In Tampa, today is the first day of school. A wonderful milestone in any kid’s life – excitement, fear, anxieties, seeing old friends, meeting new ones and the start of receiving an education. Today is also the first day of me feeling the weight of the inadequacies of our public (taxpayer funded) school system. More importantly, today is the first time that Henry has not had a First day of School. He is not allowed to go to his neighborhood school that is about 200 yards from our home.
Why? you might ask – what is Henry’s crime against the school? How did he get expelled before he was even enrolled? Why can’t Henry attend the charter school that Lauri started and where he was a student for 7 years and many of you have helped support financially ( that will be the subject of my next post..)?
Okay, so here are a few answers. Henry is primarily non-verbal, Deaf/hard of hearing, on the spectrum, medically complex and a host of other disability labels that don’t adequately describe him. He learns in way that is not “mainstream”. Henry types to communicate using AAC. Note that I said “learns”. When Henry is taught, he learns. Unfortunately, many of our public schools start with the anti-premise of “presuming competence” . After meeting with the head of the ESE department and expressing our desire that Henry attend the public school across the street from our home with the kids in our neighborhood, we were told this school would not be able to serve Henry’s IEP. The head of Hillsborough County Exceptional Student Education programs said we should visit another school that would be able to provide the services that Henry would need. She said this school was an inclusive school and that we, and Henry, would love it. We quickly found out that Hillsborough County’s definition of “inclusive” is that they actually let a student like Henry on the campus – then they send them into a segregated classroom where the kids get to use really wonderful things like a real measuring cup (ummm, the principal’s words, not mine). I know many of the kids that are in those classrooms. They deserve and want a real education, with real books like To Kill a Mockingbird or Catcher in the Rye. How are we preparing the students in the segregated classrooms if they are never even exposed to the same material as their peers?
We thought we would just plow forward and enroll him in our neighborhood school- Henry can actually see the school from his bedroom window. Henry typed that he wanted to go to this school. He was ready and willing to work hard to be with the kids that live next door and across the street. He just wants a chance. When we tried to enroll him, we were told that we would need to provide a report card and his FCAT scores in order to enroll. His previous school, did not advise that Henry take the FCAT. Since when does a child need to prove that they belong in their neighborhood public school? I thought that outward discrimination of this type had long been a thing of the past.
So at this point, many might say – don’t you know that educating a student like Henry costs more and takes away from the “typical” students? No. We can start with a quick math lesson, and follow it with a more detailed discussion of economics later. A student that requires the support Henry needs receives about 4x more in funding than the “typical” student. It doesn’t take 4x more in expenses. We offered to waive any special services and provide an aide at our own expense (this solution was not welcomed by the school) so Henry could be “allowed” in the classroom with his peers. On the second point, my only comment is that is where the problem starts. ALL kids benefit when there is a true inclusive classroom. Thomas Hehir, former director of the Office of Special Education within the U.S. Department of Education, and now a Professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education has written extensively on just how beneficial.
That’s it for today. Onward.