I’ve decided to start going back over the things that I couldn’t discuss while we were going through the IEP process, and talking about them as they occur to me to write them… so some of these things, over the next few weeks, might seem like they’re coming a bit out of right field.
When we were a few weeks into the school year, and it started becoming apparent that a mainstreamed classroom at Mount Washington wasn’t the right placement for the Monster, we started considering our options. The Temporary Adult Support (TAS) helped to some extent, but it was clear that what the Monster needed really was to be moved to another placement.
Placement for a child with special needs proceeds along the lines of something called LRE – the Least Restrictive Environment. Specifically, the schools attempt to place a child in the ‘least restrictive environment’ to try to give them the benefit of being with their non-disabled peers as much as is possible. The least restrictive environment is a mainstreamed classroom, and the most restrictive is “non-public, separate”, where the schools send the child in question to a private school with only disabled children.
Clearly, the Monster was not going to be retained in a fully mainstreamed classroom – he was failing all of his academic subjects that did anything approaching real grading, and he was not making much progress at all in his in-school therapy. Mount Washington also doesn’t have any separated classrooms that would allow at all for partial inclusion, so it was very quickly obvious to us that he was going to be transferred to another program.
In the course of discussions in the IEP meeting in March, the PAL – Program for Autistic Learners – came up, and we took it on ourselves to request a visit to the program, so we’d be informed before any placement discussions as to what we were potentially looking at.
PAL is housed at seven schools in Baltimore City, set up in a manner that allows for the students to be mostly separate from the school body, but having lunch in the cafeteria and having access to specials such as art and music with non-disabled peers. The classes have a very low student-to-teacher ratio arranged in vague near-age groupings, and are individually tailored to the students in the program (as should be expected with for any child with an IEP). As such, it sounded like a promising option when we arranged for the visit to one of the programs at a school near our home.
The arrival at the school is where the visit started to go off the rails.
For starters, soon after our arrival, we were informed of the fact that the PAL program is a certificate program. In Maryland, you can earn one of two things, if you complete your schooling with the public schools – you can earn a diploma, which is what most graduates of the high schools receive, or you can earn a certificate of high school completion, which states that the student in question has the necessary skills “to enter the world of work, act responsibly as a citizen, and enjoy a fulfilling life”. This is a major issue for a few reasons:
- The Monster is seven. He’s a first grader, meaning he has at least eleven more years of schooling ahead of him. It’s a bit early, from where we’re sitting, to decide that he’s incapable of getting a diploma.
- All of his teachers have talked about how intelligent he is, the potential he has, and that is even considering the fact that he had so much trouble this year. A certificate program would do nothing to further that education, since it concentrates on life skills, rather than academics – think counting money, reading a clock, and that kind of practical education.
This was compounded a few minutes after that by being informed that we wouldn’t be allowed to see the K-2 classroom due to an issue with a student in the room, and that we’d be allowed to see the Grade 3-5 and 6-8 rooms. It seemed very strange to me to not include the grade-level of the student that would be potentially placed in there – it’s kind of like telling a parent that they can see the high school for their incoming kindergartener as a sample of what the school district is like – but… again, in the interest of being part of the process, we continued with the tour anyway.
The classrooms were geared very much towards the practical education that we mentioned – students had work that they did in isolation from one another, proceeding through individualized lessons to cover the skills that they were attempting to master, per their IEPs. (We were shown a sample binder that demonstrated how the curriculum had been individualized for one of the students.) But… this didn’t address our major issue. The Monster’s difficulties stem from communications delay, and we heard almost no language use in the classroom – it was fairly silent, and students were using visual schedules and combinations of gestures and PECS to communicate back and forth. The teaching staff was very involved with the students in their classroom, but still, from what we observed in the short time we were present, there was little done in the intensive nature of communications intervention that the Monster needs…
Which gets to the crux of the problem – the appropriateness of the program. I’m sure, for some students, PAL is a fantastic option that fills the students’ needs. The major thing we left the program with, though, was that it was not the right environment for the Monster – instead of helping him past the difficulties he’s been having, it would just stagnate his language development and he’d never have the opportunity to catch up to his non-disabled peers.
The right program, in our minds, would be one that would help the Monster develop his skills and re-integrate into a mainstreamed classroom someday. So, with our having decided PAL was not an appropriate option, we started to consider the next rung on the ladder…
Your summary and description of your visit is very accurate and clear in terms of why the PAL setting would be inappropriate for your son. Hopefully, with intensive language therapy, your child will one day be able to return to a less restrictive setting. I only observed your son a few times at Mt. Washington, but, based upon my observations and a review of his records, I also am in agreement that his potential has yet to be fully realized. You have much to be hopeful for regarding his new educational setting and I wish him a very successful school year. Nevertheless, I encourage you to request IEP meetings every quarter of the school year to review his progress. The school system legally is required to respond to your request for an IEP meeting within 30 days of your request. Thank you for your diligence to get the needed services for your child.