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! ;)