Little did I know it would come 3 years after Kristen was born, by way of a little yellow bus.
Her class had a fancy title, but basically it was pre-K, special education-style. I was excited that my girl would go to a local school and we could stop our everyday journey across Dallas to Easter Seals, but at the same time, I was sad that she was going to a local school and that we had to stop our everyday journey across Dallas to Easter Seals. Hooray for no more stressful driving in Dallas traffic; boohoo to no more contact with other special needs moms.
Before Kristen could enter our school system, she had to be evaluated. The results of the evaluation would be revealed in a meeting called an ARD (Admission, Review, Dismissal for Special Education). That’s where we (parents, teachers, special education teachers, administrators, diagnosticians, therapists) would discuss the plan for her education for the following year.
Because I’d taught before having kids, I’d participated in ARD meetings, and it was a familiar procedure to me. However, as we approached the date that Kristen would enter our public school system, the moms at Easter Seals began talking about advocacy. Since their children were also entering public schools, they were nervous about how their kids would be viewed. “You need an advocate with you at the ARD meeting.” I must have heard this sentence 20 times if I heard it once. And even though I wasn’t nervous about our meeting, I began to question: should we have an advocate, too? Maybe the school district was going to pull a fast one on us. Maybe this meeting wasn’t going to go well. Maybe the Easter Seals moms knew more than I did, even though they’d never set foot in a school before and I had been a teacher. The seed of doubt had been sown and overrode any logic that might have been obvious to a more objective person.
So, we proceeded to our meeting, advocate by our side. It was the one and only time we took an advocate. We learned quite a bit from that first meeting with school officials, and we never quit learning the whole time Kristen was in public school (19 years). We had a very successful experience. We weren’t perfect, the school system wasn’t perfect, Kristen wasn’t perfect, but we all worked together for Kristen’s good.
If I could go back in time and give myself and the other moms advice, I’d share these
5 tips for making school and parent interactions successful:
- Don’t think of the school as an institution. Schools are full of people. They have feelings. Get to know those people for who they are. Remember why they do what they do: they love kids.
- Communicate: clearly, positively, often. One thing’s for sure: you don’t stand a chance of making something right if you don’t know it’s wrong.
- Ask questions. Don’t leave anything to chance. If you don’t understand, clarify. In an ARD meeting, for example, the staff reel off special education terms so quickly your head spins. Remember, they live and breathe these words — you and I do not. Don’t feel bad (a.k.a. stupid) for asking staff to explain educational terms. You need to know what you are agreeing to before signing consent. And always attend any meeting held on behalf of your child.
- Know the law and your child’s rights. Knowledge is power and freedom. When you know special education laws and your child’s rights under those laws, then you will be more at ease with the school’s plans for his education. You will also know when it’s appropriate to question something.
- Always be positive. Everything you do — getting to know faculty, communicating, asking questions, gaining knowledge about laws — should be done with a positive attitude. If fear, bitterness or anger bleed through your correspondence or questioning, or worse, if you are seen as one who helps out around the school because you want to check up on certain teachers…things will not go well. It will be very hard to recover from the bad reputation you will have set up for yourself. So before anything, pray. Pray for the principal, the staff, and every person on the campus. Pray that they would remember their calling every day. Pray for the school district and its leadership. Pray that your child and every child will be cherished and valued. Pray for the parents to value and support the people who educate their children. And pray for your own attitude to be generous and caring towards those who care for your child.
I didn’t do all these things perfectly. But my biggest fear never came true. Kristen was always safe at school, and no matter how she behaved, I knew those in charge of her welfare were trustworthy, loving, and had the highest integrity. We were blessed those 19 years in Mesquite ISD.