Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Final Push

So it's been mentioned that I have been neglectful in my blogging as of late, but rest assured once this final push is over I'll be back to posting totally useless things in far greater numbers. My final Chinese exam is scheduled for Friday. Although I am confident I will easily be able to pass with the minimum score, I would obviously like to score my very best so I am still feeling the pressure during this final week.

All other essentials are basically taken care of. Since we leaving almost directly for home leave, we already had our pack out (kind of nightmare that ended up turning out okay thanks to my super awesome Transportation Counselor), kids are confirmed enrolled in school (and our top choice at that!), housing assignment received and duly fawned over, sponsors have already reached out to us, all home leave travel and tickets arranged, Husband has a confirmed job at the Consulate ( no word on start date, but at least we know he will be working!), new Reserve assignment approved and already gained to my new unit With the exception of a few hiccups things have really fallen into place quite nicely. All that's left is to pass my test!

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Our Journey So Far

My son was diagnosed with Apraxia and SID/SPD at the age of 2 1/2. We had known for some time that there was something different about A. As the youngest of 5 (at that time), it was easy for us to note the differences in his development when compared to the four who came before. He has since been diagnosed with ADHD, Dysgraphia, and Dyslexia (sometimes known as "specific learning disorder in the area of reading"). Having moved to two different states (three counties) and two different countries since his first diagnosis, we have become extraordinary familiar with the special needs education system in the U.S. (which varies widely by state) and within the State Department (which offers amazing support - one of the best perks of being an FSO, IMO). I continually update this resource page whenever I add a new post about our journey as a special needs family.

Our Journey:
October 2014
September 2014
September 2014
December 2012
September 2011
August 2011
July 2011
April 2010
December 2009
November 2009
October 2009
September 2009
September 2009
September 2009
August 2009
August 2009
July 2009

Special Needs Reading:
Dyslexia & Spelling
No Such Thing as Sight Words?

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Retro in Retrospect

So I've mentioned a few times that last month I went back to my hometown to meet up with some of my oldest and dearest friends. And when I say old, I mean some of us have literally known each other since birth. Two of us were born at the same hospital, three of us grew up in the same neighborhood, while the fourth joined us in about 3rd/4th grade. I've stayed in touch with each of them on and off for years, but Facebook has made it easy to feel like we each know what's going on in each others lives. About 4-5 years ago the three of them got together in New York unexpectedly. One of us lives in NYC, another works out of NYC (she's a flight attendant), and the third was there for a conference. So out of the blue they skyped me:

And thus was born the idea of a reunion. Of course, just a short time later I joined the State Department and we moved to the Philippines making such a reunion a little out of reach. So during this last short time in the US, I was determined to make it happen. Everything fell into place remarkably well considering the odds. Currently we live in rural Michigan, Chicago, NYC, and Northern Virginia; one of us is a flight attendant, one is project manager in construction, one is a diplomat, and one runs a canoe livery! Our hometown is about an hours drive from me, making it within driving distance for me and the girl who lives in NYC. My flight attendant friend is able to fly for free, so it was no issue for her. Luckily my other friend in Michigan has most of her family still living in our hometown giving her a great excuse to come visit. Additionally, the weekend we chose just happened to be her little sister's birthday. Little sister generously offered up the use of her gorgeous house to us in exchange for dog sitting for the weekend. So the date was set just a few weeks in advance.

I admit, I was a little nervous. These girls were like family to me. They shared almost every event of my childhood from birth til I was 16 and moved to Albuquerque.* We played together, trick-or-treated together, vacationed together, went to camp together, went through bat mitzvahs and crazy Unitarian Church coming of age rituals together...I can't think of a single defining childhood moment that one of those girls wasn't a part of. Still, it had been 20 years. No, really, 20 years(!!) since I had last seen most of them.** Our lives had gone in totally different directions. I knew I would have a great time, but I was not sure what to expect.

It's hard to put into words what it's like to have people like this in your life. Even though we live in completely different places and have such different lives, the minute we all were together it was like we were never apart. There was no hesitation or weirdness or uncertainty. We instantly fell back into conversing like the years had never passed (although hopefully our conversations were a little more meaningful then our 15-year old versions!). As one of them wrote afterward, "I have good friends here in XX but I felt so close with you gals and wish I could get together with you all all the time! Hanging out with you was more than reminiscing, it was hanging out with very good friends."

It was really astonishing to me how deeply connected I feel to these girls. It really was more than reminiscing. We all have very similar outlooks on life, our political and social stances are more than compatible, our way of communicating and interacting was similar, almost familial. It really says something about how and where we were raised. Our hometown is a completely unique place. I've never seen or heard of anyplace quite like it. It was originally a planned community for low- to mid-income families who needed to commute to Baltimore and DC. It was an extraordinarily diverse area, almost a live action version of Free to Be You and Me.*** In my elementary school we celebrated Christmas, Hannukah, Diawali, Ramadan, and Kwanzaa. On my block alone we were white, black, hispanic, and Asian all living, playing, and celebrating together. We had a 4th of July parade every year where the kids would dress up in red, white, and blue and prance around the neighborhood in our radio flyer wagons or on bikes or big wheels. It was an awesome, awesome thing. I just never appreciated how completely different it was to grow up in a place where diversity was encouraged and celebrated.

