One of the first things that a parent with an autistic child learns to do is minimize change in the daily routine. Your child on the spectrum teaches you this immediately. For example, just as other families do, when the boy, the girl and I load up to go to school each morning, we always run through a quick checklist to make sure that we haven’t left any homework, library books or lunch boxes. There’s nothing unusual about that. What is unusual is what happens when something slips our list and we have to pull back into the garage after we’ve left. When this happens, all hell breaks loose.
Parents often speak of a meltdown when things don’t go as planned. If your child is expecting to go to see The Muppets, has been planning on it for months thanks to Disney, has her own Kermit doll all ready to take in to the movies, and something comes up, meltdowns follow. Sometimes these can go on for as much as an hour.
Parents of autism speak of meltdowns also. The difference is that with autism the meltdown comes when you have to pull back down the driveway when you forgot a library book that has to be returned. Sometimes these meltdowns ruin the rest of the day.
Change is difficult for those on the spectrum. It may have something to do with a heightened ability to perceive change, but for whatever reason, slight changes often disrupt an entire day. So to function, many families adopt several strategies to help their children adjust. We work hard to lessen the impact of unnecessary changes in his life.
This should be a similar goal for our school system, but those children who cannot speak for themselves are often ignored, warehoused, shuffled, and segregated by those in power for the convenience of the system rather than the benefit of the students.
Two Educational Experiences
Let’s take a look at just two of those kids who have spent an equal amount of time in the Huntsville City School system. It just so happens that they are both my own.
The girl does not have autism. This is entirely typical of those on the spectrum as boys are found on the spectrum about four times as often as girls. She’s in second grade in HCS and has been attending HCS for two and a half years having been in Kindergarten, First and now Second grades.
The boy, as I’ve written often, does have autism. He too has attended HCS for basically two and half years as he began attending schools in pre-school. He’s currently in Kindergarten for the second year as we elected, with his IEP team’s input, to allow him to repeat Kindergarten this year.
Perhaps it would be instructive to see just how many changes have been forced on my boy as compared to my girl during basically the same time period.
- Number of schools attended by the girl in 2.5 years: 1.
- Number of schools attended by the boy in 2.5 years: 2.
The girl has attended just one school for her entire time in public schools (Mt. Gap Elementary–We selected our home based on the school district.). The boy, however has attended two schools, neither of which are Mt. Gap. For preschool he was placed at Farley Elementary. We weren’t happy about this because it meant getting two kids to two schools at the same time in the morning, but after meeting the principal, staff and in particular the boy’s teacher we were convinced that it would be a good environment for him. We were also explicitly told that he would be staying at Farley in order to minimize the disruptions he would face. With this in mind, we decided to take him out of private therapy and place him into the hands of Huntsville City Schools.
It was a good decision on our part. His experiences there brought our withdrawn child out of his shell. For the first time in his life, he would look at us and seek us out. There were no significant changes to his classroom during this year. The teacher he started with, he finished with. The aides he started with he finished with. They developed a close relationship that made his education possible. In this regard, the boy’s pre-k experience was quite similar to the girl’s kindergarten experience: Stable. You know the kind of environment that makes education of any child possible.
At the end of that year, we were actively planning to help him transfer into Kindergarten at Farley. We were working with his Kindergarten teacher, and she participated and assisted regularly in developing the boy’s IEP. What’s more, the boy recognized and liked her. It was going to be a smooth transition. Then at the end of the year, at basically the last possible moment, we were informed that his pre-k teacher had been non-renewed (This is a tragedy as she was a superb teacher. Many have forgotten, but the cuts to Special Education and to all of our teachers in general began in 2010, not just in 2011) and that the boy was being moved to Challenger Elementary as he started Kindergarten.
We were offered no explanation or justification for this transfer. We were also offered no option. There was no mention of the assurance that we were offered. There was no direct communication between those making the decision to move our son and us. We received notice of this second and third hand.
