September 9, 2012
Dear Person Concerned with Education:
My name is Kathy King and I am the mother of a special needs child in Baltimore City. Elinore is four years old and recently diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. She is enrolled in the Bright and Ready program run by Baltimore City Public School at the Enoch Pratt Free Library on Reisterstown Road. This is the program recommended by the IEP team at our meeting in July of 2012.
On the first day, I was willing to overlook some of the problems we encountered, due to the program being brand new. The transportation provided by the city did not show up, and we scrambled for a ride so as not to miss that all important first day. Upon arriving, I discovered that Elinore is the only student enrolled. Aside from the fact that her IEP specifies peer interaction, I was excited to think of all the one-on-one attention my child would receive. Her program meets two days a week, Mondays and Thursdays, for two and a half hours. I wondered between the IEP meeting and the first day of school how such a short program would prepare my student for Kindergarten. At the school, I learned that Bright and Ready is a three year old program. I felt like my child had been failed a grade before she even began her school career. Out of that amount of time, Elinore is to attend two half hour sessions at the library for story time. She did enjoy the stories with movement and music. I began having doubts about the academic nature of the program. The program takes place in the meeting room in the library, and that first day, I mentally excused the lack of supplies; none of the following were available for my four year old: pencils, paper, crayons, markers, play dough, paint, blocks, dress-up, alphabet posters. The room provided one child sized table with four chairs, and one carpet. There was nothing else.
On the second day, I expected a little more organization and preschool-like surroundings. The teacher assured me since Elinore was the only student in the class, she would administer some assessments and tailor a program specifically for Elinore, at least until more students arrived. This sounded promising. I observed while a few assessments were administered with some breaks thrown in when Elinore had difficulty concentrating, and checked on Hannah, my eighth-grade home-schooler working independently in the library. Elinore's teacher also read a book about dinosaurs at school, and discussed school behavior such as raising her hand, being polite, taking turns, and other social amenities that Elinore may have had trouble applying in her class of one. Elinore was expected to raise her hand to talk to the teacher, to ask for a break, and to use the potty. Elinore has both expressive and receptive language delays and cannot verbalize her need for a break or to use the potty, and these issues are addressed in her IEP. The teacher also wanted Elinore to sit properly in her chair and tried to teach her how to move it. At lunch, I noted that it was a deli meat sandwich with fruit cup and drink choice, the same as on the first day. I wondered if her entire school lunch experience would consist of lunch meat sandwiches. The cafeteria sent ten lunches for my one student, so my older daughter and I were invited to partake. After lunch, I played hide and seek with Elinore at her request, and the teacher's assistant borrowed some toys from the library upstairs while the teacher was working on her laptop. Elinore had 50 minutes of "free time" and started running in circles, a repetitive motion activity she engages in for sensory input. Elinore was so distraught by the lack of structure, schedule, and social behaviors with no practical application, that in the taxi on the way home she started yanking her own hair out, a behavior we have never seen. She also engaged in spitting and biting herself, two more new behaviors. Her sister and I had to physically restrain her.
I was relieved that Monday was Labor Day with no school, and asked that Elinore's grandmother attend school with her on Thursday. I wanted someone else to see what I was seeing. My apprehension was slightly relieved on Thursday when the teacher greeted us with a schedule. The teacher also mentioned a few activities such as calendar time, and learning to carry a tray that were impossible to complete without the calendar and the tray. Before I went upstairs, I voiced some of my concerns to the teacher. How long before Elinore's IEP supports would be in place? Elinore does not do well with chairs, as we had seen on day two, and a fidget cushion, toys, and weighted items were specified in her IEP. When would her speech therapy start? The teacher had no idea Elinore was to receive speech therapy, nor how to access this service, or even a phone number to access someone who might know. Perhaps her zone school? I pointed out on Elinore's IEP that this option was declined as less than optimal, and it was my understanding at the IEP meeting that she would receive this in her school setting. I asked to see the outcome goals of the program. What was my daughter expected to learn by the end of the year? She assured me that there would be quarterly assessments, but did not have anything tangible to show me in terms of a lesson plan or annual goals. The end of Thursday marked the end of the first half of her first month in school, and I felt like we had wasted valuable time.
On Thursday, Elinore's grandmother, who has a degree in special education, and many years of experience with IEP meetings for her own children, made a page and a half of notes which she shared with me. Some were positive, some were neutral, and some were concerning. The main issue was one of the teachers commenting that Elinore did better without her mother in the room. At the July IEP meeting, we were assured that a parent was not only welcome, but encouraged to attend. It seemed, perhaps, that the teacher was not fully aware of the goals of the program, one of which was encouraging parent involvement in the learning process. Also, Elinore had been sitting on the carpet for two hours with no movement breaks. We had planned to lunch with Elinore, as we had been made to feel welcome the previous week, but Elinore was told to pretend we weren't there, and eat lunch at her little table, so Grandma, Hannah and I went upstairs. When Hannah opened the peaches, she found mold! I raced downstairs to stop Elinore from eating her lunch and the teacher assured me the food could not be moldy. I had to prove it by showing her. Hannah and her grandma both suffered from food poisoning that night, I presume from the sandwich Elinore did not eat. I rejoined Elinore and her grandma a little before the end of the school day to see if I was a distraction, but she merely acknowledged me with a glance and continued listening to the teacher's aide read a story while the teacher worked on her laptop. When instructional time was over, the teacher had Elinore demonstrate her new skill of using six steps to close a door.
Once home, I made what seemed like dozens of phone calls to address the issues of no supplies, moldy school lunch, speech therapy, the lack of IEP supports, and the self destructive behaviors that appeared to be directly linked to her school experience. She had just finished an hour and a half, once-a-week, six week long program at Kennedy Krieger's Fairmount school to prepare her for a classroom setting, so starting school was not the issue. We are a homeschooling family, and none of our five children were ever enrolled in public school. The reason we enrolled Elinore was because her developmental pediatrician recommended a school setting to help her learn social skills and to receive speech therapy. Since there are no other students enrolled in her class, and her speech therapy has been moved to her zone school, it seems that there is no reason for Elinore to attend this program. I am very concerned that virtually none of Elinore's IEP accommodations have been addressed (Elinore does receive preferential seating by the teacher).
I am appalled at the deficits this program contains, not just at start up, where basic supplies should have been available, but that continue two weeks after school has started. The special needs students of Baltimore City deserve better than empty classrooms and moldy lunches.
I am thinking I will polish the letter and send it to Mrs. Obama, my Senators, my Representatives, the Governor, Mayor, every pertinent person on the school board and each IEP team member. Only, the letter will be at least twice this long because we have since had two more IEP meetings, and more adventures.