Of course, it's not the same now. I mean, the area we grew up in kind of looks the same. Same houses, some of the same families****, same school, same neighborhood pool, same weird little graveyard in the middle of a suburban development, but the diversity we never appreciated is dwindling. I hesitated to put the name of my hometown out there into the ethernet simply because it has become so known as a place with expensive housing, a place almost synonymous with elitism. It's really quite a stark contrast to the idyllic world I grew up in. A world we did not appreciate at all at the time. I think we all grew up thinking how in hell can we get out of here! Two of us went directly to college and never looked back, the other two (myself included) left earlier. We never even finished high school. We took a slightly more roundabout way to our personal success stories. And I was delighted to note that all of us have become extremely successful and content people. I think that also speaks volumes to how and where we are raised.

Anyway, getting back to the personal element. We only managed 2 days together this time, mostly because we've all got jobs and families that need us, and also because our timeline was rather pinched thanks to my imminent departure. But I know we'll meet again. We're already hoping and planning for 2016 in Hong Kong! I feel so incredibly blessed that somehow I have people like these girls in my life. It is really extraordinary to me that we have such a deep connection. I don't feel like that happens very often. It certainly makes me a bit sad that I have constantly moved my children from place to place. I don't think our decision to move around is a bad one, there are many wonderful things they will take away from their unique experiences living around the country and around the world, but it has certainly made their childhoods very different from mine.

Check out our then and now:

*Which I now consider to be my hometown.
**One actually ended up moving to Albuquerque for a period of time, but it was still a good 12-15 years since I'd last seen her.
***Which I also never realized wasn't required watching until I was much, much older. Also, it is awesome and you should all go either watch it or listen to the music right now. 
****In fact, one of the girls mom's still lives her old house. It was such a trip to visit and have lunch there! 

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Still Kicking Ass and Taking Names

Even though I did just have baby #4, I have to say that when it comes to the old AF pt test I am still kicking ass and taking names. I still have to test as a Reservist, and since it had been a while thanks to this last pregnancy I was a wee bit concerned that the years might be catching up to me. Though I missed excellent by just .2% (ten seconds faster on the run will secure my old spot), I still managed to max both sit-ups and waist measurement. Not too shabby for a chick with 4 kids whose pushing 40!

Okay, enough boasting...back to my favorite pastime during PCS season - worrying. Ugh. So, so much to do and not nearly enough time to get everything done. Certainly not enough time to keep up with my blog. I mean it's already halfway through November and I haven't even blogged about Halloween! :(

They had a blast, btw. An American Halloween full of candy and pumpkins was greatly enjoyed by all (especially Hermione and Darth Vader).

Then last weekend the 'rents came back for a visit. Our time here in the US is all too precious since we won't be getting an R&R from Hong Kong (I guess there's not really all that much there to need a rest and recuperation from!), so we don't plan on coming back for the duration of our time there. It's been so nice to have my parents (relatively) close by. This is the 3rd visit for each, and then we will also spend a good chunk of time with them during our home leave. It's been wonderful watching their relationships with my children develop so nicely. Skype is great for maintaining contact, but I find that medium is not really conducive to building a relationship at least with children so young.

While we didn't do much while they were here (besides the usual gluttony and wine, that is), we did spend a day in Shenandoah enjoying the last of the lovely fall weather.

And Grandma even cooked with J a couple of times. They made an awesome baked ziti, which I totally forgot to take a picture of. And then she made candy sleighs with J and A. So cute! Wish I had her talent and patience to make some of those creations. I have such great memories of doing stuff like that with my mom when I was a kid. It's nice to see that at least my older sis (who made my awesome nephew a Minecraft cake for his 5th b-day) is carrying on the tradition.

Ok that last picture has nothing to do with anything I've posted, but he's just so chuckaliciously cute that maybe I'll be forgiven that I still haven't posted about my Columbia reunion. I promise it's coming soon, but I have a lot to say there so I need more time to gather my thoughts.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Parents Weekend

I try so hard to keep up with this blog, but invariably life moves ahead too quickly! This past weekend was actually my reunion with some incredible childhood friends whom I hadn't seen in person in over 20 years. But that post will have to wait because the weekend before that was parents weekend at C's school. It was highly suggested that parents wait until that official visiting weekend before coming to see their children in person, so that the kids could get used to being on their own (maybe it was a little bit for the parents benefit, too!). So wait we did. Unfortunately, poor C had another volleyball accident. Same ankle as last January, too. At first they thought it might be a break, but the x-rays didn't show anything, so they scheduled an MRI for so the same weekend as parents weekend. It meant I missed out on meeting her teachers and seeing her classes, but I did get to spend some quality time with my daughter and take her to an important medical appointment, so it wasn't exactly a loss. J had an important soccer game (A's was canceled due to the condition of the field), so it ended up just being me and the boys making the trip up. I wish I would I pulled over during my drive because the foliage was amazing! But, a screaming baby in the backseat does not make for a scenic drive*, so I'll just have to settle for my memories. The good news is that my insurance covers most of C's physical therapy; the bad news is that the MRI confirmed she has a torn ligament and will be needing that physical therapy for a while. Poor C! :(

In the good news corner, C is really loving school. It's not like this was some quick fix, cure all. C has coasted by on being smart her whole life. But this school demands more, and they are used to students like C. She's had a double strike since she's had to take so much time off to go to various doctors appointments thanks to her injury, so she was already falling behind in her school work. She also picked an academic class for one of her electives (psychology), which means she has a bit more schoolwork than the average kid. As a child who struggles with executive management skills, this was a recipe for disaster, but I refrained from lecturing (too much) and let her go with her choices. To sum up, she's now got mandatory study hall for two of her classes which she's struggling in (her two least favorite classes, I might add), and she had to drop her art class so that she can use that extra time to catch up on her academic classes. She was disappointed, but I was surprised how well she took it. She was very philosophical and stated she expected she'd be allowed to pick the class back up once she had her grades up. It's so nice to be the sounding board and not the bad guy!!**

 Still not really into taking pictures, I did manage to get a few candid shots.