- Number of teachers the girl has had in 2.5 years: 3
- Number of teachers the boy has had in 2.5 years even though he was retained in the same kindergarten class for his third year: 4
The beginning of his Kindergarten year in the fall of 2010 was difficult. Being in a completely new environment with completely new students took a toll on his educational progress during the first half of his Kindergarten experience at Challenger. All of his friends were gone; they stayed behind at Farley. He was in a brand new building. His daily routine was completely different, and he didn’t know any of the teachers he was working with. Simply put, the first half of the year was spent in adjustment to the new setting.
Then his teacher had to leave on an extended maternity leave. Of course this wasn’t anyone’s fault, but basically just as the boy was getting settled into his new environment, his teacher had to leave to be replaced by a permanent substitute. Again we were blessed to have an excellent sub, and thankfully the aides and therapists remained constant. In other words, the boy had to only adjust to the loss of his teacher.
But Christmas break 2010 marked the end of stability in the boy’s educational experience.
Entering 2011 and the Reduction in Force
- Number of significant changes in staffing the girl has faced in the past 12 months: 0
- Number of significant changes in staffing the boy has faced in the past 12 months: 15
The girl has known the principal, secretary, librarian, PE teachers, lunchroom staff and even many of the janitors at her school since she started there in 2009. She’s known most of the children in her grades since 2009 even though they were not all in the same class. The people working with her to help her excel haven’t significantly changed since she started Kindergarten. The girl is a straight A student.
When the boy returned from Christmas to begin 2011, we were faced with a new teacher. In February with the first RIF, the boy’s aides were cut basically in half with a teacher who was just getting to know the kids. This combined with the new environment set him back. All of the teachers he had known, except two, were gone. By the end of the school year, his classroom basically had one sub and two aides. And none of those personnel, at the end of the year were expecting to return to the boy’s classroom the following year even though he was.
The difficulties faced this year were countless.
- Two “New” Teachers: The boy has had what amounts to two new teachers this year. His first teacher returned from maternity leave (thankfully), and he was finally entering into his inclusion classroom on a regular basis.
- A Revolving Door of Aides: While the two aides who finished the year with the boy last year were eventually re-hired, only one of them was placed in his classroom on a regular basis. This was his only significant connection with personnel from the previous year. Then after about a month, this aide was reassigned to another location in the building due to the need to shuffle staff around to cover shortages. Currently he has two aides who began the year with him out of about six who have rotated in and out during that period.
- Three and a half Occupational Therapists: Due to an overwhelming workload, Challenger Elementary has had three OTs in four months. One OT worked for basically one week.
- Two Speech Therapists: Again, due to an overwhelming workload and an unwillingness to pay staff outside of the superintendent’s inner circle, Challenger Elementary has had two STs in four months.
- An Entirely New Class: Because the central office attempted to fund special education on a minimal basis, there was a need after two months to take an Autism teacher from another school in the system, and move her to Challenger. Once there the boy’s existing class that had 11 students in it was split in half. While my boy’s actual room stayed the same, there were at least four classes in the system that were dramatically disrupted because the Superintendent wouldn’t fund the hiring of one additional teacher.
So in summary, the girl has had a stable educational environment for the first three years of her education; although with the planned but undiscussed changes to Mt. Gap in its conversion to a P-8 next year, this is likely to change soon. She is excelling as a result.
The boy’s experience has been anything but stable. In fact, I find it difficult to imagine his last two and a half years (and particularly his last 4 months) being more disconnected, disrupted and disturbed.
This is what comes of cutting the special education budget by seven million dollars. It is this disruption that tells me, without a doubt, that despite the heroic efforts of his teachers and aides, that the boy’s educational program is not being met. There’s no way that it could be with the insane amount of adjustments that he’s been required to make.
All of this so that we can pay Wardynski a salary that’s $55,000 above the minimum that he should be paid based upon his experience. All of this so that we can offer him a $10,000 bonus at the end of a year when teachers’ salaries are set at the state minimum and are frozen at their current level. All of this so that we can offer Spinelli and Cooper competitive salaries that are even above the posted maximum salaries posted. All of this so that Wardynski can have two secretaries, and an aide-de-camp.
Special Education is funding the expansion of the central office, and our children, my boy, is suffering because of it.
I wonder, I truly do, how the trinity at the top and the board who enable all of these changes can sleep at night.
And they continue to refuse to discuss it with parents.