An Absence of Compassion In the Face of Change

Robinson Wardynski

This is a hard post to write, and frankly, I’ve been struggling with it for days. While all of my posts hit close to home, this one actually hits it square on.

Endless Changes

I’ve written about the changes to my boy’s classroom before. This past year has been insanely difficult for him. As I’ve shared with the board and the superintendent, there hasn’t been a single month out of the nine during the 2011-2012 school year when his classroom was stable.

He’s had to survive:

  • 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 during the year.
  • 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.
  • Two Complete Turn Overs in Instructional Assistants: Children on the spectrum need additional help to focus on the goals of the class. One teacher cannot manage six students on her own. It simply cannot be done. Trying to teach a child on the spectrum is similar to trying to teach a typical child who is watching Spongebob on the television behind you with the volume turned to 11. Occasionally something might get through, but it will be rare. These aides are the ones who re-direct and re-focus a student’s attention back toward the teacher. They’re the ones who keep the children from running off to play. They’re the ones who help a child make it to a restroom and back. Without these aides, an appropriate education would be impossible. The boy started with several temporary aides; this was narrowed down to primarily two aides after the classrooms were split. He worked well with both of them until February when they were moved out of the classroom and replaced with three others. This shift cost the boy nearly two weeks of effective work during the second half of the year. Of these three new aides, only one was still employed by the end of the year in May.

Every single one of these changes was the direct result of the board’s approval of the superintendent’s decisions.

In short, it’s been an impossible year for him. You see, children on the spectrum don’t respond well to change. Often times the smallest alteration of expectation causes meltdowns of a Three Mile Island (or Chernobyl for younger readers) scale.

Dealing With Changes On The Spectrum

Based on his reactions alone, here’s what I imagine changes like these must be like for my boy:

Imagine waking from a fitful sleep with the comforter tangled around you obstructing your movement, but holding you safely keeping you warm on a cool night. Something woke you, but you’re not sure what. In fact, it’s so dark in your room that you’re not real sure that you are actually awake. The power, as it is wont to do in south Huntsville, is out again. There’s no light from the clock to let you see. There’s no sound from the fan above. Just stillness. Just silence. You struggle to free yourself from the comforter to check on your family. Searching for the carpet with your bare toes, you feel something slither under them, coiling, ready to strike.

This is what I think my boy experiences at school when he’s shocked by yet another change in personnel helping him through his educational routine. There’s nothing appropriate about this for him, and it’s miraculous when despite these surprises he manages to unwrap himself from his comforter.

If your response to change was this difficult, how likely is it that you would be willing to unwrap yourself from your comforter to venture into the dark world outside?

Not very damned likely, is it?

Surviving The Changes

And yet, my boy did because of a brilliant, wonderful, dedicated teacher named Mrs. Niki Bowling waiting in the room to guide him through the horrors.

And now, on top of all the other horrors he’s had to brave, even his guide has been taken away from him.

For some inexplicable reason, Niki was ordered to leave Challenger Elementary where she’s successfully taught for seven years, leading dozens of children through the minefield of change awaiting them because of their autism and move to Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary at the end of the school year.

After receiving a “friendly” visit by Mr. Al Lankford, who is in no way intimidating, she was told that she would not be returning to Challenger to work with my son and the five other kids in his resource classroom.

She didn’t want to leave. Her parents didn’t want her to leave. Her students didn’t want her to leave. For some unknown reason, the superintendent decided that it was time to disrupt my son’s classroom experience yet again as he was scheduled to return to her resource classroom again next year.

As she was given no voice in the matter, she has decided to leave this district. She is now happily employed as a Special Education teacher elsewhere in Northern Alabama.

Board and Superintendent Ignore Parents Again

Along with another parent from the class, I spoke of this last Tuesday night at the board meeting on July 10th.

I’m sure it will come as no surprise to you that I received no response of any kind from the board, or from any of the district employees who are implementing the superintendent’s decisions to disrupt my son’s classroom experience.

