Tuesday, May 6, 2008

No joy in Mudville

I have not been doing very well in the stress management department today. I was feeling better by evening, when I went to watch AJ's baseball practice. It was a beautiful evening. The sun was starting to set and the boys were running around and laughing hard. AJ hit a home run. Afterwards, we swung by Mr. Spy's softball game to give him the news of AJ's hit and I ran into a friend whose husband plays on Mr. Spy's team. Her son is in kindergarten at AJ's school and she had some terrible news about what the school board is trying to do for next year. They are laying off people right and left, including one of the two kindergarten teachers who has been there for over ten years. This doesn't mean there are fewer students. This means they are planning on increasing the already large class sizes. For AJ's class, this means they are reducing from four classes to three next year. By my calculations, this will mean there will be either 33 or 34 students in each second grade class. This is up from an average of 20.4 students per class in 2007. The state average is between 21 and 22. Parents are lobbying for smaller classes, but the board is telling them that they will not make a decision about it until August. School starts in August. If they decide to add a class, how exactly is it going to get organized in time?

At this point, we can't afford private school next year, nor, at this late date, is it going to be easy to get into one. I will be writing letters to the board and meeting with the principal. But if things don't change, I don't see how AJ can possibly get what he needs at this school. Maybe I need to be looking into homeschooling for next year. This did not help my stress level. Not at all.

I wish I'd known about all of this sooner. I've been so focused on AJ's issues that I haven't been looking at the big picture.


FreshHell said...

God, that sucks. I'd definitely look into homeschooling. I bet there's an active and thriving network in your area. You don't see them until you start to dig and then you wonder how you missed it. That's kind of how it is here. I have a good friend who will be homeschooling and has friends who do it so she's already hooked into the network. I don't know much about it because they live in the city and it's not really an option for me. Good luck. At the very least, perhaps he continues at his school next year but can join the homeschoolers for certain trips, lessons, etc. I say that though I know nothing about it. I wonder also how many of those kids are as bright as AJ. But, certainly worth investigating.

Jeanne said...

Is homeschooling a good idea for a kid who mourns the end of the school year because it means he won't see his friends? I know there are networks, but at least around here, they're fairly small and insular. Also around here it tends to be fanatical Christians who homeschool their kids, so not necessarily the kind of socialization I'd be looking for. All of my friends who are getting their gifted kids through public school believe that there's a lot more learning to do than what the school assigns, and that if you can keep your kid from being too bored during school hours, you can fix the rest.

FreshHell said...

Jeanne, I almost included a comment about religion but took it out. In the Richmond VA area, the homeschooling folks I know about tend to not be doing it for religious reasons at all (though those groups exist) but because the city schools are awful and they want to live in the city, just not put their kids there. You do bring up a good point about AJ mourning the end of school. My daughter does too and frankly, I don't see homeschooling as a good option for her because she really does relish the structure of the school day, her teachers, the library, etc. I think, though, if you're lucky, you can make decent substitutions for what's missing but I can imagine it being difficult (not impossible) and exhausting at times. It may be that a combination of things is what's best. Then again, who knows what's best? Moving?

harriet said...

I'm feeling more clearheaded today. As I've said around here before (although probably not in a while), homeschooling is a last resort for me. More than anything, AJ needs social interaction. In fact, in our special services request, we specifically requested a teacher who would give him individualized work but would also ensure he felt like part of the class. I meant to post what we ended up putting on our form here, and I never got around to it. And Jeanne, your region is more like ours in terms of homeschoolers, unfortunately. I have done some research on homeschooling in our area, because the homeschool community is large and very visible. there are lots of groups that coordinate with different parents teaching their areas of expertise. The only problem is, a lot of the curriculums are headed down the intelligent design road. If we were living in the city, I'd feel better about it, because we'd have more resources. What I'd really need is someone to help him with complicated math and a place and materials with which to do science experiments. But I'd have to exhaust every other possibility before I pulled AJ out of school entirely. One thing we've considered is the possibility of seeing if AJ could do school for a half day or get some kind of early dismissal to allow for time to do more focused advanced work or take classes elsewhere. I'm not sure if this would be allowed, but I'm trying to think outside the box. I'm hoping my academic background will give me a little street cred when I go in to argue these issues. In any case, Jeanne, there are a number of internet groups that seek to fuse the benefits of traditional schooling and home schooling. they generally call themselves afterschoolers, and I have found a lot of like minded people on their websites. The one I started with is , if you're interested.

And I think there is a possibility that they may yet find another solution. The overcrowding problem happened when they redistricted a few years ago after closing a school. They're having trouble fixing it because money is tight and our taxes are already so incredibly high that they can't get another referendum through. But as I understand it, the overcrowding problem is far worse at our school than at the other elementary schools in the district. They don't want to move people again -- there will certainly be an uproar if they do -- but I think that's still a possibility. Class sizes at the other three elementary schools are smaller.

As for moving, freshhell, that is on the table. But probably not before the end of next school year. Know of any musicology job openings in Richmond?

