingly pleasant and is a near-replica of the squeaky, shiny ads that proliferate your newsfeed and television and mailbox this time of year—new outfits, backpacks, and lunchboxes, school supplies, a return to routine, and a few obligatory jitters.

IMG_2419But for one of my sons, who has both epilepsy and ADHD, it is nothing short of terror.  And I am not exaggerating, not even a little.

Aside from the details to which we, as his parents, must attend to set him up for success, I just look at him and know, on so many levels, school is different for him.  And try as we might to ensure that his educational experience mirrors that of his peers, that he is afforded precisely the same academic opportunities as the rest of the world, the very nature of how hard we have to work to make that happen says it’s not the same.

And while our son will have new outfits, a new backpack and lunchbox, and all the school supplies he needs, he is also going back with a new prescription, a strict medical order to ensure he is getting adequate nutrition throughout the day, and a new IEP—as well as all the complications and side effects that accompany each of these.

In six days, our sons will pose for their “first-day-of-school” photo on our front steps.  They’ll be smiling—all of them.  And I will be, too—happy for their growth, their progress, for new beginnings and for learning opportunities.

But part of my heart will be heavy because back-to-school should be nothing short of amazing; but for children with special needs and their parents, it is often anything but.

Standing Up for Newport’s Students

Below is a Letter to the Editor in tonight’s edition of our local newspaper, The Newport Daily News.  I wrote this last week shortly after learning our seven-year-old son is a full year behind grade level in reading.

I wrote this letter for one reason only: While our family is fortunate we have the resources, stamina, and expertise to address this unfortunate situation, we know not everyone does.

That our son should not be in this situation is clear.  That we only just learned of the extent of it is concerning.   Yet the more salient questions are How many more of Newport’s students are struggling?  How many are behind a grade level or more?  What tests are used to measure students’ reading comprehension?  What do the scores mean?  How are they reported?  What resources are available to students who are not on grade level?

And, perhaps, for me, the most important: What can I do–as one parent, one individual–to help support all of Newport’s parents and students? 

We’ve all heard the saying, Be the change you wish to see.

There is now no question of where I need to be.

This is not the easiest letter I have ever written, but it is one that desperately  needs to be written—not just on behalf of my son but on behalf of all children enrolled in Newport Public Schools who are not reading on grade level. It pains me because in writing it, I must admit to two things: (1) my child is at present not reading on grade level and should be; and (2) he is most assuredly not the only one.

Just seven days before the conclusion of the academic year my husband and I learned that despite a Personal Literacy Plan being in place for our son, a document that is supposed to ensure the implementation of the interventions necessary to bring a student to grade level, our son had shown barely any discernible growth over the course of the year. At the end of last year, our son had met his benchmarks and was reading on grade level; and at the conclusion of first grade, an entire year later, he was essentially idling at the same point.

He has been in a classroom in Newport Public Schools for the last 180 days and has shown such insignificant growth that, as a parent and  taxpayer, I find myself asking not only why—why has our son’s education seemingly stagnated—but how: How could this happen? And, of course, why  did we not know the severity of the situation until  June?

While this is surely a major and personal concern for our son and our family, it is an issue that should also concern all parents, all  residents of Newport, and all taxpayers. In an era of severely decreased funding  for public schools and rising academic expectations, assessment data that shows a student—any student–not showing growth is alarming.

Research supports and common sense dictates that young students who are not reading on grade level have an increasingly difficult time accessing knowledge. The subjects that inspire and incite the curiosity of  children—science, history, storytelling—remain shrouded behind a complex vocabulary and sentence structure that tragically eludes them. And as they get older, if their deficiencies in reading follow them, it only gets worse.

 Newport Public Schools claims it gets results for its  students and offers an “outstanding” education to all. I am asking all of my fellow Newport parents to take a long, hard look at their child’s current reading scores—today—and ask themselves: “Is our son or daughter receiving the outstanding education promised, the one s/he deserves? Is Newport Public Schools getting results for our child? And, if not, what is the plan to ensure they  do?”

 It is their promise and your child’s right.

A Road of Our Own

As a parent of a child with an IEP, I now can say with full conviction that negotiating the labyrinth of special education services for your child is a test of patience, a battle of wills, and most assuredly not for the weak.

IMG_0458And it’s a paradox in the extreme–because though you know your child is not like everyone else–and you have the paperwork and occasionally the prescriptions to prove it–you want him treated as if he were.  And as you seek out accommodations to help your child be successful, as a parent you are acutely aware that doing so may very likely set him apart.

The path before you is unknown:  Though there have been students with stories similar to your child’s, there is no one exactly like your child.  So, you listen.  You take notes.  And often you take the suggestions of the dedicated professionals whose judgment you have to trust.  They’ve been there before–with someone else’s son or daughter.  You believe they know, that they have the foresight you lack, so you listen–even if the suggestions contradict your own parental instincts.

But there comes a point in a parent of a special education student’s life when you have to silence the advice of the professionals, look into your child’s eyes and heart, and remind yourself that more than anyone you know your child–what he needs at this moment–and that there exists an unassailable connection that gives you the power you may have thought eluded you.

So, you forge a new path for your child–perhaps not the suggested path but the one in your heart and in your mind you believe to be best.

And you hold your breath and hope as you embark on this road less travelled you are doing the right thing.

