Abandoning the local primary school was not part of our plan. But after watching our son spend a school year buffeted between his home room and various pullouts intended to bolster his speech, fine motor, reading, math and social skills, we — and he — had had enough.
To be clear, our public school team was well-meaning, but the more supports they arranged for our son, the more fragmented his days and his learning became. This for a kid who does not transition well. At all.
Several professionals, both inside and outside the school system, urged us to take a new tack. They suggested we request an instructional assistant, someone who would sit with our son and help him focus and rebuild his confidence for learning. At least for a few months. Maybe for a school year. We did some research, made our request, worked to build consensus and, roughly a year ago, were shot down.
“We want him to be an independent learner,” insisted the special services director.
Oh? Well, I want a pony. And world peace while we’re at it here, tossing pennies in the well.
That is when we knew for certain that a change of scenery was in order. We checked out a few options and enrolled our son in an independent K-8 day school about 20 miles from home. Set on a bucolic five acres, grassy fields and wetlands, flowers and trees, it had mixed-grade classrooms and student art covering every available surface. It offered no special services per se, but each student — whether ahead of the curve or behind it — was set up with the equivalent of an individualized education plan (IEP). After years of trying to “help” our son in a traditional venue, the school seemed like a much-needed break. I told friends and family, “We’re putting him out to pasture.”
But inside I worried, imagining things could go one of two ways: he might chill so far out that he’d drop farther behind; or the change of scenery might jump start his desire to learn.
In September our son joined a pack of 16 first and second graders and ever since has since been with them all day long, for math and reading and lunch and art and music and PE and Spanish and everything else. (Except standardized testing. Crazy school doesn’t spend weeks prepping for, giving and recovering from testing its early learners. Imagine that.)
Flash forward to the end of the school year. Our son loves his new school. He has made academic progress like never before. He spells. He reads. He does math. He creates beautiful art projects. He sings. He tells me things are “humongous,” and when I misunderstand, he tells me how it “actually” is. He plays on a soccer team with his classmates, adores his friends and greets their parents when he sees them. All this with zero — zero — pullouts. (I do not emphasize this to devalue what our public school educators were trying to accomplish. My point is, whether we’re talking shoes or education, one size does not fit all.)
Wednesday evening the school hosted a celebration marking the end of its monthlong homespun version of the winter Olympics. Divided into mixed-aged teams, students in the first-eighth grades had been competing in events like speed skating (on cardboard skates), cross-country skiing (with four team members strapped to one pair of long wooden skis) and running races. Points were being tallied and, at the end of the long night, the medalists would be announced.
Did I mention it was a long night? Potluck supper, various sporting events and general outdoor mayhem preceded a gathering in the gym for an “ice” dancing performance, songs and an awards ceremony. This after a day of school and, for our son, church choir practice. Sitting with friends just out of earshot from me, he was holding it together but was clearly drained and not paying much attention to anything. The bronze and silver medalists were announced, the crowd cheered, and the students on those teams ran to the front of the room to have medals placed around their necks and photos taken.
Then the gold-medal team was announced. Our son’s team! He showed no reaction, lost in thought.
Before I could get his attention, his teammates leaped up in excitement, and the two middle-schoolers on his team ran straight for our son, pulling him to his feet and to the front of the gym, where the entire room celebrated their winning the gold.
That’s right. Middle schoolers. Unprompted. Looked out for a little guy. Our little guy.
I am a world-class worrier, and exiting the public education superhighway has caused me more than my share of fears. Will we regret his missing out on speech therapy? Will his missing standardized tests now put him at a test-taking disadvantage later? Is this new school too artsy-fartsy, too far off the grid to be effective?
Today I answer myself with an unequivocal no. Those questions focus on the wrong topics. When I think of the progress our son and his classmates have made this school year, and I consider our new community — this crazy, diverse group of parents, teachers and students that cheers on and supports everyone’s kids, that grows middle schoolers who make sure to include the little schoolers — I want this to be the focus of everyone’s education: to give students the opportunity to celebrate learning, to teach children, and adults, to celebrate each other.