Special Glasses

Special Glasses

How often do you enter a place of business, such as a hospital, school, or fortune 500 company and you immediately come face to face with its mission statement? Do you read that statement? Do you know the purpose behind such a statement? In a perfect world, the purpose of creating a mission statement is to guide the institution in terms of its direction. Ideally, all decisions would be made with that mission statement in mind and as the guiding force. Do you think that a mission statement can be effective? It sure can! In fact, a quick search on your computer can bring up the top 10 mission statements of companies for 2012 and as you read them you will probably nod your head and say yes, I do see that XYZ company is where it is today because it carefully designed a mission statement that all of its employees believe and embrace.

I truly believe that a mission statement can be the driving force of an organization. I also believe that sometimes a mission statement can sound really good but when many actions that the organization partakes completely contradict that statement then it is time to reevaluate both the organization and the mission statement. Perhaps there have been changes in the economy that no longer make the mission statement feasible. Perhaps there have been major organizational changes and now the mission statement is no longer valid for the organization. Whatever the reason, it is important from time to time to go back, review the mission statement and decide if it still truly guides the driving force of the organization or if instead it should be changed.

I woke up in the middle of the night last night thinking about a mission statement that impacts both of our children. It is the mission statement for the school district they attend. I know the mission statement well, as I have questioned at times the actions of staff and administrators in our school district. The part of the mission statement I question over and over again has to do with an inclusive word our district has chosen to put into their mission statement. It is an all-encompassing word. It is a word that technically should never exclude anyone. The word is ALL. You see, our district’s mission statement includes wording that alludes to the fact that an excellent education for ALL is their mission. However, I have experienced firsthand that the word ALL in this mission statement has very fine print next to it that I finally put on my “special” glasses and could read. The fine print reads “except Sam and his friends.” Sam is our son (not his real name) and his friends are other special education students. You might be wondering where you can purchase a pair of these “special” glasses so you too can see what I see. But my “special” glasses are not for sale. They were given to me because I am a parent of a special needs child. The glasses appeared a few years ago when we were first introduced to the fact that our son, as a student in our school district, really wasn’t part of the ALL.

The story of how my “special” glasses came to me is long. But I can summarize it for you so you will see why I was given these glasses and why parents in a regular education program never receive a pair. My “special” glasses first appeared when my son was supposed to transition to Kindergarten. A variety of the therapists that worked with him through his special education preschool program decided that Sam should go into a program that would not challenge him. Rather than place him into a program where he might learn and grow they decided it was best to put him in a program that could not provide him with appropriate peer role models. Of course when I asked one of his therapists well would you want your child to be placed in program that would not challenge him, she quickly answered “Of course not!” At that very moment, the moment of her emphatically stating “Of course not!” I found myself wearing these new “special” glasses.

Fortunately for Sam and Samantha (our daughter, not her real name), my husband and I have our own family mission statement. Our family’s mission statement is to help each of our children to be all that they can be! It is quite simple and it is inclusive — it includes both Sam and Samantha. No exclusions here! And so, my husband and I hired an advocate, spent a large sum of money and ultimately got Sam to attend a program in our district that would challenge him. Of course it cost us a lot more than money. We lost the ability to see Sam start Kindergarten on time like all of the other children in the district. A memory we can never recover. It caused us to question why anyone who is in the role of a therapist would be okay with accepting anything less than the best for the children they are working with. And most importantly it opened our eyes to a world we had yet to experience — exclusion.

I decided that I could either sit back and complain about my “special” glasses and wearing them or I could set up a meeting with the Superintendent and explain what had happened with the goal being to avoid this from happening to another child in our district. My hope was that I could throw out my “special” glasses, the district could throw out the additional pairs they had in storage and the word ALL in the mission statement would truly represent who it is supposed to. Unfortunately, I left the meeting still wearing my “special” glasses. I went in with the hope of discarding them, but within the first minute of our meeting being told that we only had 30 minutes to talk and then sitting across from someone who proceeded to spend the entire 30 minutes looking at the clock just above my head, my hope soon faded. I did leave the meeting though with a bit of hope as the Superintendent promised to look into the situation and he would be in touch. Needless to say, I am still wearing my “special” glasses and still waiting for follow-up from the Superintendent. In this district I guess you do need to have patience, since our meeting was in January of 2010!

I guess some people would say I am lucky. I have not had to wear these “special” glasses 24/7. Any time I interact with anyone on Sam’s medical team, I do not even remember I have “special” glasses. Of course, they live by the mission statement they took (in the form of the Hippocratic Oath) and each of them truly has always followed this oath, including the part in which they promise to care for ALL their fellow human beings. I guess you can say we were spoiled from the beginning. Sam’s medical team has always made each decision with the goal of helping Sam to become everything he can be! They have never assumed that Sam would not do this or that and they have never once not challenged him.