“That’s What I Have!”

IMG_0911This afternoon my son’s first-grade teacher pulled me aside.  It was obvious there was something important she wanted to share with me.  I joined her in very close proximity and listened carefully to what she said.

In social studies today it came up that someone they were studying had epilepsy.  And without prompting, without a cue, and without missing a beat, Edgar announced–without shame and without fear–“Hey, that’s what I have!”

A simple declaration that for someone with epilepsy is anything but simple.

Edgar is young and may not be completely cognizant of the depth and reach of the stigma that still surrounds epilepsy and the people who live with this condition.  And ten years from now in a similar situation he may not make a similar statement with equal gusto.

But he might . . . because he did today and he was praised for it.

From the moment he was diagnosed, when we have encountered stigma, we have stood up to it, fought against it–vociferously, sometimes in his presence and other times in less overt ways.  I have always known we had to but now I see why.  It is the only hope of bringing out and subsequently banishing judgment and the resulting shame.

Edgar showed his world today there is no shame in having epilepsy.  And maybe his world learned from him.  Tomorrow, though, I suspect he will show the entire world; and something tells me he’s going to be hard to ignore.

This Is My Brother

There is a destiny that makes us brothers,

No one goes his way alone;

All that we send into the lives of others,

Comes back into our own.

–Edwin Markham, Poet

During an event at Oscar and Edgar’s school, Oscar asked if he could read a story he had written to Edgar’s Kindergarten class.

As Oscar took center stage, Edgar jumped up to join him and uttered four words that spoke to the magnitude of his pride: “This is my brother.”

Oscar asked me recently if I thought Edgar loved him–and here it was, a simple sentence that overshadowed every disagreement and squabble, a moment to capture and hold on to, a reflection of who they are and who I hope they always will be.

And This Is Why

Someone asked me recently why I felt the need to pursue my doctorate.  The question was motivated, I believe, by genuine rather than morbid curiosity; and as this blog is an ongoing gift to my sons and this is a question to which they may also want to know the answer, I thought I would answer it here–and the personal statement I wrote in support of my application seems the most apt way to respond.

So, here is my 500-word response to the question:  Why do you feel the need to pursue your doctorate?

To say that I have been on a path that has brought me to this moment is probably an understatement.  Though I received my Bachelor of Science in Education 22 years ago and my Master’s in English 18 years ago, my professional life as a public high school English teacher since 1990 has ensured that my content knowledge and research skills have stayed relevant.  I am in as much awe of my discipline as I was in my late teens and early 20s; however now, two decades later, I bring experience to my work and a perspective that I necessarily lacked long ago.  Further, as the parent of three young sons whom my husband and I adopted as infants, I also bring an increasing and uncompromising awareness to the place adoption holds in our world.  As a literature scholar, I am compelled to examine how adoption functions in literary texts past and present; however, as a freelance writer for Adoptive Families magazine as well as the author of an award-winning blog, I am also acutely aware of how our modern world looks at issues related to adoption as well as adoption itself. 

 

Pernicious mindsets that existed in the past about families that were formed through adoption, about birthparents, about children who were adopted on the surface have seemingly given way to acceptance and inclusion.  However, even the most superficial examination of what passes for humor on Twitter or Facebook or in the latest Hollywood blockbuster reveals that negative attitudes do not merely linger—they pervade.  And despite the laudable work of publications such as Adoptive Families and the strong voices of adoptive parents and their children, adoption in the minds of many is still often relegated to second-best, those whose lives are touched by it viewed as a subgroup—and a marginalized one at that. 

 

Not unlike others who have been consigned to roles of lesser status, adoptive parents and their children are fighting against a tradition—including a staunch literary tradition—that undermines (or in some cases demonizes) the adoption process.  While stopping short of saying that one causes the other, it is not disingenuous to suggest a connection.  Literature reflects societal attitudes, but I would argue that it also helps to create them.  And it is my contention that before true movement can take place, these literary assumptions need to be exposed, confronted, and inverted.  To analyze this aspect of the human condition accurately and with integrity, I need the help of the interdisciplinary approach of Salve Regina University’s Humanities Ph. D. program.

 

Writers are told to write what they know and to write about the issues that inspire them that seem to move few others.  This is what I know; this is what moves me.  As the mother of three sons who came to me through adoption, I am called to do this work—to thwart past and present assumptions from making their way into the future–for my children and for all families touched by adoption.

Is There a Doctor in the House?

Not yet.  But soon there will be.

After surprisingly little reflection, I have made the decision to go back to school to pursue my Ph.D.

I say “surprisingly little” because truly the idea came to me without warning then became nothing short of a compulsion.  I investigated the programs available to and feasible for a full-time mother and full-time teacher, had a moment of angst over the mathematics portion of the GRE, made the necessary inquiries and requests.

And in September 2012 I will begin my first class toward a Doctor of Philosophy in Humanities at Salve Regina University.

My classes will be in the evening five minutes from my home, my work completed after my children go to bed–because even though my pursuit of this degree is inspired by them, I am determined not to have its acquisition take time away from them.

My research will combine my passion for literature with my overarching desire to examine the place adoption has held, currently holds, and will hold in our world–the world in which my children are growing, the world with which they must interact, the world they will inherit.

This research, this degree is for my three sons–a legacy I want to leave for them and for all adoptive families.