Yesterday I went to check out a private school I had recently heard about because I wanted to see if it could be a good fit for some of our kids. While there, I spent time speaking with members of the admissions team and walking around to observe the students with their teachers. During the visit, I asked the staff questions related to their admission criteria, curriculum and testing philosophy, their approach to homework, the social-emotional supports they provide, their disciplinary policies and practices, what enrichment opportunities they offer and much more. I had an idea of what I was looking for and if I liked the school, I would add it as another resource to the TECA 2e Provider Directory. If not, I could check this prospect off my list and go on with my day. For me, personally, it was a pretty low stakes visit.
However, as I headed back to my office, I recalled past visits I have made to other schools where the stakes, for me personally, were much higher – when I was looking for a placement for my son after our local public school suggested they could no longer provide him with the increasing amount of support he needed.
Even though I had completed my assessment of the school yesterday, I was haunted by the visit. I wondered if the parents of all the kids who attended that school left after their visit thinking that they might have finally found a school that could help their child. And then I thought of all the parents who visited that school and left with the realization that this was not the right fit. Or who were later told their child would not be accepted. And that is where I got stuck. Because I have been that parent, feeling scared, alone, frustrated and even ashamed that I had a child for whom I could not find an appropriate school placement. And I remember how I dreaded those school visits.
I would head off on those visits with a stomach churning combination of fear and hope, and questions like: Could this be the right school? Would these people understand my son? Could he make friends here? Will they be calling me everyday?
Usually the visits started off well. The admissions staff would proudly tell me about all of the wonderful things their school was doing for its students, giving me a taste of their “special sauce” – the thing that makes everything so great there. “All of our students are so happy and academically engaged! They make friends, play sports, join band, create amazing works of art, act in school plays, create fantastical science fair projects and get into fabulous colleges because we are so awesome! Yay us!”
Then we would start to talk about my son and his strengths and interests – his advanced vocabulary and math skills, his incredible Lego-building chops and his delightful, quirky sense of humor. But things would take a sharp turn when we got to his many areas of challenge: his ADHD; his speech and language disorders; his difficulty making friends; and his anxiety-fueled behaviors that included work refusal and an explosive temper. When I would get to this point in the conversation, I would say to myself “How did I fool myself into thinking this could be a viable option? These people have NO CLUE about how to help my son.”
That is when the fear and anxiety would quickly seep back in and snuff out any feelings of hope I tried to sustain. I would leave in despair, wondering how the hell we would get our son through elementary school. I could not imagine myself homeschooling – my job at the time was the one thing in my life that felt stabilizing and I knew that I did not have the skills required to effectively educate my gifted son while simultaneously managing his behaviors. So I would swallow my pride, muster up my courage and sign up for yet another school tour.
Finally, we found a spot for him a very small school catering to twice exceptional students. Even then, there were social challenges, lingering anxieties, a few explosive outbursts and frequent phone calls. At least at this school they understood why he behaved this way and they worked collaboratively with us and our son’s doctors to address his issues. They were a part of our team. Eventually, our son began to mature and realized we were all working to support and celebrate him and his strengths and he finally began to enjoy school.
After a few years, he was ready for a new challenge. I still experienced some of the trauma of the first school search process, but it was a lot better. We were finding options that were more appropriate and realistic given the progress he had made over the intervening years. And sure enough, we found a college prep program for kids with learning disabilities that welcomed him with open arms. It has been a great fit for him and now, believe or not, we are about to embark on… The College Search Process!
Thankfully we have learned a lot since those early days of desperately scrambling to find a school program that at the very least would be able to keep our son. Now we have a better understanding of who he is and what he needs. As he has grown up, he has developed his own interests, priorities and coping strategies. It will still require us visiting lots of colleges, asking lots of questions and making sure that there are the right resources available to give him the support he needs. And I am excited that at this point, he is a participating member of the team who can help direct the process.
I was not sure we would ever get to this point. I thought that the education system might chew up and spit out our son, leaving him traumatized and bitter. I am glad we were able to persevere and find alternatives for him. And I hope that as we add more and more resources to the TECA directory, we can help more families around the United States find education solutions that allow their children to thrive.