Not one word.

And yet they had the better part of an hour and a half to listen to reports on the cleaning up of network closets.

Our board cares more about the condition of a closet of networking switches than they do about creating an appropriate educational environment for students.

Pictures Scream the Truth

While I was speaking, I risked intimidating the board by showing them two pictures of my boy. You see, one of the difficult parts of having a child on the spectrum is that it’s extremely difficult to get a good picture. For a child who finds making eye contact difficult, making eye contact with a camera lens is rather pointless.

As a result, most of our pictures of the boy are similar to this:

Two Boys

Not a bad shot considering I suck as a photographer, but it leaves the viewer with the impression that the boy just isn’t quite there. He’s somewhere else, wrapped in his comforter, avoiding the scary outside world.

I’ve mentioned how fantastic Mrs. Bowling was as a teacher. Now let me show you. Despite the insane changes her classroom faced this year, she taught, she loved each of the kids as if they were her own.

She fought for them. Every day. She taught them to laugh, to play, to read, to go potty, to add, to sort, to interact, and to talk. Every day.

And this was the result:

Two Boys

This is easily one of the best pictures I have of my son. He’s happy. He’s engaged. He’s there.

And it’s entirely thanks to the love and dedication shown to him by the wonderful teacher on his right.

It’s true that pictures speak volumes. This one certainly does.

It screams that our superintendent and our board have an absence of compassion for the children under their care.

It screams that they would rather that dedicated, amazing teachers, like Mrs. Bowling, simply pack their bags and go elsewhere.

At the meeting on July 10th, the board of education approved the resignation of Mrs. Niki Bowling from the employment of Huntsville City Schools. On that same night ten other teachers also resigned. August 20th is going to be a terrible day for my son.

Our district is dying before our eyes. Our children are suffering.

And all our board and superintendent want to talk about are computers with batteries that will supposedly last thirteen and a half hours.

Goodbye Mrs. Bowling, our family will miss you and the light you brought into our boy’s eyes.

"Children see magic because they look for it." --Christopher Moore, Lamb: The Gospel according to Biff, Jesus' childhood pal.


  1. And we shall see how Dr. W feels about change as each election year replaces one or two of his minions.

  2. I’m sad that this is happening to you and others in the district. What will it take to wake these yahoos up?! I didn’t think it was possible for the district to get worse (at the administration level).

    1. Voting them all out of office might be a good start. With one exception, this is the same board you were dealing with.

  3. Heartbreaking: Huntsville City Schools doesn’t have to be like this.This isn’t a story about fate or bad luck; it is a story about choices. We’ve left poor decisions behind, and we are now seeing what evil is.

  4. “Our district is dying before our eyes. Our children are suffering.

    And all our board and superintendent want to talk about are computers with batteries that will supposedly last thirteen and a half hours.”

    This about sums it up. The sad thing is, the majority of the people don’t know what the heck is happening, and won’t know until it’s too late.

    Check this out when you get a chance http://occupyamerica.crooksandliars.com/diane-sweet/deaths-bain-capitals-troubled-teen-cen

  5. Corporations are people. Without the people, who pays the corporate taxes? Who files the employment paperwork? Who sets the costs for its goods and services? Who ensures compliance with the myriad rules and regulations imposed on them? If a corporation is sued, do you take the building to court? No, you take the CEO or President. Yes, corporations are definitely people.

      1. Guess you need to believe it. Ex-Vivendi CEO Jean-Marie Messier – prison for misappropriation of company funds. Ex-Glock CEO Paul Jannuzzo – prison for stealing a pistol and conspiring with another former executive to skim millions from the international gun manufacturer. Ex-Industrial Enterprises of America Inc. CEO James W. Margulies – prison for $110 million stock fraud. All corporations and a the PERSON went to prison.

