Schooling and Special Needs

The gold standard in special education is full inclusion: the child spending her day in the classroom with her typically-developing classmates. It is the first and best way to begin to break down the societal walls between people with disabilities and those without them.

The gold standard in our family is inclusion in the Catholic school—or at least, the chance to attend Catholic school with her brothers. So this summer, I’ve begun to explore the possibilities. She may only be 2 ½, but there is no special ed available at our local Catholic school right now, and this is not something that can be addressed in the six months before she enters kindergarten.

Still, as I go through the process, it’s hard not to just throw my hands up and accept things the way they are. In fact, the more people I talk to, the more I wonder if I should be biting off this particular battle at all.

We want her to attend Catholic school for many reasons—from the practical (so that we have only one school calendar, so they have the same snow days and dismissals) to the emotional (so her brothers can keep an eye on her, protect her) to those related to our faith (Catholic education, which both Christian and I feel passionately about).

But a couple of weeks ago I chanced to enter into conversation with a woman who teaches special ed at the public high school. It is a totally separate classroom, although typically-developing students do come in to volunteer. I listened with reservations as she described her program. It’s set up to teach teens (and young adults) with special needs life skills—laundry, cooking, money management. They also volunteer in the community. What about academics? I asked.

She shrugged and explained how they worked academics into board games and so forth. “But really,” she said, “these kids have been doing the same stuff for years. They’re bored with it. If you want her to live independently, these are the skills she needs.”

Against my impulses, I was impressed. I’d love to think that Julianna, who is engaging and engaged in the world, will function at a high level and be able to integrate without much difficulty. But realistically, we have to expect that there are advanced skills and concepts that she will never learn. I’d love to think she might be able to manage in a regular classroom, but realistically we have to expect that at a minimum, she’ll need a para, more likely a specialist too—and that money all has to come from somewhere.

This summer, I’ve learned that public educators have little sympathy for parents who want to send their kids to Catholic school. It was clear that we are making our choice, and no matter how many taxes we pay in support of public schools, they are absolutely not responsible for our kids. They’ll work with us to get speech therapy or whatever is required, but it’s going to be at a significantly lower frequency than she would get if she was a public school student.

Then there’s the inability to pin down what she might need in the first place. No one wants to define what would be required until she’s 4 ½ and they see where she’s functioning–but by then it will be far too late to get things set up in time for kindergarten.

I’ve learned that there is a special ed program at a Catholic school thirty miles away—and that carpooling could be worked out with families transporting high schoolers to the Catholic high school there. But it’s hard enough for me to accept sending her to local public school because she won’t be part of the local Catholic school community. How much worse would it be if all her friends, all her activities, were in a separate town altogether?

In the end, I’m forced to conclude that there is no perfect solution—only a series of options with up sides and down sides. But options nonetheless, which is more than some families have. And after all, that’s something to be grateful for.