So peaceful...

Until she realizes that I am snapping photos!

*Having just done a long car trip the previous weekend, N was pretty much over the car seat.
**Even if I can't seem to help lecturing half the time!

Monday, October 20, 2014

We Travel America, Too!

I have been so remiss in posting about all the travel we have been doing in our own country. One of the biggest lessons Husband and I have learned from living overseas is that we never want to stop seeing the world and that includes our own backyard. In the short time we've been home, we've taken trips to Williamsburg, Shenandoah, West Virginia, Long Island, and Pennsylvania to name a few. This last long weekend we drove to Deep Creek Lake in Maryland to celebrate my most favorite season: Fall! I love, love, love fall in the Northeast. While I'm a beach girl at heart, nothing beats the mid-Atlanic in mid-October for gorgeous crisp, sunny weather and amazing fall foliage. I am so glad I had a chance to share this with my children before we head back out in just a couple short months!

Besides the fabulous foliage, we spent lots of time going to quaint local fall festivals and visiting cute little farm side stands. 

We even saw a llama or two! 

But nothing compared to our visit to Candyland! Reminded me of childhood visits to the local candy store with my Grandma in Connecticut. I let the kids pick 10 different pieces, and it was the hardest decision of their lives!

Even N was impressed.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

A Complement is Not a Compliment

Today I had my first practice exam in Chinese. This is a much more informal version of the big test designed to give you an idea of where you are in relation to where you should be based on how much time you have been in training...and also to make you feel very, very stupid. Okay, I'm only kidding about that last part (not really). While I was dreading the exam, I mean who likes exams? But, frankly, it wasn't that bad. The best advice I came away with was my need to really pay attention to the small grammatical details and polish up a bit. My tester said I was well on my way to meeting my personal test goals, but I have a few very basic grammatical mistakes which disrupt my fluency. I recognize that this is due to many years of bad Chinglish habits owing to the great length in time between formal language learning, so I really need to focus on making sure those silly mistakes don't trip me up.

This exam was actually a bit of a pick me up in terms of making me feel better about how I will perform on the actual exam. The last few weeks have been particularly rough as I acquired a new, particularly demanding instructor. He's very nice, but he demands a lot. In addition, I realized that we are less than 2 months away from our move. When did that happen??!! So I kind of panicked a bit and started trying to study as much as possible. This turned out to be a rather poor idea, as it seems the more I study the more vocabulary I lose. For every new word or grammar point, it seems I've lost two others. *sigh*

I recently came across a quote I found very apropos for my current situation, "the more you travel, the more you realise how little you have seen, just as when you learn a language the amount left to learn seems to grow rather than diminish."* After studying Chinese off and on (more off than on) for the last almost 20 years, I can definitely relate. Chinese is such an interesting language. It many ways it is very straightforward and logical. Characters have individual meanings (most of the time) and are combined to make very logical combinations. For example, the Chinese word for computer is 电脑 (diànnǎo), which combines the character for electricity with the character for brain. Literally: an electric brain.

But, complements, oh complements, they are the bane of my existence (besides my old nemesis "le," but "le" fucks with everyone, so that's a given). You might be wondering what is a complement? It sounds rather nice. The answer, my friends, is that there is no answer. Because there is no English equivalent. According to the Chinese Grammar Wiki, it can be a verb, an adjective, a prepositional phrase, a measure word phrase, or a long, complex phrase. The following chart breaks it down**:
Structure of Complements
Word Preceding ComplementComplement ContentComplement TypesExample
VerbVerbResult complement
Potential complement得懂
Direction complement回来
AdjectiveResult complement
State complement得很简单
Prepositional phraseLocation complement在北京
Time complement于69年
Measure word phrasesQuantity complement一次
AdjectiveAdjectiveDegree complement
Result complement
AdverbDegree complement极了
Result complement
Other phraseState complement得让人发
***"Other phrase" is my personal fave! 

Clearer now? Me, too!

As the Wiki suggests, "As a learner, the best thing you can do is to memorize the complements you encounter the most often, and start using them." *sigh*

*Really, you should go read this man's story of traveling the world in his car, Otto. It is pretty amazing. 
**Also courtesy of the Chinese Grammar Wiki

Saturday, October 04, 2014

3rd Times the Charm - Navigating the Special Education System

When we left off, I was complaining about the VA special needs system. Well, I'm sorry to say that our experience this time around has pretty much mirrored our first experience if not exceeded it in terms of crappiness. After our two years in Manila at a wonderful school that provided him excellent support,* which was supplemented with regular Skype ST sessions with our therapist in the US, we were hopeful that A could continue to make regular gains. We also came back with IEP in hand, so they had no choice but to continue offering him ST. This time around we entered the Fairfax County Public School (FCPS) system. FCPS is regularly ranked as one of the best school systems in the country. I repeat: in the whole damn country. Our experience has been that that reputation is vastly undeserved. While the school had no choice but to continue his ST - I still had to fight to get regular updates or any information about the type of therapy that was being used. At our first meeting with the school I noted that Husband and I were concerned because A was not reading yet and he was already 1/2 way through 1st grade. I was told that it was too early for them to be able to judge since he had just entered the school system. Fair enough, but I wanted our concerns noted in his IEP meeting notes so that they would be there for future reference. His classroom teacher - who I want to note was FABULOUS(!!)** - also noted that she had some concerns about his academic performance and suggested that he be enrolled in a before-school reading intervention program, which we agreed to. Unfortunately the before-school program did not seem to help, and A was still not reading. I called to school to voice my concern and was told we could discuss it at the end of year IEP meeting.