Thanks so much for your comments. I can't tell you how much it helps me to talk about this stuff with other people without worrying about whether I'm coming off as some psychopath who won't stop bragging about my kid. I'm starting to realize that parents of gifted kids need almost as much support as the kids themselves. But at the same time, this whole process is extremely interesting and engaging for me as well as AJ -- I love that we are all being mindful of our feelings about education and learning and what we want to get out of it. I just wish it didn't come with so much anxiety.

readersguide said...

Good luck with all this -- there are all kinds of cuts on the table here in California, thanks to Arnold. I don't get it, myself. I agree with Jeanne, too, that if AJ is loving the social interaction of school as much as he seems to be, it would be hard to pull him out. And don't feel like a psychopath -- AJ clearly needs special attention, but I actually think almost any kid needs a parental advocate through gradeschool, and it is, in fact, completely interesting.Education is this fascinating place where brain development meets social organization meets personality.

FreshHell said...

Something else I just thought of that you might want to explore, if you haven't already: Under the disability rights act, I believe you can get compensation of some sort if the school system cannot provide appropriate education for your child. If they cannot live up to whatever his IEP says he needs (and I believe gifted kids are covered the same as learning disabled), the county may have to reimburse you for any extra educational needs you pay for. Like enrichment classes.

Harriet said...

That's on my list to investigate, freshhell, thanks for reminding me. Also on my list: how can vouchers help? I feel like at this point, I need to find legal support, because the district's not going to help me and the school can't help without the district backing. I'm also trying to find out how much tax money the school will lose if I pull AJ out. Because their funding is, I know, tied to the number of students. I think it's time for me to look into some regional advocacy groups. One of the things that concerns me especially is that when class sizes increase, it's usually the gifted kids who are the first to suffer, because all possible funding is channeled into improving test scores and the gifted kids are already doing fine from the school's standpoint and don't need help.

Katie said...

Homeschooling is not your only option, and from what you say about AJ, I agree with your decision to make it a last resort. There should be lots of other options.

My local elementary school made it clear to my parents that they had nothing to offer me for the fifth grade. The teachers were not prepared to deal with me and one of them had flat-out refused to do so. Our principal suggested that I be put on what our district and state called voluntary transfer and bussed across town to a magnet school (a regular public elementary school that placed high emphasis on science and technology- meaning that we regularly had both science and computer classes).

I have no idea what options your state offers, or even what other schools may be in your town (I know you and AJ walk to his school), but if there were another public school in the area with a better ability to help AJ, there might be a way to get him there.

Is there a local university with a school? My undergrad had a very nifty "lab school" which was a regular school in the district that just happened to be run out of the school of education. They did a lot of things with learning environments and accelerated learning, that sort of thing. I don't know if that was a unique situation, but it was a great opportunity for the kids who went there.

I have a feeling that private schooling is more common in your state than in my home-state, especially due to the poor public system in the major city. I, personally, think that most of the privately schooled kids I've met later in life (so, from a variety of different schools in different places) aren't much different from the products of public schools, except that they seem to listen to more indie bands and have more neurosis.

Whatever you might decide, AJ's opinion should be, from homeschooling to staying in his school, the last word. When I transferred, it was because when offered the choice, I jumped at it- I knew the alternative. If I hadn't wanted to, I don't think my parents would've had me do it.

It sucks for me to tell you that any decision will probably make a huge impact on his life, but, from experience, it probably will. This is why I say to make him as informed and conversant on the topic as possible, then he can be a part of the solution.

Your suggestion of some sort of half day at his regular school seems a good idea, as long as it has a lot of flexibility to allow him to be on the same footing with his classmates. If you miss the morning, you've missed all the classroom routines and the other kids are less likely to get used to you being there (I did this at one point; went to another school in the morning and came back at lunch, it was like I was an alien come from "someplace else!"). If you miss the afternoons, that's usually when you have class parties and assemblies. If AJ could only be removed a couple times a week on "normal" days, that would make his interaction with the other kids in his class more normal, which I understand is important to AJ.

Unfortunately, such a thing means a lot of work for a teacher, so I see your problem since you may not know who his teacher is and what he/she's willing to do until days before school starts. If it were my folks, they'd go in and make some noise. I know you've said you're willing to do this if it comes to it, and I think this is the time. Talk to the principal, voice your concerns, and if you can't get help there, tell the principal you're going to talk to the district administrators (there should be someone devoted to gifted education) and follow up with them. They should be more than willing to help you.

You're not a psychopath. You're concerned that your son have a valuable, positive experience in school. That's what every parent and educator wants for every student (if they don't want that, they're not an educator, they're just an administrator). You have the right to ask for that; you have the right to fight for that. I maintain you have the right to make yourself a pain in the ass about it, if that's what it takes, but don't forget your son in the fight.

harriet said...

