This post is by Liz Winslow, a school choice warrior and mom of three children, two of whom have special needs. Her work has previously appeared on NJLB here and here. Her most recent post, which describes Aaron’s issues, is here.
So, my ex and I visited the first of several specialized schools where disturbed — but still age five — Aaron might go out-of-district today. While we were fully prepared for them to not look exactly like traditional elementary school, I’ve assembled a list of Top Ten Admissions Pro Tips for the administration of special needs schools:
1) When a prospective mother says “I grew up two miles from here and I’m aware of [school’s] affiliation with [mental institution that was shut down by the state for sexual assault, throwing away the key on residents, 1,000 people in its cemetery ],” a reassuring response is not “Oh. Yeah.”
2) When you show prospective parents the “safe room” (this means the literally padded room, for those not in the know,), the correct response to “my someone tried to claw their way out of here, look at all the scratches in the plexiglass window on the door” is not *shrug.* Notably, this was on the K-8 level of the school. I can scarcely imagine what the plexiglass looked like at the high school upstairs.
3) I suppose the roving “Safe Team” with walkie talkies is meant to provide assurance, but when a mom follows up with “how often is police involvement necessary,” a reassuring response is not “well, I wouldn’t say it’s *every* day…”
4) While I understand the need for rooms where children have less stimulus, two folding chairs in a room with nothing but the paint on the walls wasn’t quite what I’d hoped for. I think the school is pretty stimulus-free as it is with the fewest pictures, maps, charts, etc. on any walls I’ve ever seen (although at least the low-stimulus rooms were blue, vs. the vomit-beige of the rest of the school).
5) When a parent asks the head of school a basic question such as “how many of your students return to district in three years?” a good answer is not, repeatedly, “it depends on the child.” That parent might be like a dog with a bone on this one and corner the vice principal who eventually says “4 out of 70 per year.” (Note: some such schools have a typical rate of 95% over a few years.)
6) Likewise, when a parent (and sending district school psychologist) ask repeatedly what the kindergarten staff:student ratio is, absent 1:1 aides, it is unwise to then show these visitors the K classroom with 13 kids, one teacher staring into her desk, and 3 aides including a 1:1 when you’d said there would never be more than 12 kids and a 3:1 ratio.
7) If you’re going to sell mixed-age as a good thing for a five-year-old with high cognitive abilities, a K-3 classroom might include things other than… desks. Like a rug for circle time, reading, I don’t know, ANYTHING. A chart with months, not just responsibilities. The alphabet on the wall would be controversy-free, right? (Again, mostly vomit beige.)
8) Further to point #7 above, I cast no shade on ill children, but kindly don’t tell me that my five-year-old will be well-served by being in a classroom where the kids are confined during lunch (and during almost every other activity except therapy, art, and recess), where it’s ignored if one kid is crying on her desk while another is using his mouth to launch a Capri Sun pack across the room, etc.
Incidentally, that art room was unique in my experience as both a student or parent in having some brown cardboard shape cutouts, cabinets, tables… and a very put-upon looking art teacher in there by herself. You might think art rooms would contain… art? Nah.
9) Likewise, if the whole point a parent is there is because a child is in the 98th percentile for intelligence but has severe emotional issues — the whole POINT of seeking this out-of-district placement — please don’t show her a classroom with half a shelf of Dr. Seuss books and a schedule with two hours a day tops academic instruction (including an hour of free reading time) and think this is a selling point.
10) Having a “lower school” of K-8 students on one floor (maybe 70, maybe 96, depends on which administrator you talk to) does not comfort give; nor that a K student might be on a bus for an hour with 8th graders, given the level of checked-out-ed-ness of the aides. And that there’s a high school one floor above where first parents are told the kids “never” mix, then “well, they might be down there for gym…” well, pulling teeth never inspires confidence.
BONUS: Don’t tell parents about how safe escorts to bathrooms are and then have them witness an aide banging a door yelling “[NAME], UNLOCK THAT DOOR AND COME OUT RIGHT NOW!”
Hey, y’all did have a nice playground… but see ya.