Fast forward to May when I came back from Manila, and we again convened for the end of year IEP meeting to discuss progress, goals, etc. At this point A was still not reading, although he was beginning to learn better, savvier strategies for hiding it. So I again raised my great concern that here we were at the end of the school year and A was no closer to reading than he had been at the beginning of the year. In spite of a whole academic year and the before-school program, A entered FCPS reading at a DRA level 3 and ended the school year at the exact same level. Literally no progress had been made. His teacher stressed that this was really not within the normal bounds of elementary learning, and she was concerned that there might be some other reason that was keeping A from making progress. The committee, however, told me that since the school year was about to end there was no way to start the testing process for anything new this late in the game. We would have to wait until next school year, at which point we would have to request an evaluation which would require having him monitored by his new classroom teacher (who would need at least a month or two to get to know A and determine whether or not he/she thought there was a need for intervention). Then, if the teacher thought there was a need, they would try some in-class interventions to see if that helped (another 2-3 months), if that didn't help then they would conduct a battery of psycho-educational tests to determine if there was a delay or disorder. All that is to say, we'd be long gone for Hong Kong before the school system ever determined whether or not there was anything actually wrong with my son much less have figured out any way to help him. Fucking ridiculousness. I pointed out that the process would take more than half a year, and by the time they actually did anything A would be an illiterate 3rd grader. At this point I did get some sheepish looks, as if they themselves realized how fucked up and slow the process was, but, I was told, nothing could be done. You have to follow the process.

At this point I was so frustrated and fed up, and, frankly, I didn't trust FCPS to follow through on anything anyway. So I went ahead and plunked down $3,000 for private testing and came out with the exact diagnosis we expected (dyslexia and dysgraphia)*** and one we didn't (ADHD).**** With evaluation in hand, I went back to FCPS hopeful that we could open up a new IEP and start helping my son at the beginning of the year. Oh, how foolishly hopeful of me. I did find out, however, that FCPS has something called a summer session meant to test kids that have possible needs identified when regular school is out of session. Which would have been great knowledge to have when the idiots at the elementary school told me IT WASN'T POSSIBLE to have him tested until the next school year and then I shelled out $3,000 to have it done because I was so desperate to start helping my son. F.u.c.k.i.n.g. ridiculousness. How is it possible that the IEP team at my children's school was not aware of this? After I got over being angry, I charged ahead because in the end all I care about is helping my child. So we ended up meeting over the summer during the FCPS summer session where all of the IEP team members (different than the ones at my local school, although the VP did attend as the school's representative) agreed that the testing we had done was incredibly thorough and they saw no reason not to re-open the IEP. They did note that there was no social worker report, something that is required by the school system, so we scheduled that. I signed all the paperwork and went off about my way happy and excited that my son might actually start the year with some new assistive measures in place. Me and my silly hope.

In spite of the fact that I met with the social worked in August, and A met with the school system's psychologist at the same time, we started the school year with nary a peep from the school. After a couple of weeks, I became concerned that I hadn't received anything regarding his new IEP. After 3 weeks, I started contacting the school. After 4 weeks I finally got a response in which I was informed that the school was re-conducting all of the tests to come up with their own diagnosis. The fuck????!!!! Apparently, despite the fact that everyone at the summer session meeting agreed that the private testing we had done was above and beyond anything the school needed they still somehow thought they needed to conduct their own tests to, what, ensure that we spent our $3K wisely? I really have no freaking clue, and the school rep couldn't really explain it to me either beyond the fact that it was necessary to complete the testing (and then the analysis of the testing, which, oh by the way, is the really lengthy part). All that is to say that they finally asked if we could schedule a meeting to discuss A's eligibility on Oct 17th. Eligibility, people. Do you know what that means? That means it is a meeting to discuss his test results wherein they will (if they have any decency at all) say, why, yes, we agree that A has some issues that need to be addressed. That's it! The eligibility meeting is solely to discuss whether or not your child may qualify for services. No talk about any actual service or accommodation that might be forthcoming. You have to set up a totally different meeting for that! And who knows when that will happen. I mean it will be six weeks into the school year before the school will even agree that there is a problem, 10 months after we originally identified it! And that elevated timeline is solely due to the fact that I was able to spend $3K and countless hours to get a diagnosis for my son. My heart bleeds for the many, many families who could not possibly afford to get outside help.

So, I gave up on the school system. After all of this, I started doing some digging to try and figure out what I could do. What I unearthed just made me feel even more desperate. FCPS does not even recognize dyslexia. Much less have a coherent strategy to help affected children. His reading assistance will likely be with whatever reading specialist is already assigned to the school who probably does not have any specialized training for kids with special needs. There are several well known, peer tested and reviewed therapeutic systems for helping kids with dyslexia. FCPS uses none of these, which I guess isn't surprising since they refuse to acknowledge it exists anyway. After feeling even more depressed, I put on my big girl pants and started strategizing on what I could do. I scoured the web for resources and found a tutor who specializes in the Wilson Program (based on the Orton-Gillingham system) at a cost of $75/45 minutes. Ouch. For kids with dyslexia it is recommended that they have at least 1hr/day additional 1-1 reading support using a system like Wilson. Double ouch. Well, since we could never afford that, and we have other obligations during the week, we settled on 2x/week. As much as we can't afford this right now, at least I will know that we are doing everything we can to help A get started with reading.