Katie, this is going to be a long and rambling answer because I'm trying to keep an eye on the wrestling match that's going on in my family room right now before it gets out of hand. So forgive me if I'm disjunct. Of course I've already considered all the things you mention, as well as AJ's opinions. I'd be irresponsible if I didn't. However, a seven year old kid, no matter how smart, is not likely to always know what's best for him. He should certainly be consulted, but he will not get the final yea or nay. He's not qualified. He doesn't understand the stakes. If you ask him what he wants in a school, he will say more gym and pizza for lunch. This is in part because he thinks of school as more of a social place than a work place. Home is where the real work is done. But he may also say that he wants to skip a grade, which suggests to me that he sometimes wishes that there were more real work at school. I don't even know where he heard about skipping a grade. It's not an option we've given him at this point. But he mentions it every now and then and I take it under advisement. And given what's going on, that could be back on the table too. The class ahead of his is significantly smaller. But it's not my favorite option. AJ's on the small side for his age and emotionally/socially is still pretty immature for his age.

As for the bussing option, I'm looking into the voucher program, but there doesn't seem to be anywhere else to go. This is still a pretty rural area and our options are limited. Our town has four elementary schools and ours has the best reputation and they all have the same services. So unless they'd send us to another town, the only other options seems to be private school, which we really can't afford, at least not at this late date for next year.

I, too have had a variety of experiences with schools. I've taken countless IQ tests. I've been bounced from grade to grade. I've even attended two grades at the same time (half a day in each). I went to 9 different schools for K-12. I've been dealt with in many different ways and I didn't have much of a choice in any of it, but I have a pretty good sense of what worked and what didn't for me in hindsight. AJ, however, is a different kid. In many ways he is more social and better adjusted. In other ways, he's less mature. He's definitely less of a loner than I was. So while I'm guided by my own experiences, hearing those of others, like yours, helps me a lot.

I think your point about the class routines is an excellent one, and that is something that would definitely cause trouble for AJ (although less so as he ages, I think). One of the things I was hoping for next year was an internet course through the program we're trying to get him into. That would let him work on the internet in his classroom during computer time. But it turns out that they haven't yet started distance learning for AJ's age group. In a couple of years, though, that will be another tool in the box, if he gets in.

While there are no universities with schools within 50 miles of here, as far as I know, there is a community college that offers some programs for homeschool students. I've been wondering if there's a possibility of getting AJ involved there for a class at some point. I've been hitting up the homeschool parents I run into for information, but many of them seem much more focused on Christian evangelism than on education, so it's hard for me to get the information I'm looking for. The community college has a program for gifted kids as well, but it doesn't start until they're older. They also run a summer program for younger kids. AJ took a couple of their classes last year and loved them, but it looks like maybe they're not doing them again this summer. I haven't been able to get the program administrator to return my phone calls about it.

This coming year is going to be the toughest one, i think. After this, there will be a formal gifted program and also they will start tracking the gifted kids into clusters in classrooms, so AJ should have some kids to work with in his class.

As for advocacy, I'm not willing to go to bat for him. I have been making a pest of myself at his school regularly since at least a year and a half before he started there. We'd investigated starting him a year early. Everybody in the office knows who I am. I email AJ's teacher daily and meet with the gifted teacher (who doesn't actually meet with AJ directly at this point, but instead provides materials for his classroom teacher) several times a year. I will be meeting with the principal sometime in the next few weeks. I plan to ask about what's going on with the classes and teacher search and make my feelings known both verbally and in writing. I plan to ask how they will implement our special services request. And I plan on asking for weekly time with the gifted teacher. Before that meeting, I would like to know how much the school would lose if I pulled AJ out. I would also like to know what money would follow us and where it can follow us if the school cannot make adequate accommodations for AJ. If anyone has any other recommendations or, better yet, experience with this kind of lobbying with public schools, I'd love to hear about it.

Jeanne said...

My suggestion for success in lobbying with public schools is to find a friend or advocate who teaches in the local public schools and get advice on how what you're entitled to fits in with what the schools are able to do. A friend who teaches can do this (anyone but AJ's teacher), and often the gifted coordinator for the school district can do it, even if your child isn't old enough to be in their official program yet.
Also, it sounds like you know what you're talking about with not wanting AJ to skip a grade at this point. The issues you mention are some of the key issues. Skipping worked for my kid, but he's tall for his age and has always been more mature than other kids his age; he also gravitates to older kids socially.

Anonymous said...

Wanna pick my mom's brain on this? Email me if you do and I'll put you in touch with her.

Harriet said...

Jeanne, AJ's teacher this year is sort of functioning in that role for me for next year, but I don't want to ask too much of her. And also, she'll be on maternity leave at the beginning of next year, so while she's willing to help, there are limitations to what she can do. I will try to have one more meeting with the gifted coordinator before the end of the year, but I have found her to not always be helpful. She doesn't know AJ well, since his teacher is a go-between at this point. And she is way overworked. There is one full time and one half time gifted teacher for 6 schools in our district). But I'll write more about my developing battle plans in a separate entry. Lass, thanks so much for reminding me of your mom. I have some more legwork to do and I want to dig out my notes from our last conversation. She was fantastically helpful and I don't want to waste her time. But I have some more legwork to do on my own first, I think.