          1. Are you that thickheaded that you miss the point of what I said? Corporations are people when acting in that capacity. People aren’t corporations. Groups of people comprise a corporation. Before they are corporations, they are small businesses. Before that, entrepreneurs. But, don’t worry, your boy in the White House is working hard to kill every level of productive society.

            1. Hey guys, I like a spirited discussion as much as anyone, but what exactly does this have to do with the topic of the post? Is there a connection that I’m not seeing?

              Also, let’s do our best to express ourselves without resorting to ad hominem attacks.


  6. All I can do is cry while reading your post.
    What a beautiful picture of a child and his teacher.
    I can’t imagine your outrage.
    All this running a school district like a business and “corporaphilia” looks at children as if they are products to be manufactured and that we must make the most profit with the least resources. Products don’t have socio-emotional needs; they don’t need to be nurtured, and they, most certainly, don’t have special needs. It’s not efficient to love. It’s not efficient to teach. We need to just realize this and get over it. However, while it is not efficient to love and to teach, it is beneficial– to those both giving and receiving and, in the long-run, to the entire community. Yes, we need to be smart with spending our money. Yes, we need to tighten up fiscal accountability, but we need to do this so we can nurture our children. Then, and only then, can they learn. By the way, not only does common sense and experience support this, but research indicates that teachers-student relationships are one of the greatest factors in achievement. And, what the school board is failing to recognize is that in a relationship, people are not simply interchangeable (like gears in a machine).

    1. Thanks, CA. Yes, the “we’re going to run this like a business” mentality that Dr. Robinson constantly pushes is killing our schools.

      Thanks for your kind words about my boy. Yes, it’s infuriating, but it’s also happening to hundreds of students all over the district. As I commented below, good teachers are leaving in droves, and that’s hurting everyone.

  7. Russ, I am SO sorry this is happening. I pray that Ms. Bowling’s relationship with your son has left a lasting influence that will help him navigate.

    Please pass on whatever information you have about school board candidates – especially where and when citizens might have a chance to meet or hear them speak.

    1. That would be useful information to have, wouldn’t it, Ms. B? Unfortunately, I’m not aware of any scheduled “meet and greets” for the candidates. I’ll ask around to see what I can find out.

      I consider Pat King (who is running for District 1) a friend, and I think she would be an excellent board member. As I posted on Facebook not long ago, the highest praise I can offer her is that she will ask questions and listen to the answers before she makes up her mind. While I find her likable, I cannot say the same thing about her opponent Laurie McCaulley. I have often been left with the impression that Mrs. McCaulley has made up her mind about decisions long before any questions have been raised about the decision in question. While she certainly did vote against Dr. Wardynski’s hiring, she has been supportive of his decisions since.

      I’ve met Carlos Matthews a few times at board meetings. I’ve also had a few discussions with him on Facebook. Those haven’t always gone well, but I think he has good intentions. To my knowledge, I haven’t met his opponent Mike Culbreath. My primary concern about Mr. Culbreath is simply based on his current career choice. Having a current real estate developer as a member of the school board strikes me as a fairly clear conflict of interest that absolutely must be clearly addressed before the election next month. (I don’t know that there would be a problem there, but it is certainly a question that he should be asked.)

      I’ll ask around to see if I can find any additional information on times when the four will be in the public. Unfortunately, my district’s seat isn’t up for election until 2014, so I can’t actually vote for any of those running this year.

      Thanks for the kind words about the boy. We’re going to see this through. The troubling thing about what happened to Mrs. Bowling isn’t that it directly impacts my boy, but rather that the same thing is impacting hundreds of students all over the district right now.

      Great teachers are leaving in droves.

  8. I was just perusing the Huntsville City Schools website. I found a bid invitation for the following temporary personnel positions. Am I correct in thinking that this means that these positions will be filled by temp agencies? That the people who will work intimately with our children, who often can’t speak up for themselves, will have been hired because of a lowest bid? Will we have information about their credentials? Background checks? When will teachers be included on this list? Counselors?
    Please tell me that I’m wrong here.