*I cannot rave enough about International School Manila. We always say that it was the best part of our tour in Manila. 

**Our experience with FCPS has been that the individual teachers are amazing, but the system itself is a bureaucratic mess. 

***Actually, FCPS doesn't even recognize the term dyslexia (please don't ask me why), so it is termed "Specified Disorder in the Area of Reading." 

****Although, now having received this diagnosis and learned more about what it actually is, it really helps explain a lot!

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Halloween in the DMV

I'm always looking for fun, seasonal stuff to do (usually with kids, but we've often got our eye on adults-oriented entertainment, too), especially around the holidays. And Halloween is our favorite! You may recall from previous posts that we often throw a big party on Halloween. Well, since we are getting so close to our PCS date*, plus all of our stuff is in storage, so we decided it would be best to take advantage of other people's attractions this year. There are so many sites that can help you figure out what's going on in the area that it's hard to keep track. So I thought I'd post a few helpful sites here for others (and so I can just refer back to this page myself!). I also listed these on my NoVA resources page so I'll have them the next time we come back, too.

Halloween in Fairfax County
Falls Church Halloween Festival
Pumpkin Patches in Maryland and Virginia
Cox Farms Fall Festival
Air & Scare
Halloween Whodunnit at the Kennedy Center
Spooky Spy Family Night
Hershey Park in the Dark
Boo at the Zoo
Kings Dominion Planet Spooky

Not so Kid-Friendly
Haunted Virginia
Night of the Living Zoo
Cox Farms Fields of Fear

*2 months and counting!

Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Saga Continues - The Difference Between SPED Programs From State to State

So I promised an update on A's journey through the world of special education, and I want to follow through on that because I think it's terribly important. If I have learned anything from our experiences so far it is that I am utterly grateful for the Special Needs Education Allowance (SNEA) provided by the State Department when we are stationed overseas.* I think it is hands down the best benefit offered in the Foreign Service. In the U.S. services and testing vary widely by state. We had some experience with this in NM when we wanted to have C tested for giftedness (a ridiculously complicated and lengthy process designed to wear down even the most persistent of parents). On the other end of the spectrum, we were delighted with the system in FL, which was easy to understand and navigate.** Since we had no understanding of how the public assistance system worked (and, in fact, did not even know such a thing existed), we had our initial testing done privately at the Children's Hospital in Tampa at a total cost of about $5,000. The high cost was because they administered a battery of my developmental/psycho-educational tests in addition to physical tests such as hearing and sight tests in order to zero in on the best diagnosis. After we received his initial diagnosis of Apraxia and SPD, they instructed us to contact the State's Early Childhood Education program to get him started with services. It was fortunate because our insurance classified Apraxia as a developmental disorder (many do), therefore it was not covered at all, and we would have had to pay for all of his therapy out of pocket. Speech therapy alone runs anywhere from $60-100/hr, so if you have a child who needs ST 3x-5x/week you can just imagine how many people can afford that. Add in OT and PT and, well, thank goodness there are State-run programs.

Our journey in VA (both times we've been here), however, was truly the polar opposite. I really dislike living in VA for this reason (and a number of other reasons not really relevant to this blog post), but no other location is convenient to my work location (by convenient I mean if we wanted to live in MD it could tack on as much as 45min-1hr to my commute, and DC is a far worse school option than VA). The VA school system is enormous and for being incredibly wealthy (VA is one of the richest states in the nation, and Northern VA in particular is known for its high income and high taxes) it certainly doesn't put any of that money into special education. We have had to fight the system tooth and nail every step of the way just to get my son the most basic of services.

We first moved to VA in 2011 when I joined the FS. Considering how well regarded the VA public school system is, I was shocked at how we were treated.*** In FL, A was offered full-time spec needs pre-K. They provided him door to door bus service, and we met regularly with his pre-K team, which included an OT, ST, and 2 spec needs pre-K teachers who sent home regular updates. We loved it. Then we came to FL (Falls Church City, to be exact), where they took one look at his FL IEP and said, well this isn't from VA so we're not sure what to do with you. At first they told us there wasn't anything they could offer A. He wasn't "needy enough" for their pre-K program and the only support they were willing to offer was 1x/week ST with a therapist we would have to travel to see smack in the middle of the work day. Yeah, because that would absolutely be doable for two working parents. Anyway, we fought it and ended up having him entered into the Mt. Daniel pre-K program basically solely because he had been receiving that kind of service in FL. If we had had him diagnosed in VA, I guarantee you they would have told us to go fuck ourselves. However, the pre-K program was only a half day program - so he went to school from 9-12 with regular bus service, meaning we had to take him to a prearranged bus stop even though he was the only child there at those times. It was inconvenient, and if Husband hadn't decided to stop working at that point we never would have been able to take advantage of it because there was no option for before or after school care. The class had mostly children who did have needs that were more severe than A's and it began to show in his behavior pattern. He also lost some of the gains he had made during his time in FL since he was receiving less 1-on-1 ST pull-out time and no OT (they didn't have it). I never received any communication from the school without initiating it myself. This is also where he fell on the playground and knocked out his front tooth (an accident no one was able to explain to me since no one actually witnessed it giving me even more confidence in the VA program). It was a 180 degree experience from our time in FL. Unfortunately, having just taken an enormous pay cut to join the FS, we really didn't have any other choice.

