Finding the right fit for an atypical learner

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school choice
Sonja Baker and her son Enoch.

Editor’s note: Each Saturday in September, redefinED is dipping into the archives to revisit a compelling story written from the perspective of a parent advocate. Today’s post features a fearless mom who questioned the status quo to ensure her special needs son received the education he needed and deserved. 

If anyone were to ask me this time last year if I thought Enoch, my 12-year-old son, would receive Honor Roll, I would sadly say “no.” Not because he did not try, but because he was not the “typical learner” and was being passed along. Watching your child deteriorate emotionally, academically and not knowing how to help them is the worst feeling. This has been our painful narrative for the past six years.

We hear the saying “No Child Left Behind” but that is the exact opposite. I felt as if no one understood my child’s needs when it came to his learning style. It is easy to place the label of “ADHD” or “behavior issues” on a child without determining a root cause. Does this child really have an attention disorder? Maybe they have a learning style that differs from the average?

I was angry at the systematic practice of passing children through school when they do not understand the fundamentals. But I also accept responsibility for not educating myself to help my child. I didn’t challenge the school enough when its reasoning did not make sense. I didn’t live up to the advocate I should have been because I trusted the school to guide us.

First grade is when I noticed Enoch was not progressing as he should. He was not grasping the concepts. The lessons were not clicking for him and sticking. The school felt he had a generalized learning disorder, and he was given an IEP. An IEP is supposed to be the legal contract between the parent and school of what will be done to help remediate a child’s deficit. As I learned, if not executed properly, the IEP could be just another “trail” that does not improve the child’s outlook.

As we prepared for sixth grade, we had our annual IEP meeting with the “IEP team” you never see until it is time to add something to your child’s “paper trail.” Enoch had substantial deficits in math and reading comprehension. He also had emotional challenges. But as they discussed the transition plan for sixth grade, the support Enoch would receive appeared to be lacking substance. They also wanted to take a reactive approach to his anxiety issues, such as seeing a counselor after he had a meltdown. I knew I could not allow him to be moved through the system anymore!

This was around the time of open enrollment. I previously heard of open enrollment but when I glanced at the application, I can admit the mere appearance of the process was overwhelming. But I knew I had to make this change for Enoch, so I started to apply to various charter schools. With the new law passed about school choice, I was able to apply to charter schools inside and outside of our county. Unfortunately, he was not selected in the initial lottery drawings to any of the chosen schools, so we had to prepare for transition into a traditional middle school. We were disappointed.

Then our luck changed! About three weeks before school started, we received notice from the Imagine Charter School that Enoch’s name had been selected from the lottery.
After his enrollment, I received a phone call from the principal to welcome Enoch and to invite us on a tour. During our tour, I discussed concerns related to his academic progression and overall anxiety. The principal addressed every concern. For the first time, I felt the school was not against us but a partnership.

We are now into the second semester and it is a miracle to see what a change of environment has made on my son. Enoch’s teachers appreciate and implement any advice to help him. His science teacher noticed he moved around in his seat a lot, and so brought in a medicine ball to replace his seat. His other teachers allow him and other students to stand instead of sit, as long as they are not disruptive. The classrooms are Google classrooms, which means the lessons are done digitally and are more engaging. The entire staff is close, and they treat the children like a close-knit family.

For the first time, Enoch received A’s and B’s in core academic areas (not electives) and received the Honor Roll Award. His demeanor and outlook about school is so positive, all thanks to the opportunity to choose where my child attends school.

It is important to match our children with a support system that can meet their needs. I encourage all parents to make and demand the best school choice for their child.

They depend on us!

Sonja Baker lives in Pasco County, Fla.

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