I haven’t posted for a while, but I have been writing. I guess you could say life has kind of just gotten in the way lately. Between state fair and our local fair, not to mention back to school and back to work, I’ve just had to cut back on a few things lately, and like it or not, posting is one that I put on the back burner. However, there’s an issue brewing in these parts that I felt I needed to write about last week. It wasn’t resolved yet when it came time to submit my column for the local paper, so I took on part two this week, wondering if it might not be settled before print. I had hoped it would, but negotiations have been stopped tonight, bringing it all back into focus for me yet again. So here I am, late at night, exhausted, but writing because it is the best therapy I can afford, yielding two pieces in one for you, both centering around “The Best Interests of Our Students.”
(Written Sunday, August 17)
I work really hard to keep everything I write here on the positive side of the spectrum, mostly because there are some days which are so incredibly difficult that I need to be able to come back and remember that there are also some very, very good days, but also because it is my hope that my son will someday be reading all about our lives here and I don’t want him, for even a second, to feel like or wonder if he is the cause of frustrations, worries, or difficulties. That wouldn’t be fair. However, there are times that I feel like I simply must speak up. Tonight is one of those nights.
Tonight is the night before the last day of school. I’ve seen quips of glee from some of my mom friends who are literally counting down the hours until they send their children off to school for yet another year. I’ve heard several comments over the last few days in regards to how quickly this last summer seems to have gone and I, too, can hardly believe we really are here already. However, I am not overly excited to be putting my kids on that big, yellow bus in the morning. Don’t get me wrong, it has nothing to do with the bus, or our beloved driver, Mr. Terry. He is beyond any stretch of the imagination, the best! Just ask our kids. Every one of them will tell you so. Nor, is it the dreading of the homework and the hectic school schedules. I figure that’s all part of it.
My hesitation in sending my kids back to school is two-fold. First and foremost, I really, truly enjoy having our children home with me during the summer. I relish the laughter and treasure the late night conversations I get to enjoy with our older kids. And I absolutely melt when the littles wrap their arms around my neck and settle in for a snuggle first thing in the morning, be it with the sunrise or closer to noon. I love having our kids home. And my husband, I actually see him in the summer. He’s a great guy and I truly enjoy spending time with him! We don’t get a lot of that during the school year because he is a junior high/high school principal for a neighboring school district. I’m not complaining, just stating the facts. We just don’t get a lot of family time during the school year and our oldest is on the downhill slide of high school. Our family time days are numbered, and it makes me sad.
Secondly, I’m anxious about the start of this school year. Anxiety hits us all on different levels and for different reasons, but for special needs parents, I believe it hits more often, and quite possibly deeper, and harder. For me, I think this because Ben can’t always tell me what’s going on in his life. He is doing much better and we continue to work on his communication skills so that he can tell us when and what is bothering him, but sometimes it takes literally years before he can piece everything together to tell us about his day. My prayers tonight were full of thanks for my family, our friends, our community – my word, this community and the week we just completed with the Avon Fat Steer Show! We also prayed tonight as we have for the last several nights, for our many friends who are not able to return to their classrooms due to the lack of a contract between District 205 and the GEA resulting in a strike among the teachers. We have many friends impacted by this in terms of their own jobs, but on a more personal level, Ben’s classroom aide will be delayed until the contract is settled. Trust me when I say this, she is phenomenal – right up there with Mr. Terry!! She helps Ben to stay on track, keep focused and learning, all while having fun and meeting the extra needs of all the other kiddos in his class as well.
We are fortunate that our school district is being proactive and doing all they can to meet the student needs during her absence, but even the best case scenario will not be what these kids need. It bothers me that the best interests of our special needs kids, the ones in outlying districts to 205, are not being considered.
An excerpt from an article posted online by The Register Mail (Galesburg) on Friday, August 15, 2014 states:
The newest information out of the teacher contract conflict is the board’s decision to allow all fall sports to practice during the strike. After first denying coaches’ request due to concerns of the legal ramifications as they would apply to the district, Arthur [205 superintendent] explained during a 2 p.m. Friday news conference that “it would be in the best interest of the kids to get them back to practice” and the board will assume any legal implications.
In addition to explaining the board’s decision on athletics, Arthur further clarified the strike’s effect on the Knox-Warren Special Education Cooperative come Monday. The Co-op covers schools in Monmouth-Roseville, Knoxville and Williamsfield among other locations outside of District 205 [including Abingdon-Avon District 276]. Those schools are not striking and will resume classes following summer break on Monday.
The Special Education Co-op is through District 205 and, unless a resolution is struck over the weekend, that team may not be teaching when classes resume in the affected districts Monday.
“Special needs kids are either not going to go to school,” GEA spokesperson Tami Qualls said, “or they will have a substitute.”
Please understand, I am not arguing the value of athletic practices, nor am I looking to start a debate about athletics vs. education, special needs, or anything else. This is my corner of the world and as such, this is where I share my thoughts, plain and simple.
We have children who are athletes. We have spent countless hours on bleachers and en route to various sporting events over the years. We have cheered our kids on while they play and we have cheered on their teammates while our kids sit the bench. We have travelled more miles among Fulton county than I ever knew possible, and for the vast majority, I can honestly say I wouldn’t have rather been anywhere else. Watching our kids work hard and enjoy something so much is truly a blessing whether it be athletics, showing cattle, performing on stage, whatever the “it” is really doesn’t matter.