To be continued...

*The intent is to provide supplemental education for children with identified needs who would qualify for services if the family were posted in the U.S. - in reality this means that I can pursue the types of educational supplementation that I think would best benefit my son without having to fight the U.S. school system tooth and nail to have those services provided. It is a lifesaver!

**FL also offers free pre-K for neurotypical children, it is a pretty fucking awesome place to live with young children!

***By contrast, FL public schools fall within the lower 25% of the entire country. 

Monday, September 22, 2014

Sick Day

While updating resources on my quick links page, I realized it has been a while since I did an update on A's journey. I have a lot to say, not only because so much has happened, but also because I am so, so unimpressed with VA and Fairfax County in particular. If you have a child with special needs, I would highly recommend steering clear of this school district unless you are able to afford hiring a private advocate. They have screwed up my son's IEP denying him needed services over a sustained period of time, and after being promised that his new IEP would be in place at the beginning of this year, we find ourselves 3+ weeks into the school year with not one contact from the special education office at his school. He's not receiving any services, and he's certainly not getting any accommodations in the classroom. It's all so very frustrating. 

Anyway, that all be in a post to come. This quick one is just to remind my future self that along with the wonder that is fall (oh how I love fall!), the change in the weather also brings along the sickies. We've all of us been felled by some cold or other over the last week and a half. N in particular has had a cold for over a week, and yesterday he started really complaining - overly clingy, constantly crying, wanting to be held every moment of the day. He didn't have a fever and his cough had subsided, so we couldn't figure out what was going on. I surmised it must be something we couldn't detect like an ear infection, and sure enough today the rotor confirmed that he had an ear infection in the left ear. She said it would be a few days before the antibiotics really kicked in, so it seems we have a few cranky baby days ahead of us. Good thing we had just started trying to sleep train, ha ha! In the good news department, N is up to 2 teeth (second one just broke through today, in fact), and he has started crawling. Actually, I'm not sure if that is good news or bad. I suppose we better get off our butts and baby-proof the house. Maybe once I'm over this cold...

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Choosing a Boarding School

The process was not difficult, although it was very overwhelming at first, and there's certainly no primer on how to select a boarding school for your child. My first step was to take a look at the State Department's allowances page to determine what our away-from-post school allowance was.* That gave me an idea of the maximum amount of tuition we could afford. Then I visited FLO's page on boarding schools to start gathering information about how the application process worked. Personally, I found FLO to be less useful than I had hoped. While they had a page of resources, which was helpful, when I contacted them directly they basically told me that I would have to figure out for myself what school was best for my child and how the payment process worked by contacting Post directly.

So we basically made our own list of criteria and then did our research online and over the phone to narrow down our choices to ones that we felt would fit our daughter best. First we narrowed our choices by location - it had to be within driving distance of DC. Then we narrowed by size - we wanted a school that was relatively small with mostly boarders (many boarding schools allow day students). Husband and I preferred an all-girls school, but we did not limit her to those alone. It was nice that she chose that for herself. :) We also looked for schools that offered her preferred activities: volleyball, horseback riding, singing, and a focus on the arts. I further narrowed the list by looking for schools that offered strong academic support, such as additional study skills sessions. Then we researched our short listed schools by checking out reviews from both parents and former students, and we also looked for ones that had 100% college matriculation. 

After we had our list down to about 8-10 schools, I started contacting schools directly to talk about what their admission requirements were and to see if they thought our daughter would be a good fit for their school. I was very honest during these phone calls and explained that although our daughter is incredibly bright, polite, and charming she also has a very hard time staying focused in school and often does not do her outside of class work, which has led to less than stellar grades. I wanted to see how the schools responded to this and what kinds of academic support options they offered. I shared my opinion about the schools I thought we ought to visit with my daughter, but it was ultimately her decision both on what schools we should visit and which one she wanted to go to. Throughout the process we were up front ad honest with C about why were looking at this route, and, honestly, she was super excited about the idea. I think she was drawn to the idea of going to school away from home. No more brothers and sisters to annoy her, no more chores to take care of, no more nagging parents standing over her shoulder every second of the day. Much like her mother, she was ready to fly to coop long before the normal age (I left home at 17 myself). 

We ended up only visiting 4 schools in person, more because the academic year was ending and we didn't have time to visit all of the ones we wanted to before the end of the school year. Although it was a pain in the ass to drive around to all of these places, take a 2 hour tour,  and then hop back in the car and drive all the way back home - I cannot stress enough that an in-person visit was really the key step in the process for us. We visited 1 military school, 2 all-girls schools, and 1 co-ed school. Only 1 of the schools was within a local commute distance. All of the others were abut 2-3 hours drive from DC. After each visit we discussed the pros and cons of each school and how they fit her. I reminded her why were having to go this route and emphasized the importance of turning her grades around. But it wasn't until we visited the last school, the school she ultimately chose, that she got really excited. After our visit and tour, we drove away and she turned to me and said, "Mom, that's the one. That's the one I want to go to. It just felt like home." And for the first time in her short life, I had some leverage. With just a month left to go in the academic career, C somehow managed to turn in (almost) all of her back work and finished the year with no grade lower than a C-. It was then that I was certain we were making the right decision. 

Sunday, September 07, 2014

How Did it Come to This?