So maybe you are wondering why I woke up last night thinking about mission statements? Have I had to wear my “special” glasses again? And to that I will answer, yes I have. In fact this school year I feel like they were put back on at Sam’s teacher meet and greet and have yet to come off. My eyes are feeling tired and strained from wearing them nonstop. Let me explain. For all of our friends, teacher meet-and-greet is a time to go into the classroom, have your child meet their new teacher, see what friends are in their class and put away all of their new school supplies. And that is the way that Samantha’s teacher meet-and-greet went. Unfortunately, it is not the way that Sam’s went.

When I left the house with Sam to attend his teacher meet and greet, I left my “special” glasses at home. No need to bring them. Of course, within 5 minutes of being in Sam’s classroom, his teacher personally handed me another pair of “special” glasses since obviously I forgot mine. She handed them to me as she simultaneously told me that Sam would not be going to his encores (gym, music, art) with his second grade friends. Due to her needing a planning period and other scheduling difficulties, Sam would go with first graders again this year. I questioned her and even stated what about the friends he made last year that he is excited to see again and they are excited to see him. Her response was just a shrug of the shoulder.

When I got home, I immediately called a few other friends in the district who also have children attending second grade and asked them if their child would have to attend their encores with first graders this year. All of them said no. Of course they said no, they do not wear “special” glasses. What was I thinking and why did I waste my time even checking. I knew the answer before making the phone calls. I had forgotten, Sam is not part of the ALL in our district. Of course I spoke in depth to the principal at Sam’s school and the special education administrator, but really how do you make someone understand that Sam is part of ALL and that he belongs to that group when their actions are consistent with excluding Sam from the ALL group? Some might say well maybe that is a really difficult concept to understand. But to that I say well then why does Samantha understand it and why did she immediately say why can’t they just include Sam with the second graders like all of the other second graders. I told Samantha that I really do not understand why the principal and special education administrator can’t understand such a basic concept such as ALL.

The year has been full of challenges and the latest and most concerning is that now Sam is due for a domain review (meaning he will be subjected to a lot of testing). The purpose of a domain review is to evaluate your child as a learner so that the special education team can insure that the child’s placement is correct, that interventions are being used that will support the child’s learning difficulties, etc. It is a process that when done correctly and with the right intentions can be very beneficial. It is a process we went through 3 years ago that resulted in hiring an advocate and Sam missing his first week of Kindergarten.

I decided to leave my “special” glasses at home when I went to meet with Sam’s school psychologist to explain what tests she would like to conduct on Sam for the upcoming domain review. My “special” glasses appeared within 5 minutes of the meeting during the time that the school psychologist was telling me that an IQ test was mandatory and the only way that Sam could be excluded from taking the ISAT’s. I am not so sure yet how I feel about whether or not Sam should take the ISAT’s next year. I am still learning more about the various accomodations that can be made if in fact he does take them. Apparently the school psychologist is certain that she does not want him to take them. I can only wonder why.

I started to cry in the meeting and the psychologist consoled me by stating that it is hard to be a parent of a special needs child. I then gathered my stuff and came home, throwing my “special” glasses against the wall. I was not crying in her office because it is hard to be a parent of a special needs child. I was crying because I was being lied to. And my suspicions were confirmed once I contacted the Illinois State Board of Education.

Of course, it didn’t take long to pick up the phone and call our advocate. She immediately asked, why would they want an IQ score on him, are they thinking of changing his placement? I said no, not that I am aware of. His reports have all been positive, he is doing really well in his program and learning. She encouraged me to call and ask his teacher and sure enough, they are thinking that maybe this is not the best placement because although he is learning, his rate of growth is slower than others in the classroom. Really? What part of the purpose of our son having an IEP (Individualized Education Program) does she not understand? Like ALL students in our school district, each student learns at a different pace. I hung up the phone and cried. I actually cried on an off for 2 days. I could not understand how all of a sudden we are back to where we were 3 short years ago.

And so, wearing my “special” glasses, I have spent all of winter break setting up the testing for our son to have done privately at our expense. I want to make sure that the person testing him has one goal and only one goal in mind. That goal is to gather information about Sam as a learner. The neuropsychologist that we have hired is not hoping to have Sam score low on his IQ test so that his school placement can be changed. She is not hoping to identify Sam’s weaknesses as a way to move him out of the program and school that up until December his teacher and therapists thought were such a good fit for Sam. She is looking to learn more about Sam so we can find ways to improve his ability to learn. Her goal corresponds to our family mission statement, which is to help Sam to become everything he can be!

The next few months are full of testing appointments for Sam, meetings with our advocate and eventually Sam’s annual review. I will continue to wear my “special” glasses and continue to remember what they mean to me. These “special” glasses will serve as a reminder to me that our family’s mission statement is the key driving force in everything I do. My goal is to help Sam and Samantha become everything they can be! And no obstacle, including a school district, is going to stand in this mom’s way!

Photo by Salmando

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