This is a hard post to write, and frankly, I’ve been struggling with it for days. While all of my posts hit close to home, this one actually hits it square on.
I’ve written about the changes to my boy’s classroom before. This past year has been insanely difficult for him. As I’ve shared with the board and the superintendent, there hasn’t been a single month out of the nine during the 2011-2012 school year when his classroom was stable.
He’s had to survive:
Three and a half Occupational Therapists: Due to an overwhelming workload, Challenger Elementary has had three OTs in four months. One OT worked for basically one week.
Two Speech Therapists: Again, due to an overwhelming workload and an unwillingness to pay staff outside of the superintendent’s inner circle, Challenger Elementary has had two STs during the year.
An Entirely New Class: Because the central office attempted to fund special education on a minimal basis, there was a need after two months to take an Autism teacher from another school in the system, and move her to Challenger. Once there, the boy’s existing class that had 11 students in it was split in half. While my boy’s actual room stayed the same, there were at least four classes in the system that were dramatically disrupted because the Superintendent wouldn’t fund the hiring of one additional teacher.
Two Complete Turn Overs in Instructional Assistants: Children on the spectrum need additional help to focus on the goals of the class. One teacher cannot manage six students on her own. It simply cannot be done. Trying to teach a child on the spectrum is similar to trying to teach a typical child who is watching Spongebob on the television behind you with the volume turned to 11. Occasionally something might get through, but it will be rare. These aides are the ones who re-direct and re-focus a student’s attention back toward the teacher. They’re the ones who keep the children from running off to play. They’re the ones who help a child make it to a restroom and back. Without these aides, an appropriate education would be impossible. The boy started with several temporary aides; this was narrowed down to primarily two aides after the classrooms were split. He worked well with both of them until February when they were moved out of the classroom and replaced with three others. This shift cost the boy nearly two weeks of effective work during the second half of the year. Of these three new aides, only one was still employed by the end of the year in May.
Every single one of these changes was the direct result of the board’s approval of the superintendent’s decisions.
In short, it’s been an impossible year for him. You see, children on the spectrum don’t respond well to change. Often times the smallest alteration of expectation causes meltdowns of a Three Mile Island (or Chernobyl for younger readers) scale.
Dealing With Changes On The Spectrum
Based on his reactions alone, here’s what I imagine changes like these must be like for my boy:
Imagine waking from a fitful sleep with the comforter tangled around you obstructing your movement, but holding you safely keeping you warm on a cool night. Something woke you, but you’re not sure what. In fact, it’s so dark in your room that you’re not real sure that you are actually awake. The power, as it is wont to do in south Huntsville, is out again. There’s no light from the clock to let you see. There’s no sound from the fan above. Just stillness. Just silence. You struggle to free yourself from the comforter to check on your family. Searching for the carpet with your bare toes, you feel something slither under them, coiling, ready to strike.
This is what I think my boy experiences at school when he’s shocked by yet another change in personnel helping him through his educational routine. There’s nothing appropriate about this for him, and it’s miraculous when despite these surprises he manages to unwrap himself from his comforter.
If your response to change was this difficult, how likely is it that you would be willing to unwrap yourself from your comforter to venture into the dark world outside?
Not very likely, is it?
Surviving The Changes
And yet, my boy did because of a brilliant, wonderful, dedicated teacher named Mrs. Niki Bowling waiting in the room to guide him through the horrors.
And now, on top of all the other horrors he’s had to brave, even his guide has been taken away from him.
For some inexplicable reason, Niki was ordered to leave Challenger Elementary where she’s successfully taught for seven years, leading dozens of children through the minefield of change awaiting them because of their autism and move to Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary at the end of the school year.
After receiving a “friendly” visit by Mr. Al Lankford, who is in no way intimidating, she was told that she would not be returning to Challenger to work with my son and the five other kids in his resource classroom.
She didn’t want to leave. Her parents didn’t want her to leave. Her students didn’t want her to leave. For some unknown reason, the superintendent decided that it was time to disrupt my son’s classroom experience yet again as he was scheduled to return to her resource classroom again next year.
As she was given no voice in the matter, she has decided to leave this district. She is now happily employed as a Special Education teacher elsewhere in Northern Alabama.
Board and Superintendent Ignore Parents Again
Along with another parent from the class, I spoke of this last Tuesday night at the board meeting on July 10th.
I’m sure it will come as no surprise to you that I received no response of any kind from the board, or from any of the district employees who are implementing the superintendent’s decisions to disrupt my son’s classroom experience.
Not one word.
And yet they had the better part of an hour and a half to listen to reports on the cleaning up of network closets.
Our board cares more about the condition of a closet of networking switches than they do about creating an appropriate educational environment for students.
Pictures Scream the Truth
While I was speaking, I risked intimidating the board by showing them two pictures of my boy. You see, one of the difficult parts of having a child on the spectrum is that it’s extremely difficult to get a good picture. For a child who finds making eye contact difficult, making eye contact with a camera lens is rather pointless.
Not a bad shot considering I stink as a photographer, but it leaves the viewer with the impression that the boy just isn’t quite there. He’s somewhere else, wrapped in his comforter, avoiding the scary outside world.
I’ve mentioned how fantastic Mrs. Bowling was as a teacher. Now let me show you. Despite the insane changes her classroom faced this year, she taught, she loved each of the kids as if they were her own.
She fought for them. Every day. She taught them to laugh, to play, to read, to go potty, to add, to sort, to interact, and to talk. Every day.
This is easily one of the best pictures I have of my son. He’s happy. He’s engaged. He’s there.
And it’s entirely thanks to the love and dedication shown to him by the wonderful teacher on his right.
It’s true that pictures speak volumes. This one certainly does.
It screams that our superintendent and our board have an absence of compassion for the children under their care.
It screams that they would rather that dedicated, amazing teachers, like Mrs. Bowling, simply pack their bags and go elsewhere.
At the meeting on July 10th, the board of education approved the resignation of Mrs. Niki Bowling from the employment of Huntsville City Schools. On that same night ten other teachers also resigned. August 20th is going to be a terrible day for my son.
Our district is dying before our eyes. Our children are suffering.
And all our board and superintendent want to talk about are computers with batteries that will supposedly last thirteen and a half hours.
Goodbye Mrs. Bowling, our family will miss you and the light you brought into our boy’s eyes.
Dad, hubby and irritator of students and school boards alike, Russell Winn is committed to ensuring that the Huntsville City Schools provide access to the educational support system for every student. When he's not enforcing grammar rules or arguing the ethical minutia of Kant's deontology, he spends his time loving his kids, reading anything by Stephen King or Christopher Moore, and attempting to speak truth to power on behalf of special needs kids. You may follow his rants at www.geekpalaver.com or on twitter at @russwinn.