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Monday, April 03, 2006

Question of the week-Should the public education system be mandated to care for all special needs children?

One of the things I have avoided over the years is using our local school systems, whether in the city or the counties surrounding us. It isn't because I am overtly angry at them, both myself and my husband graduated from local public schools. At the time we were just glad to be done with that part of our lives. As we had children later on, wanted them to have more options.

Then we had a child with special needs. Everything we ever thought we knew about parenting flew out the window. So by the time our child turned 2, we had our share of dealings with the Government's intervention program. A very disjointed attempt at intervening early enough in the child's life to make sure they could still participate in the institution known as public school. This was not our path, we never intended to go there. I thought for sure the private schools I attended still had programs available to help me raise my special child.

Then we found that federal rules have changed. Of course we heard bits and pieces on the news about No Child Left Behind, and all that malarkey. But, we weren't heading in that direction so we didn't listen carefully enough.

Because of programs and changes to federal law, the public school system wherever you live in America is required to educate your child. Special needs children included. If the system in an area cannot provide the safest education for your special needs child, or it does not have the capability to meet the child's handicaps, then the system must pay for your child to go where his needs can be met.

So imagine our surprise when we found our local private schools could not and no longer did educate special needs children! They simply cannot compete when federal dollars are be being pumped into public school systems to educate these children.

This may sound like a good use for your tax dollars, and for many people it's the only option they will ever have for their child. Most of us are so battle weary by the time our child reaches the age out point for Project Daniel or Early Intervention, that we will do nearly anything. The cost for 15 minutes of water therapy is $45, and they need a good hour of therapy. Speech and other main therapy modes charge privately at least $120 an hour, and you have three therapy modalities a week (speech, occupational, and physical.) Throw in equine therapy, chiropractic or any other aid for your child and you rack up some bills in a hurry.

Since most families cannot pay the $1000 a week or more in private therapy, they use the school system. The only thing we have in our area is one small county school, or city school depending on your zip code, that deals with every child in the area. Children that are so totally incapable of basic functions, complete with breathing apparatus and specialized wheel chairs, to those that are completely ambulatory and can do just about as much as a typically developing child. All of these children are thrown into the system with young freshly graduated and inexperienced (and probably underpaid) teachers and their one assistant per classroom.

At our daughter's school there are over 10 special needs busses that pull in every morning unloading the county's young special population. They get maybe three hours of therapy a week, if that, and some lunch. The teacher tries desperately to work with each child and their specific needs, but that is not always possible since the children in her class have varying needs and degrees of ability.

Is this the best our taxes can do? It's not that we necessarily have more special needs children. The diagnosis methods have been altered to include more "delays", and to broaden the scope of what we consider to be outside the norm. And government has allotted all funds and all responsibility for all special needs children to the public school system, which we know isn't working on it's best of days! Our public school system in this country cannot seem to educate her brightest most able bodied children, at least not to levels other countries' children experience.

What makes us think it can handle our weakest and most vulnerable citizens? There has got to be a better way.


At 1:03 PM, Blogger Melissa O. Markham said...

It sounds like you have been through the wringer, Rebecca and I am sure there are no easy answers. I wasn't award that private schools were no longer accepting special needs children.

As a past employee of Project Daniel (I worked there 6 years, but stopped 10 years ago), I never thought our goal was to prepare the children for school, but to help the parent's cope with all the special needs their child had. There were some children who we were really having to intervene more because of environment, than because of disabilities and for them it was more like that. Otherwise our goal was to help the parent link up with the services that were out there, show them how to do therapy, provide a listening ear and whatever assistance we could. But that really is an aside to your question.

I do not have an answer. I have watched families struggle with their special needs children. The bills are astronomical and sometimes the child qualifies for SSI and Medicaid and sometimes family income prevents that from happening. I have known children that are severely delayed and ended up going to Laurel Regional school (which servers Lynchburg and surrounding countine) and those children get a lot of one on one interaction because the schools try to stay away from that option. The public schools have to pay for the transportation and schooling there.

I have had concerns about blanket mainstreaming in the schools as well. A child whose body is limited by Cerebral Palsy, but whose brain is fine should be in a class with other children, given adaptive equipment and helped to expand his/her capabilities.

On the other hand, a disruptive autistic child or a severely affected child with Down's Syndrome who are not getting anything out of the class and are preventing other children from learning, this is of great concern to me. It is not that I don't want them to learn, on the contrary I want them to learn and participate as much as they can. But if a child is on the level of a 2 year old, what is that child getting out of classes teaching reading, writing and arithmetic. There needs to be time when all the children come together so that the 'normal' children learn to care about and for those that have special needs and to learn that though they are different, they are people too. I remember being in school and the special needs people were shuffled off to a special classroom and we didn't see them all day. We were afraid of them.

So back to your question...this is an issue that needs to be addressed and parents are going to have to be the advocates who force the government's hand. If the current system is not working, you are going to have to band together (with your friends) and send letters, make phone calls and make a ruckus to get change to occur. There are advocacy groups out there. Find one and see where they are in this process.

At 1:04 PM, Blogger DAN said...

Is the public school system some warehouse for every kid to be processed into society? If you believe that, then the answer is yes.

Or is the school system by necessity a compromise, an organization that takes limited resources and tries to the most good possible for the community in terms of education? If you believe that, then the answer isn't quite so simple anymore.

Kids' abilities are going to fall into a bell curve, with most being in the middle and some on the outside. Some kis will have special needs, while others will be gifted.

We seem to want to mush every kid into some sort of cookie-cutter carboard box. Then we slap a label on it for processing. All kids are not the same, and this type of thinking does not work well for us in my opinion.

I think we we should not spend a penny more on special needs children than we do on gifted children. As a society we have an obligation to both sets of kids that is equal. After all, the gifted kids probably have the best chance of helping humanity in the long run, including the special interest kids. So if education is really investing in our future, I'd want those gifted kids helped out as much as we can.

I also think that the money for children should be owned by the family, not the school system. If you want to take your ten thousand bucks and invest in a different kind of education for your child, you have that right. After all, who is ultimately responsible for educating kids, anyway? It's certainly not the schools, it's the parents. So why not empower them?


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