So I've sung the praises of our school district's special education and early intervention services quite a bit, haven't I? Sure, we've had some problems, some arguments, some skeptical looks shot across the conference table, but for the most part, our experiences have been primarily positive.
And that's generally the story I tell to parents I meet online and real life who ask for advice or guidance about what to do when they're standing with a new diagnosis in one hand and no real road map in the other.
I met a mother this past summer like that. Her child was 5 and newly labeled as PDD-NOS. They'd relocated from out of state, started new jobs, and had not yet settled on a permanent place to live. English was not her first language, and she had no idea where to start looking for help. Our kids ended up in the same summer camp class together, and I tried to give her a brief overview on dealing with the school district and who to call and what to expect at the evaluations.
I sensed that she was getting conflicting information from a bunch of different places, along with some bad assumptions about what services were actually available and how to go about qualifying for them, but I quickly figured out that our path into special ed at age 3 was completely different than the path for a 5-year-old, and that I could offer little "real" help myself. But that was okay, I assured her. Just get yourself in for an evaluation. Everything will fall into place after that, just like it did for us.
They got themselves in for an evaluation. She texted me the decision.
"He didn't qualify."
I was stunned. What? How could he not qualify? For anything? He's just like Noah! Almost exactly, only if Noah wasn't getting the help he gets! We didn't even have the PDD-NOS thing, officially, and we qualified! Did they not read the assessments and evaluations you already had? Did they not do X and did you say Y and what about Z?
There's an appeals process, of course, one that usually sends families to the offices of educational advocates and consultants and mediators to help them navigate and bolster their case. I collected names and phone numbers for her, as did some of the teachers from camp, but I could see the defeat in her eyes that conveyed exactly what she was already thinking: Screw them, I'll just send him to private school.
Maybe private school will be the right choice for her child. Lord knows we'd like to avoid the cost of it, but we'd never rule it out as a possibility if we found that the public school was no longer meeting Noah's needs.
But listening to HER experiences with the school district -- a team who clearly took advantage of a set of parents who were not prepared to argue or fight back, who disregarded previous written assessments and opinions, who were quick to wave off a child's struggles and delays as "immaturity" and put off responsibility for him until next year, MAYBE -- it's been an eye-opening, humbling experience.
I like my version of special education, where my child is surrounded by people who truly have his best interests at heart ... and not a budget-strapped bureaucracy struggling to keep student numbers down and hustle borderline kids out the door. I like thinking that if we meet at the IEP table with common goals and a reasonable amount of education on my part, we'll get what Noah needs with a minimum of drama or headaches.
I don't like thinking that wow, maybe we just got lucky.