Why Do My Neighbors Demonize the Only Public School — Princeton Charter — Where My Special Needs Son Has Thrived?

This is a guest post by Liz Winslow Schartman, a Princeton, New Jersey resident and parent of three children, two of whom have special needs.

Dear neighbors,

I know some of you are very angry that the New Jersey Department of Education announced last Wednesday that it had granted Princeton Charter School’s application to expand its enrollment by seventy-six students. But I have a different point of view.

My husband and I, as you know, have three children. Our middle child is neuro-typical and  would bloom wherever she was planted. However, our two boys are another story.

Our oldest child (a boy) is being seen at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia to pin down what they believe is a genetic syndrome based on physical examination and ancestry data, and since our youngest (also a boy) has his own special needs, pursuing answers here take up a lot of our time, money, and emotional energy. Our youngest, age 4, has the benefit of this being our third parenting rodeo and one where we know our rights about assessments, Child Study Teams, and individualized education. He is now in a self-contained handicapped classroom at Riverside Elementary School and right now my greatest hope for him is that one day he will be mainstreamed.

Our older son is autistic, has severe ADHD, and multiple physical problems. (At one point his working diagnosis was facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy but genetic testing ruled that out and we’re currently waiting for another round.) At first we were reluctant to medicate for all the usual reasons,  but now we realize that he can’t do “med holidays” because he then loses his words, crouches, and grunts. He was only diagnosed with autism because we went through vast personal effort and private expense. Otherwise – if he, for example, had an autistic meltdown and needed five minutes in a quiet space – staff at Princeton Public Schools’ Littlebrook Elementary School, which he attended at the time, saw the episode simply as a temper tantrum and thus a discipline problem, escalated the situation, and sent him to the Principal’s office.  Never once was autism mentioned to us by the many experts in Princeton’s public schools, so it is distressing that we needed to go outside the school system entirely to get a proper diagnosis.

My neighbors, you know firsthand my son’s issues. So do many of the teachers posting anti-charter rhetoric on our local news platform, Planet Princeton. He has been failed by so many adults in his life — including his two full-time working parents. (I became a stay-at-home mom partway through Tristan’s kindergarten year).

Yet, dear neighbors, you demonize Princeton Charter School, the only public school where our son has thrived.

We charter parents are not elitists. We’re not snobs. But like our son, many Princeton Charter School students fell through the cracks at Princeton Public Schools. Special education services and an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) should have been offered at the traditional district yet our son, starting at age 5 (5!)  spent several afternoons a week in the Principal’s office because he was a “discipline” problem.

Incredibly, this need for multiple removals from the classroom vanished upon arriving at Princeton Charter School where we worked collaboratively on a proper IEP and where his teachers  recognized his talents an gave him the lattitude to learn.

Neighbors, please just ask yourselves who has the real interest here: Princeton Charter School, which won’t have to submit a charter renewal application for four years and will add another 76 students, weighted to more accurately reflect Princeton Township’s demographics, or Princeton Public Schools, which is battling over tuition payments that amount to about 1% of its annual $83 million operating budget ? Who really had the needs of the kids in mind?

What do you think?

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