Thoughts on Assessing Schools and School Programs: TPGA Project
So I'm working on a piece on autism schools and school programs, and specifically on how to choose these, for The Thinking Person's Guide to Autism. I'm also working on a piece about IEPs and IEP meetings. I know, not exactly 'fun' topics, and some of my favorites.
Remember, I think ancient Greek grammar is fun (there, I've said it; I really do). And I asked to teach Elementary Latin at 8am Tuesdays and Fridays next fall—with a class on Roman law directly after at 9.30am.
Anyways, in starting to write these pieces for TPGA, I've felt overwhelmd in the face of the size, scope, and seriousness of these topics. I want to write something that's non-threatening and relatively easy to read, rather than, ahem, 'dissertation-ish'—no point in making a daunting topic daunting. To that end, I'm setting down some preliminary thoughts and notes here. And, I'd love to know what you think parents in particular and people in general should know in assessing schools and school programs for students on the spectrum—programs both public and private, in-district and out-of-district; programs for children at a variety of ages (preschool, elementary, middle school, high school—I am not going to touch college/university!); programs and schools that involve mainstreaming and inclusion, and programs that are (literally) separate schools/centers. Teacher training and staff support and are the speech therapists and OTs and PTs on staff or just contracted out? What about the behaviorists: Are they on staff? Outside consultants? Does it matter whether or not they have BCBAs? Is there a nurse on staff who understands the medical and health issues faced by children on the autism spectrum and with disabilities?
Methodologies. Facilities. 'The extras': music, art, P.E. Student-to-staff ratio. Technology. Access to augmentative communication devices.
The list goes on.
I'll start by writing about where Charlie is school-wise now—about how Charlie is the boy in the photo above, home after a good day at school and preparing himself a snack.
Tuesday Charlie woke at 5am and he and I went for ab early morning walk. He gathered his things and went to wait in the car while I finished packing his lunch and Jim got ready; Charlie breakfasted (en auto) on a partially finished pack of sushi.
(Hey, not bad from a nutritional perspective—-with rice, fish, and cucumbers and avocados, he got in three out of the four food groups from that pack of sushi.)
Jim and Charlie left about 15 minutes earlier than they had to which meant (1) they got in a fun Dad 'n' son ride around the Big Autism Center, a ride which Charlie would have us do most days if he could and (2) they didn't miss any of Phil Schaap. I thought Charlie might be sleepy and take a snooze at school (he hadn't gone to bed till almost 11pm Monday night) but the report was that he not only hadn't, he'd had a good day.
Charlie directed me to stop at a gas station convenience store where he did something that we're counting as new, though it may seem like a small detail to many: He sighted a small red box of Duncan Hines brownie mix and asked to get it. I was pretty sure (and was later to be proved right) that Charlie wouldn't touch the brownies once baked. Of course, I still had the disastrous incident of the red (Betty Crocker) brownie box in my mind. Prior to that incident at a local grocery store, I had tried many a time to get Charlie to choose a different box of brownie mix and he'd each time adamantly said 'NO.' So I reminded myself 'This is a big little' as Charlie stood holding onto the little red box saying 'I want, yes, brownies.'
And so we got the mix, and, once home, made brownies, and Charlie–who'd been very fixated on the process of making the Betty Crocker mix we used to get, down to insisting on getting 'two eggs'—adapted nicely. This mix only called for one egg and that's exactly how many he took out from the carton, after adding the oil and water I had poured into a measuring cup. He stirred a little and walked away once that part was over: Time for the computer.
(After washing his hands, of course.)
(But then the fries and ketchup.)
After a short while, Charlie asked for his bike helmet and he and Jim had a good workout in a great deal of traffic; something about the end of the school year and the warm weather seems to bring out the cars and people. Charlie was fidgety once back, trying a little watermelon and then asking for lemonade, and then asking again and again for more before settling down on the old blue couch with some music (ah, those Disney tunes) and becoming visibly more smiley and peaceful easy-feeling. By 7pm, he told us he was 'all done' with the computer and went over by his shoes, and announced 'bed time.' 40 minutes later, out.
An hour and a half hour later, up. And soon off for a night walk in the cool air with Jim. Following snacking/late dinner and some stomp-running around the house, Charlie went back to bed, in easy expectation that tomorrow would bring another day of the same, starting with school.
Next Monday is Charlie's last day of school. It's a bit later than it was scheduled to be, due to all those snow days earlier this year. He has just over a week off and then, on June 30th, begins 6 weeks of Extended School Year (ESY) = summer school, 5 days a week and each school day just a half-hour shorter than during the regular school year. His teacher will be the same though not the aides (that's all right; the aides in his class have changed a couple of times since he started at the BAC last November) and they'll pretty much be doing the same things. In other words, from Charlie's and our perspective, this is a just-right ESY set-up: No real changes from the usual school year.
It's been a good school year.
That is, it's been good since Charlie started at the Big Autism Center in November after being in an autism/ABA classroom in a public middle school that, it was more than clear, was no longer appropriate.
This has also been the year of me biting my tongue. Charlie could have attended the BAC several months earlier, perhaps even last June. As I've written, we moved to another town in June of 2006 so Charlie could attend that town's in-district autism program. He had two good years in an elementary school but everything changed when he entered middle school in June of 2008 and the experience has left me thinking hard about what exactly one is looking for in choosing a school for a child on the autism spectrum.
Prior to Charlie going to the BAC, I spent last spring and summer visiting many of the private autism schools here in New Jersey. There are quite a few (here's a list from AutismNJ) with a certain few considered the most desirable get your child into. All of these schools had the methodology we thought we needed—ABA, delivered inte
nsely and incorporated into every aspect of the students' learning. They also had a 1:1 student radio. But they only really accept students who are very—three years old—and spots don't tend to open up as the students stay at the school for the duration of their education.
The student-to-staff ratio at the BAC is 2:1 (though the ratio often works out more to 1:1 as a student might be absent, someone might be in training, or there's just someone around who can be an extra person in a classroom). It's a 'behavioral school' but the teaching isn't done with the strict exactitude as at the other schools. There are 'behavior specialists' on staff but they don't (as far as I know) have BCBAs. The BAC occupies a huge building that has a lot of open space and a high ceiling so Charlie can go on walks anytime, no worries about the weather. The BAC's where he gradually stopped wearing the helmet that the public autism program's outside consultant had him wear. When I go to meetings with Charlie's teacher and the behaviorist, they always say 'we love having Charlie here; he's such a great kid!'.
So maybe my first point for my essay is going to be something along the lines of: Yes, make sure all the details of methodology, sufficient and sufficiently trained and supported staff, are there. Be attuned to the physical plant: Your child will be spending a lot of time in it. But be wary of getting too hung up, too set and insistent, some one school (especially if that school has a couple hundred children vying for a very few places). Don't overlook kindness—in the teachers, in the staff, in the director.
Do you sense that the staff really wants to have your child there?
The child you know in front of you, not the child the staff or anyone wishes to 'recover' the child into? Because it's that child in front of you who needs to be taught, in ways that recognize his neurological, sensory, and communicative differences and challenges.
I think I'm getting an idea of where my TPGA schools piece might be going.