I'm writing this post over a period of time because it is an emotional subject for me. Right now it's less than a week before we see C off to boarding school, and I haven't slept more than 4 hours in the last 3 nights (that's 4 hours total, btw). I know this is the right decision. It's one that I spent many sleepless nights over, hashing it out with the Husband and parents. Discussing options with C, and determining the best course she sees for herself. C herself is over the moon with the idea of freedom and adventure. I know she loves us and will miss us greatly, but she is also excited for this amazing new chapter in her life. And I am so, so sad.

It all started just around the time N was born (because what you really need after giving birth is more emotional trauma). Okay, really it started years and years ago because C has never been what one would call a stellar student. That's not to say that she's not an incredibly brilliant and savvy kid because she is amazingly gifted. She's just not motivated. And I tried everything. Lord knows, I tried just about every technique under the sun. I collected bookshelves full of parenting how-to's, executive skills management, organizational skills. We tried the stick approach, the carrot approach, therapy (individual and family), charts and boards galore. There were more family meetings than you can shake a stick at, etc. etc. Nothing, absolutely nothing, worked. C is nothing if she is not stubborn. She had no use for homework (or schoolwork for that matter), and damn it if anyone or anything was going to make her do otherwise. It didn't help that she consistently tested in the 98th percentile on her standardized tests. Or that her schools (public and private) insisted on passing her on to the next grade in spite of her failing grades because she was just too damn smart to be kept behind. So there really weren't ever any meaningful consequences to her refusal to do any work. Our threats and warnings about not being able to keep up or get into a good school in Hong Kong went unheeded.

And so we came back the US for maternity leave, and I got an email from the CLO in Hong Kong asking if we had applied for the kids' school admissions yet. Mind you we aren't supposed to arrive at post until midway through the next school year, so, no, I hadn't even thought about it yet. The CLO suggested I might want to get my ass in gear (in a much more polite manner) because school admissions are like the lottery in Hong Kong, and you want to apply to as many as possible to ensure that your child gets accepted to at least one. This did not bode well for us. Not only do I have a special needs child to worry about (one whom the Consulate-associated school had already turned down flat), but now I had to worry about C, too. How on earth was she going to get accepted to these highly competitive schools with failing grades. Well, the answer became very clear, very quick. She wasn't. Hong Kong is no Manila - the Consulate just does not have the clout that the Embassy did in the Philippines. No one gives a crap who you work for. Money talks. The school situation in Hong Kong is so crazy that debentures are sold to companies for astronomical prices so that they can include school admissions as part of their expat packages for potential executive hires.

The more we learned about how dire the situation was, the more desperate we became, and the harder we got on C. Yelling, crying, begging. These were not uncommon tactics in the Pu household for much of the winter and into the spring. It made it even worse. My lovely, sweet, and semi-passive aggressive daughter's grades sunk even lower. At one point she only had a passing grade in one class. One. By the time I returned to the US in May, I was called into C's counseling office because she was on track to fail the 9th grade and they wanted to discuss summer school options.

At this point we had to make a difficult decision. Clearly my parenting skills were maxed out here. I had tried everything I could think of with absolutely zero results. A friend who had attended boarding school himself suggested to Husband that it might not be a bad option. C is lovely, well spoken, and well mannered child. She is smart, responsible in some ways (an excellent babysitter), and mature beyond her years. Who just won't do her goddamn homework. I had given some schools a cursory glance back in February when we first got notice that she might not be able to get into a school in Hong Kong, but now I began to look at them more seriously.

To be continued...

*The State Department recognizes that Posts may not have adequate school options available for a wide variety of reasons (danger at a Post, inadequate international schools, no American curriculum, etc.), so they offer 1 different allowances. The At-Post allowance is the maximum amount you can spend on an international school tuition at Post, the Away-From_Post allowance is the maximum amount that can be spent on tuition/room/board/books at a school of your choice that is not at Post.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Promised Pics

I've been working on a more substantial post, but for now here are the promised pics of what we've been up to lately:

We are really enjoying the outdoors and appreciating the clean air and land of our native country. I never realized how much I took the beauty of America for granted, so we're trying to visit as many places as we can. The above was taken at Shenandoah on our way to the Fox Hollow trail, which was an easy and fun trek with little ones. 

N enjoying his new seat at the big table while out to breakfast at our favorite local diner in Alexandria. 

Crabs!! I've had them twice in the last 2 weeks. Once as a special birthday dinner and once again when my parents came to visit. I grew up in Maryland, so crabs hold a special place in my culinary heart. :)

 On our way to the Holocaust Museum. I first went when the museum opened just before we moved from Maryland to New Mexico when I was just a little older than C is now. I still remember all these years later how powerful that visit was, and I wanted to share that with my daughter. It was just as profound as I remembered. If you have not been, I would highly recommend a visit. We chose not to take the younger ones, as I think you have to have a broader understanding of the world to truly appreciate the significance of what you are seeing.

 Crabs part deux!

 As I mentioned in my last post, I really enjoyed seeing my dad bond with A on this visit. 

