Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Part 2: Parent of 2 Special Education Kids

(This blog is a continuation from Part 1: Principal of 1030 Students)

While my morning was focused on supporting all of our #teamUMS students, my afternoon was much, much different.

Almost five years previous, my wife and I adopted wonderful twin girls from Murom, Russia. It was an otherworldly experience, from the very first picture we saw to the very first time we held them in our arms to the first night they spent with us to the plane ride home and every moment leading up to today.

And from the minute we first met them until today, they've improved so much.

Kenna, despite her cerebral palsy, is trying her best to run and be included in as many activities as possible. For a kid who wasn't able to walk or communicate for the first three to four years of her life, the advancement we've seen has been impressive. You won't find a kid who tries as hard as she does to do what most students can easily accomplish.

Molly has developed so far, so fast... despite her sensory concerns, the struggles with focusing on the task at hand, and a few other dozen issues. She's my personal partner in crime and just thrives on personal, individualized attention.

My wife and I wouldn't change a thing about bringing them into our lives. We feel blessed to have them as our daughters.

And while it has been a challenge to best support them through their appointments and services, the biggest struggle has been our collaboration with the local school district. 

In contrast to my experience in the morning where I, as the school principal, worked to best serve a student in need of support, my afternoon was spent in what feels like part 8 of my daughters' IEP. It did not go well.

At Union Middle, I make a strong, sincere effort to give every student whatever they need to be successful. I'm interested, as a site principal, in providing our students extra supports in order to access the general education curriculum and accelerate them to grade level as soon as possible. We have three short years to prepare our students for high school. It goes fast; we can't waste any time.

My daughters' experience has been something different altogether.

The classroom teacher is wonderful. I'd hire her in a second.

Their "learning center" teacher is fantastic. I'd create a job for her if I didn't have an opening.

The principal, a former colleague of mine, is an asset to the school. She gets kids and how to effectively run a school.

Their needed adult supports, however, do not end with these three.

We've battled the school district for over 2 years in our efforts to provide our daughters with the necessary supports to give them a fighting chance to advance to grade level.

Every issue, no matter how minimal, has been a challenge.

I've lost count of how many IEP meetings we've had to address our concerns brought forth from over a year ago. We've spent close to $10k in advocates and private assessments in an effort to show the district what our daughters' need to access their Free Appropriate Public Education. Every step of the way, the district has put roadblocks in the pathway of their educational journey.

They've tried to label them Intellectually Impaired.

They've tried to advance them to first grade despite not meeting the standards of kindergarten.

They've admitted that one of our daughters experienced a "lost year" due to the ineffectiveness of their aide and classroom teacher.

Simply put, they've failed to support my daughters. They've failed to give them the level of care that every educator should have for their students. It's hurtful to see. It's harmful to feel. It's horrendous to experience. Every step has been an unnecessary battle.

During the latest IEP meeting today, the district continued to ignore the reports we've provided and the repeated concerns we've have. At one point, after my wife expressed how disappointing our experience has been, one of the members of the district team looked at another member of their team and gave a wink with an eye roll.

I could not let this go.

How is this ok? Where is the sense of "team" that I experienced this morning at my school where we worked together to best support a student? Why is our daughters' education and our opinions therein being discounted by the behavior of one of the district's employees? Again, I ask... how is this ok?

And so I brought this individual's behaviors to the attention of the team. I made it very clear what they had done, what I had seen, and how it was not ok. Perhaps not unexpectedly, the individual denied what I had seen. While I should have expected a blatant denial of their poor behavior, I was stunned to experience such lies first hand.

Are we not a team to best support the students?

Where is the dedication toward my daughters that my own staff provides for all of our 1030 students?

The meeting continued to fumble toward a non-resolution to best support my daughters. We repeated our concerns brought public in meetings past. Why hasn't the district worked to consider our suggestions? Why is their default a constant "no" when everything we try at Union Middle starts with the phrase "yes"?

I suspect things will get substantially worse before they get better. The "Part 1" of tonight's writings ended with a "we don't give up on kids" -- Sadly, I feel like my local school district has given up on my daughters. It's a horrible feeling to have as a parent about the district I attended as a student, that I received my start in education with, where I furthered my career as an administrator, and where I now live to raise my children.

And it reinforces how hard I have to work as a school principal to make sure that no student, no parent, no family feels the way about their school experience that my wife and I do about our struggles to best support our daughters.

I knew it wasn't going to be easy to have two special education daughters, but I had no idea it would be this hard.

And I didn't know that a school district would be the main reason for our difficulty in adequately supporting them.

Educators: Try and say yes. Support your students. They are someone's son, someone's daughter. Give them what you'd want for your own kids. Every bit of effort you give is recognized and loved.

Part 1: Principal of 1030 students

I have always had a soft spot in my heart for kids who don't fit the mold of your typical middle school student expectation.

My first teaching assignment was a self-contained classroom with students of varying diagnoses. A few students were school-phobic. Other students exhibited oppositional defiance disorder tendencies. I distinctly remember students who were emotionally disturbed, dyslexic, borderline intellectually impaired, or simply uninterested in doing school. My classroom was where expelled students would land.

