January 26, 2007
VIA CERTIFIED MAIL
Ms. E___ M_____
Dear Ms. M_______:
Our daughter, Stella ________, DOB _______, is currently enrolled in a special education classroom at P.S. Q112.
Stella has a diagnosis of Down syndrome and experiences severe delays in expressive communication as well as physical challenges. We feel very strongly that her current placement does not appropriately serve Stella’s needs.
Therefore, we would like to request that Stella be re-evaluated and an alternative placement be pursued as soon as possible.
Thank you for your assistance.
A______ L_______ R______ B______
That morning, Bob agreed to drop me off on the way into Manhattan. We were both anxious and stressed, and we ended up snapping at each other (the next I see him in the afternoon he will drop a small shopping bag emblazoned with the logo “Chocolate Bar” on the bed where I sit with my laptop—a peace offering). Traffic signals seemed magically to turn red just as we approached each intersection, double-parked cars appeared on every block specifically to delay us. We were running late.
At ten-fifteen, my cell phone played the Clash’s “London Calling.” It was Debbie, who has a high-pitched voice that can sound a bit hysterical—I assured her I was just a few minutes away.
Bob stops at the red light and I leap out of the van rather than wait for him to turn the corner. I jog up the steps to the Dresden-blue metal doors. Debbie is waiting at the security desk and convinces the officer to give me a hall pass (after I show ID and sign in) so that I don’t need to wait in the school office. I avoid meeting Debbie’s eyes. The anxiety is palpable as we walk up the stairs and through the gym to the therapists’ offices in the back.
The room is not large, but there is space enough. After brief greetings, we sit in small chairs, in a circle. I have removed my coat, hat, scarf, and taken out a notebook and pen. A tension pervades the room, and to break it, I ask about the daily routine, taking careful notes. It has occurred to me that I have a very unclear idea of what my daughter does every day, and somehow it seems important that I remedy that.
Pat answers me carefully, and little by little I am able to understand Stella’s experience in the classroom: first, breakfast, then looking at books in the classroom. I’m told that Stella particularly likes to “read” to the stuffed giraffe. Then, most mornings, they head to the gym for adaptive phys ed. After that comes reading circle—Stella has a hard time sitting in the circle, and sometimes lies down immediately. Next is lunch, at eleven, and afterwards is quite time on the four days that they don’t work on computers. Stella often falls asleep, they tell me, and they just let her sleep. Between quiet time and dismissal the class either goes to the library, does math, or has a science lesson.
I remark on the rigorous structure, the lack of free play. “It’s the curriculum,” says Pat. “Kindergarten isn’t kindergarten anymore.”
Mindy confirms this. “Their curriculum is the same as it is for the General Education kindergarten.”
I look around the circle. “You mean you aren’t allowed to let them have free play?”
Everyone looks wistful. Pat says, “Before I came here, the teacher from last year told me the principal made her throw away all the toys. I had to go out and buy toys at the beginning of the year. I sneak in play whenever I can." She waves her hand. "Everything we learned in school—all the Piaget and everything—it’s out the window.”
“This is ridiculous for a child like Stella,” I say. "She needs to play to learn." No one disagrees. I no longer feel a sense of being the “outsider,” the enemy. We are all in this together.
Pat checks her watch—her prep time is over and she dashes off for the classroom. The others stay.
“So,” Debbie says. “Do you get the sense that this class isn’t appropriate for Stella?”
“Definitely,” I say. “What do I do now? Do I call a lawyer?”
“No,” Mindy and Debbie speak simultaneously. “You can request a re-evaluation,” Mindy continues, “And request to look for another placement.”
“Can she go to another class in the middle of the school year?”
“Definitely,” says the phys ed teacher. “Sometimes there’s a better chance of finding a space in the middle of the year.”
The therapists tell me that I need to talk to Joan, the special ed coordinator assigned to P.S. Q112, and she can advise me on the next step. A few minutes later, Joan appears at the door, followed by Pat, who had gone to fetch her.
With her blue eyes, fair skin, and “boroughs” accent, Joan reminds me and Bob of one of his Irish aunts. Her presence is calming, her voice gentle. She carefully explains my options: (1) request that Stella be allowed to repeat kindergarten; (2) request another placement in her current system; (3) request a placement in District 75, the self-contained special education schools and classrooms spread across the five boroughs, generally for students whose disabilities (often multiple) preclude them from integration into a “regular” school.
The question arises again and again: Am I doing enough for my child? I wallow in a Google search (my favorite form of procrastination)—private schools, fish oil supplements, a video series that teaches American Sign Language to infants and young children. A new school was started by three mothers whose children have Down syndrome, based on an inclusion model. Although the school’s website is mum on the subject, a New York magazine article lists the tuition as $25,600. After trying for an hour, I finally locate the list of state-approved “non-public schools”, i.e., places where parents who do not find an appropriate public school class for their child can send them on the Board of Ed’s nickel. I really will know little, if anything, about these places until I actually visit them. I track the certified letter to the Board of Ed on the Postal Service website and steel myself for the process ahead.