Gingers unite! ;)

Thursday, August 28, 2014

More Updates

So if you hadn't guessed, my dear old pa recently made a guest blogger appearance to shame me into updating my blog more often. After 9 years of blogging, I have learned to recognize that I go through lean periods every now and then when life is particularly stressful and that is okay. I wish I had more energy to keep up with documenting our crazy life, but sometimes things have to give. Anyway, life goes on as usual. MIL and step-kiddos were packed off about a week ago, and N has entered the teething stage marking an end to a relatively short period where I thought we might actually get some sleep. The 'rents were here for a brief but lovely visit. This was the first time that we had seen them since my dad expressed his sincere desire to retire, and I was stunned by the change in him. My dad has always been a wonderful person and grandparent, but he is also a businessman (and one who runs his own company at that). As an entrepreneur, my father worked all the time whether he was on vacation or not. It was customary for him to pull out the laptop and work whenever the chance presented itself. After all, if he wasn't keeping up with the work, who would be? But now that he is extracting himself from the day to day business operations, he was able to spend almost every moment of the visit hanging out with the family.*

Although their visit was short, it was important that my parents come out to visit now because C is getting ready to embark on a monumental moment in both of our lives. She is getting ready to leave home for the first time. This was a decision that I struggled with for a long time. For a variety of reasons that I will leave to another, more specific post, C will be attending boarding school starting this semester. She and I spent time earlier in the year traveling to visit schools, and she selected a small, all-girls boarding school about 3 hours drive from our current home. Since we will still be here in the U.S. for the next few months, the transition will not be as abrupt as it might have been had we chosen to wait to enroll her until we left for Hong Kong. I think C is excited and nervous, but mostly excited. I, on the other hand, am a total mess. I cry at the drop of a hat, and I have been more on edge as the date of separation approaches. I know we will both survive (and that she will thrive), but it has not made it any easier on me. I don't know if any of us are prepared for our children to leave the nest, especially when it's a bit ahead of schedule, even when we know we are doing the right thing. I will probably be an emotional wreck for the next few weeks so I can't promise I'm going to be any better at updating the blog, but I will try to get some pictures up at least.

*Note that the lack of commentary about Grandma indicates that she was always so dedicated! :)

Saturday, August 23, 2014

PuLand Update

Oh things could not be going any better.  My wonderful, fabulous, best in class parents are here visiting us.  Do you know how much I sit around the house chasing after all my brood while trying to learn Mandarin, thinning about my move to Hong Kong, worrying about my Reserve career, dealing with the various issues of being a Mom, Wife, and Career person and think, "if only my parents were here, the blaze of their love for me, would wash away all those worries and I'd go right back to those golden days when I was in Middle School."

Except the days in Middle School weren't golden...at all.

Oh well, I'm sure that the blaze of their love would do something good for me.

Like induce my hubs to open up some of his really good wine.  That's a pretty good outcome.  And have my Dad threaten to indoctrinate A by showing him YouTube videos of the New Zealand All Blacks Haka.  Maybe not so good an outcome.  And bringing me bottles of NM Green Chile.  A REALLY good outcome!

They will be here for only a couple of days when and then we'll go back to our mundane, day-to-day lives.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Keep the Party Going

Now that all the kids are here (and my MIL is visiting), we are truly running ourselves ragged. Last weekend we went to visit 1/2 of our bff couple friends from Manila (the other 1/2 is still in the Philippines and will arrive back for home leave in a couple of weeks). Amazingly, S's mother opened her lovely Long Island home to our entire crazy family.* We spent three days hanging out at the LI shore, saw a broadway show with an iconic dinner at the Palm, then we took all 8 kids into the city for a marathon tour of NYC. We walked from Penn Station all the way up to Central Park and then all over the park before we were ready to throw in the towel and head home. It was an amazing trip with amazing people, but that drive! Oy, that drive! It took us 6 hours to get there and just shy of 8 to get back thanks to the shit show that is MD-DC-VA and its mess of totally incapable drivers. As fun as it was, I just don't think I could face that drive again.

This weekend we went to Shenandoah Valley with some other good friends from our last post. They are here for language refresher, as well, but they are headed out to post a few months ahead of us. So we were keen to try an get our families together before we head off to different parts of the globe. On our way into the park there was a notice for a blackberry festival going on at Skyline, which is about mile marker 40-something. If you've ever been to Shenandoah you know it is an enormous park and the road that goes through the park is single line and very windy. Most cars cruise at about 25-35mph, so it can be slow going. Unfortunately the blackberry festival was not quite as we had pictured it to be (we could hardly even find fresh blackberries - mostly it seemed to be a lot of local crafts), so we wasted a lot of our hiking time with travel too and from the festival because the hike we went on was back at mile marker 9! We had chosen an easy hike to a waterfall that was supposed to be a little over a mile roundtrip because our friends have two little ones and we had N with us. It turned out that the hike was rather steep, and we didn't even make it to the waterfall before N started to break down. Luckily their kids were also pretty cranky so it was a team decision to turn around and head back without catching a glimpse of the falls. Unfortunately for us, the way back was all uphill. N was close to a complete break down, so Husband grabbed him and took off for the car. I was left with A, whose little legs just could not make it up that steep path. I ended up having to have him jump on for a piggy back, and I hiked all the way back up with that 35lb ruck sack on my back! I was a sweaty mess! Luckily our friends were familiar with a local restaurant, The Apple House, whose apple doughnuts are to die for! There is a really neat looking soft serve stand next door, but we were too stuffed from lunch to try it out this time. 

After we made it back to our part of VA, I met up for dinner and drinks with my friend J who just got back to the US to begin a 2-year assignment here. It was great to catch up, and since she's just around the corner from us hopefully we'll actually get to see each other.** Today we took it easy(ish) and caught up on our food shopping. Then I took a page from my own teenage rebel days and helped C streak her hair red. It was so fun that my MIL and V also decided to get a few of their own!

*I asked multiple times because we simply could not believe that her mother was okay with us bringing 6(!!!) children to her home!
**Most of my friends working DC assignments are hardly around thanks to their long hours and long commutes (not many people can afford to leave in/near DC on what the State Department pays in base salary)