That said, I think it was the best four and a half years of my professional life. I felt like we were working hard as a team to make middle school for our shared students the best experience possible. Looking back, there are more than a few students from our classroom who continued on to high school and higher education with much success. We truly tried to give our students everything we could to make them feel cared for and to know that we would all be there to support them.

Fast forward to today. Parts 1 and 2.

This morning, I focused on a variety of school issues. My inbox was full with questions, concerns, and action items. As I sifted through, I saw an email with a calendar item to contact a parent this morning via a phone call. This parent had some concerns about the progress of their student thus far this school year.

In the phone conversation with the parent, I spent the majority of the time listening to their concerns. I found myself agreeing with many of their points. Their student is someone I've worked with over the past two years and seen such incredible growth from. I enjoy interacting with this student. I feel like we have a secret, non-verbal language sometimes, one where we can communicate in silly glances and random facial expressions. I see a lot of myself in this student. I want him to be successful. I care.

At the end of the phone call, I informed the parent that I had an idea on how to address some of their concerns. I'm not going to pretend that I had an answer for every action item. I didn't. What I could do is spend my morning focusing on how to best support this student.

So I spoke with our assistant principal about a few of my ideas. She helped refine my out-of-the-box thoughts to something that could actually work for the student. I then reached out to our new mental health therapist; he was completely on board. I sensed that he too shared an instant connection with the student and would be able to greatly assist moving forward. I looped in the 8th grade resource teacher, our school counselor, and eventually the student as well. Everyone was on board with the plan. A short email later to the team (and yes, the team includes the parent) and we had a solid rebooting for the rest of the week to best support the student.

We know it might not be perfect. Everyone on the team agrees that we're going to try a lot of things... and if something doesn't work, we'll adjust and try something different.

The highlight of my morning is two-fold.

The first memorable moment was from the new mental health therapist. He commented (and I'm paraphrasing here): "I haven't seen a principal take the lead before on a student's support plan." My response was very simple: we are a team; everyone needs to support our students, including the principal. Secretly, I appreciated his comments. The work of a principal often goes unrecognized. We often get the emails when something is wrong, but rarely do we get feedback from our school community that recognizes the care we give to each and every student, teacher, and parent.

The second memorable moment was my conversation with the student. It actually wasn't much of a conversation. As stated earlier, we have a non-verbal understanding and high level of trust with one another. The sly smile the student provided when he recognized my efforts to help his school day be a bit better -- that's what I received from him after sharing our plan.

I'm excited to see how the plan works for the student. It may need some refining but we are committed as a team to work with the student, his teachers, and all of the supportive adults involved to keep trying. We don't give up on kids.

And a perfect day would stop there. Unfortunately, part 2 had not yet happened.

Part 2 is available here.

Don't Give Up On Kids

At Union Middle School, we try our best to give every student what they need to be successful.

Our teachers seek out students in need of a parent-teacher-student conference. Our mental health team challenges themselves to find students who may need supports that we're not yet providing. The administrative team repeatedly asks each other "what are we not doing for kids that we could try to do?" 

Essentially, we have built a school community where every individual is responsible for the growth and welfare of every student at our school. We don't have "those" kids or "not my problem" kids -- if you work at Union Middle, you have agreed to try your best to support all of our students, even the ones not necessarily asking for assistance.

This is not to say that we don't make mistakes. We do. We then try our best to fix the problem for the betterment of the student. 

This is not to say that we address every problem or student issue by the end of the day. We can't. Some problems we never find out about despite our best efforts. Some situations we don't find out if our suggested interventions have helped until the students visit us a few years down the road. Regardless, we are committed to try our best to support our kids and our UMS community.

This is not to say that we get it right the first time. No-one is perfect. It is to say that we don't give up on our students and will try to make the learning experience for every student a positive one. 

I realize it can be challenging for an educator to give a bit more when they feel pushed to their professional limit. This happens a lot in education, partly because educators are a noble lot and often over-extend themselves for their students. It doesn't mean that we won't try. 

Two of our new-to-UMS 6th grade teachers are starting a twice-a-week homework help club for 15-20 invite-only students in need of such supports. One of our 8th grade teachers, upon hearing about this 6th grade homework help club, has initiated a similar club but for 8-10 8th grade students in need of extra help. A simple check of #teamUMS on Twitter sees staff attending soccer games, preparing for wrestling practice, and inviting our school community into their classrooms.

Trying to best serve our students is the reason why we show up every single day. If an educator loses sight of their promise to put students first, they've officially lost their way and need to ask for help to rediscover how lucky they are to work with kids every single day. 

To paraphrase a parent from a recent IEP meeting after I asked how their students were adjusting to Union Middle...

"It's really weird for my kids at Union... I asked them, 'what's going on with those kids over there' and they said to me, 'mom, you don't have to worry; they're good kids. It's not like (our last school). Kids here are really good kids. It's not what we're used to... and it's sort of nice.'

No school staff is perfect... but I don't think you'll find a more caring, dedicated staff that our #teamUMS. 

Featured Post

A long road to travel, often alone but never by yourself...

If you asked any Union Middle School staff member what my three favorite things were, I suspect they would respond with the following answer...