Finding the Right Fit

I sighed as I listened to the speaker on the other end of the phone line.  “Really?  He’s going to switch special education teachers for the third time in three years?”

It was a week before the close of Michael’s first grade year.  It had not been a stellar year, by any account, from the myriad of phone calls from his classroom teacher early in the year asking me to speak to my son about his behavior (behaviors that were directly attributable to his disorder and that could have been avoided if all of the items in his Individualized Educational Program were in place) to her admission in February that she’d asked to be sent to a training session about autism because she knew she wasn’t addressing his unique needs.  “If I were you, as a parent, I’d be very angry with me, as his teacher,” she bluntly told me.  I appreciated her honesty, but it didn’t make the situation much easier.  Michael had to be carried back to class once by the gym teacher after he ran out of the room, down the hall, and outside of the building.  It had been a rough year.

Because I had been so active in our school budget process this year, I knew that my son’s current school was slated to lose a second grade teacher next year, taking his current class size of 18 and bumping it up to 23.  If Michael was having this much trouble in the smaller class, I’d said at his planning meeting, he will need more help in the larger classroom.  I also asked that the second grade teacher who had attended the special autism training be his teacher next year (I had actually thought that perhaps this was the plan all along, that she’d taken the training as a preemptive measure for the following year.  Everyone had agreed that Michael would get more help, in the form of a classroom aide.  He was also offered more time one on one with a special education teacher.

As the budget cuts started to be laid out, I discovered that another elementary school in our district was going to have fewer students in the second grade than ours. I wasn’t sure that it would be a good idea to yank Michael out of his current school, but I was also starting to get nervous about another year in a school where the teacher population didn’t seem to be as well versed in teaching kids on the spectrum.  The principal herself had told me once that my son didn’t seem “that” autistic.

So finally, one week out, I decided to call each principal and see what Michael’s plan would look like in their respective schools.  I called his current school first; of course the principal was unavailable.  I left the message requesting a return phone call and dialed the second school’s number.   I repeated the same sentence to their secretary and hung up the phone.   In the meantime, I made a two sided list, ready for the answers to all of my questions at each school.

The new school called back first.  I spoke to the principal candidly, stating that I just wanted to get a firm comparison of what each school was able to do for my son before I made any decisions.  She told me that my son would be absolutely kept with the one friend he knew that attended the new school, that she could assure me there would be 17 kids in his room, that he would be kept with the same special education teacher throughout his time at the new school.  This had been a sore spot for me, since Michael had already been switched twice at his current school.  Yes, an aide would be provided for him even at the lower class size, she assured me.  Yes, she would consult with his former preschool teachers to give him the best possible placement for success.  Yes, a bus could be provided for him.

I hung up the phone intrigued.  It all sounded wonderful, but moving schools was a big decision.  I watched the clock nervously and waited for the other school to call back.

After about forty minutes, the phone rang.  Eager to get the answers to the questions for Michael’s current school, I readied my sheet.  But it was the new school’s principal again.  She was calling to tell me that she’d already called a team meeting and decided upon Michael’s placement, based on the advice of his former special needs preschool teachers.  All she needed was my word that we were ready to switch.  I told her I was still waiting on the call back from Michael’s current principal.

I hung up with her and looked at the clock.  It had been about an hour since I’d called.  She could have been in a meeting or something.

Two hours later, with still no phone call, I called Michael’s school and left another message.  I didn’t want to sound rude, but I did request that she call me back today.  I knew from previous experience that often she would return phone calls days after a message was left.  I called several girlfriends and asked for advice.  I called a few more mothers I knew that had kids at the new school; they all loved it.  What to do?

Two hours later than that, I was getting angry and antsy.  The kids would be home from school soon, and I didn’t want to have this conversation in front of them.  Finally, ten minutes before I expected the bus, I saw the school’s phone number on the caller ID.

“This is Michael’s special education teacher calling,” the woman on the phone said.  “The principal said you wanted to speak to us.”

Actually, I’d wanted to speak to the principal.  I was irked that she hadn’t taken the time, as the other principal had, to return my phone call personally.  But no matter.  I started peppering the teacher with my preset list of questions.

“Well, unfortunately, the teacher we sent for the training last year was let go due to budget cuts.  She had the least seniority,” the teacher told me.

Strike one.

“No, there’s really no way his classroom would be under 23 students.  If kids move in over the summer, it could potentially have 24 or 25, even.”

Strike two.

“No, I’m sorry to say I won’t be his special education teacher next year.  He will actually be split between two teachers, neither of which he’s had before.”

Strike three.

I couldn’t understand how one school in the same school district could have such vastly different ways of delivering instruction to children with special needs. I thanked her for her time, and asked her to pass along the message that Michael would no longer be attending the school the following year.  “I hope you understand that this isn’t anything personal,” I stated.  “I just need to find the best fit for my son.”

“If it were me,” the teacher responded, “I’d be doing the exact same thing.  I completely understand.  I”ll pass the word along.”

I was shaking as I hung up the phone.  I hoped I was doing the right thing.

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