However, this is our son’s education. While he has grown and developed and come so far in the last couple of years, he still has a ways to go until he catches up with his peers. He needs the extra help of a classroom aide and we have been incredibly blessed with the one who has worked with him for the last year. To see it in print that athletes are allowed to practice because it is in their best interest (as great as that is) in the same article as the explanation that special needs kids are either not going to school or they will have a substitute, gives me a kicked in the gut feeling I’ve not yet experienced.
I have spent many an hour working as a substitute teacher in a handful of different school districts. While I feel I do a good job, and have been told the same, I realize that I am in no way close to what is in the best interest of the students because I am not their teacher. I know our son will be cared for and looked after because I know his teacher. His principal has been proactive about making sure he and his classmates are taken care of by hiring a substitute for the classroom aide. I know the substitute will do everything in her power to assist the teacher and make this first week the best it possibly can be without their aide. I know this because I am that sub. Yet, I know that I am not in their best interest. I am a sub. I will do my best, all the while praying that a contract settlement will come quickly so we can all get back to the best interests of all of our kids.
And Part Two (written Sunday, August 24)
Last week, I wrote about how the lack of a contract between District 205 and GEA impacts us and our son. I’ve tried to think positive thoughts and have said many a prayer, whispered many a plea for all of this to be resolved so that Ben’s classroom aide may return to Avon and assist the kids in first grade.
To recap, many of our special ed staff comes to Abingdon-Avon through the Knox-Warren Special Ed Co-op. Their contracts are done with District 205 in Galesburg, so until a contract is accepted and the strike is lifted, special needs students in outlying districts are not receiving the services they need, despite what their Individualized Education Plans include. Classroom aides, one-on-one aides, speech therapists, none of them can go to work in outlying districts because there is no current contract between the two entities. Thankfully, our district was proactive and hired substitutes to assist until the strike is over.
An article posted on Friday August 15, stated that the board had decided to allow “all fall sports to practice during the strike. After first denying coaches’ request due to concerns of the legal ramifications as they would apply to the district, Arthur [205 superintendent] explained during a 2 p.m. Friday news conference that ‘it would be in the best interest of the kids to get them back to practice’ and the board will assume any legal implications.”
The same article quoted Tami Qualls, representative of the teachers union, GEA, as saying, “Special needs kids are either not going to go to school, or they will have a substitute.”
Again, thankfully, Abingdon-Avon has hired substitutes to fill in the gaps as best we can.
There was a meeting last Tuesday in which it was hoped that a new contract would be agreed upon. That meeting went into the early hours of Wednesday morning, broke for the night and then resumed again for another long day late Wednesday morning. After more hours than I can imagine doing just about anything, the meeting was called to an end, yet again without a contract. No resolution. No Mrs. Norris returning. My heart sank for these kids I’m doing my best to serve.
I’m so thankful that I was asked to be her substitute and so thankful that I am able to do this job. I absolutely love these kids. They are a bright spot on the darkest the day. They bring me laughter over the simplest things, and their smiles and hugs just melt me. And I get to spend the day with my son, helping him to stay focused, helping him to work through sensory issues, helping him to reset his proprioceptive system when the chaos gets to be too much for him to handle, and being there when he needs a hug, a smile, or a squeeze. It really just doesn’t get much better than that. I have had more eye contact with him over the last week than the last month, and I’m hearing, “Mom, I love you,” at home with more frequency, as well. I’m seeing him in his world in a way that I have never been able to up to this point, and it is amazing.
He laughs with his entire body. I’ve always known that, but now I get to see that others around him notice it as well, and I get to see that no one else can hold back a giggle any easier than I can when he busts a gut. I’ve been able to see him excitedly share his drawings and favorite books with his classmates, welcoming them into his world. I held my breath the first time I witnessed such a thing as I worried they may laugh because Blue’s Clues, The Wiggles, and Spot aren’t necessarily at the top of the charts for most first graders these days, but I also got to witness the acceptance and the genuine pride that they share with him over his creations. I’ve heard them encourage him and compliment him. And yes, I’ve let a few sighs sneak out along the way as I dry a tear or two from my eyes. These are wonderful kids. I dread the day that societal norms catch up with them and they no longer find joy in his excitement. For now, I am enjoying every moment I can possibly absorb.
However, I have also seen him struggle in ways that I haven’t been privy to up to now. I’ve always known that communications and social situations can be very difficult for the vast majority of people on the spectrum. This is true for Ben. It takes a very patient teacher and equally patient classmates to wait upwards of a minute or more for Ben to understand a question and then process the answer, all of which his peers could rattle off in a millisecond. It takes an incredible amount of work for Ben to be able to stay at his desk and focus on work that is being done at the board, and zeroing in on a very specific part of a larger, very full picture, is nearly impossible. But we had some moments of the impossible being conquered last week. It was hard work for him and for me. It is difficult to see your child struggle with anything, but I think it’s especially difficult to watch him struggle and not have a clue as to how to help him. I may be the “expert” on Ben, or so I’ve been told by more people than I can count, but I am not a trained professional in meeting the educational needs of a child on the spectrum. Knowing he needs help is one thing. We have known that for years. But knowing he needs help and not even knowing where to begin to give him that help is heartbreaking. Knowing that the one who knows, wants to come to work and wants just as desperately to help him as he needs her to come help, and knowing that she cannot do that because two groups have refused to put their heads together and come to an agreement in the best interest of all the students is completely disheartening.
And so we wait. We prepare for another week of school with mom as the classroom aide instead of Mrs. Norris. We pray another night for Mrs. Norris to be able to come back to work. And because we aren’t athletes, we continue to wait for the best interest of our students to be served.