    1.Occupational Therapists
    2. Physical Therapists
    3. Instructional Assistants
    4. School Resource Officers
    5. Media Lab Technicians
    6. Child Nutrition Program Laborers
    7. Custodians
    8. Secretaries
    9. Data Entry / Clerks / Typists
    10. Bookkeepers
    11. Maintenance Generalists

    1. Yes these are people who are working with out kids. While they do pass background checks, they do not really have any credentials to speak of. Or at least for the most part. Yes, we’re using temporary agencies to hire people to work with our kids.

      1. Thanks for clarifying that. It certainly speaks volumes about the superintendent’s priorities and the Board’s inability to represent the interests of the people who elected them as well as your son’s, and others’, experiences this past year.

        1. “Thanks for clarifying that. It certainly speaks volumes about the superintendent’s priorities and the Board’s inability to represent the interests of the people who elected them”

          This is the problem.
          What is the solution?

          1. I wish I knew. The board has to go. They don’t hire anyone, they don’t read anything, they don’t ask questions, they overpaid themselves and then most of them didn’t want to pay it back… how could anyone be worse? No one can afford to run and not win. No one with good sense wants to be crucified by the public and misquoted in the media. Dr. War is running at full speed through his “pro-business/chamber of commerce” agenda that looks good with slick shiny laptops and new buildings but essentially is not/can not be pro-consumer/employee/child. Separation of church and state? How about separation of public and private sectors? I am just guessing in the dark at the absurdity of our board’s inaction and automatic approval of everything. Who bought them off?

            1. This just occurred to me: Dr. War. has the full support of the chamber of commerce. He was their first choice… very corporaphilia. So, any board member who publicly doesn’t support him and his march toward privatization of the public schools in order to ensure corporate profits instead of working wages with benefits will not have the support of the chamber members in the next election. The chamber will influence the big spenders of election finance to NOT support an incumbent, thereby ensuring a defeat. Perhaps this is the pressure that keeps them silent and has made them “yes” men and women. Just thinking…

              1. “No one can afford to run and not win. No one with good sense wants to be crucified by the public and misquoted in the media.”

                BINGO. And who wins in the end? Not the students, teachers, and taxpayers that’s for sure.

      2. Back to the temp worker contracts – These are the people who were under contract from Onin while Dr. Moore was here (part of the cost-cutting recommendations from the State investigators).This past year they were contracted temporarily through EPSCO, At this point, other companies are bidding to provide these contract workers (I have heard that Appleton Learning is one of the potential bidders). I HOPE this means that the public’s complaints have been heard and the system is responding – however slowly. Two of the big complaints brought to the board repeatedly were concern over background checks and credentials vs. warm bodies.

        1. Yep. Those were my two of my biggest complaints last year (and a big part of the reason that my son’s classroom was constantly being disrupted).

          I hope they are improving in that area and not just looking for an even lower bidder. I’m afraid it will be the latter, though.

  9. Found your blog through Diane Ravitch’s link. The pictures of your son- typical lack of eye contact and then “plugged in” with his teacher say it all. We have a broad superintendent too where I live in Georgia. They seem to purposefully devalue teachers and to be working towards contract work for any positions possible. They are also big fans of non certified teachers. Is your district bringing in TFA hires? That brand of employee will probably replace the very special special Ed teacher your son had. It is a travesty.

  10. Thank you for sharing your heartbreaking story of how beaurocrats are so carelessly hurting our children in this country. Most of us don’t have the hard physical evidence of a photo to clearly illustrate the positive impact one person can have on our children or the devastating impact of self-serving so-called education reformists. If only your photos could be a measure of Mrs. Bowling’s effectiveness rather than standardized test scores…

    1. Thank you Elizabeth, thank you.

      I agree. Teachers should be evaluated, but they must be evaluated on the totality of the work that they do. Standardized testing was developed to evaluate students so that teachers may adjust their pedagogy to address shortcomings. It was never intended as a means of evaluating teachers.

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