Hey Hillary, My Disabled Son Was Pushed Out of a District School -- and Embraced by a Charter

Hey Hillary, My Disabled Son Was Pushed Out of a District School -- and Embraced by a Charter
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Education writer Beth Hawkins and her son Corey. "It's not charter vs. district that matters for challenged kids, it's the mindset inside the school." (Photo courtesy Beth Hawkins)

RCEd Commentary

A few days into the school year, I got a call from the social worker at my son’s new middle school in Minneapolis. I must have groaned out loud because he was quick to supply reassurance: “No, no, this is about a good thing.”

My boy had done something tough with aplomb. Although they hardly knew him, his teachers had noticed the effort and wanted my input on how to reinforce the victory going forward.

The social worker and I had a nice chat. When we hung up I burst into tears.

My son is 13 and has Asperger’s. He’s brilliant, creative and engaged, but this was the first time in nine years of school that the few-days-in social worker call wasn’t the start of a painful dance.

It was the first time the call was about playing to his strengths. It was the first time I was called on as the expert on my own child.

And it was confirmation I had done the right thing by enrolling him in an innovative charter school when it became abundantly clear my baby was being pushed out of his “good” traditional school.

Surely Hillary Clinton’s recent critical remarks about charter schools are political posturing--perhaps balm to soothe the roiling left flanks.

“Most charter schools…don’t take the hardest-to-teach kids, or, if they do, they don’t keep them,” Clinton told a forum in South Carolina. “And so the public schools are often in a no-win situation because they do, thankfully, take everybody.”

Let’s be honest. Any school—district or charter—can “push out” a student it views as a problem. Some discipline the student often and loudly, until the parent gets the message; some refer the student to an alternative school; some track students into isolated special ed programs for “defiant” behavior; some flat-out tell students, “This might not be the school for you.”

It doesn’t just happen to disruptive kids. It happens to those whose needs are too big, too inconvenient or just not met by the services of the neighborhood school.

The relevant question is not whether the school in question is a charter or a district school. It’s whether the school sees it as the student’s job to conform to its programming or whether it’s the school’s job to see the “behavior” not as something willful, but as a signal of unmet need.

Untangling my son’s puzzles took years, during which the presumption was frequently that the disconnect had nothing to do with the school or its services. There were questions about my parenting and even about my lesbian “lifestyle.” Social workers showed themselves into my home and looked around.

Last year I questioned whether never challenging a young person who needs to learn to confront challenges was really in his best interest. I complained repeatedly that he was seated, day after day, next to a boy who bullied him and called him a “retard.” Because of a wrinkle in his brain that makes pencil and paper confounding, I asked if he could use a keyboard.

I also noted he had told his psychiatrist he would rather die than go to school. From there, things went to Defcon Four fast.

The district’s special education compliance officer took over. He was terrific, but five months later we were still arguing: Their view: my son had a bad attitude; my view: he was having a terrible learning experience.

When you announce you are enrolling your disabled child in a charter, people warn you you’ll get “counseled out.” We’ve experienced the opposite at three-year-old Venture Academy, which seeks to prove personalization can deliver outsized growth for the kids with the biggest gaps. Students create their own learning plans, choosing what they find interesting from a menu of online and bricks-and-mortar options.

Not only did Venture ask a nearby charter that specializes in autism services to train its faculty over the summer, it asked if it could take students on that school’s waiting list. And it is actively seeking new students in the city’s most impoverished neighborhoods.

Another Twin Cities charter network, Harvest Prep, mined its 2015 assessment data—disappointing for the first time in years—and found double- and triple-digit increases in special ed enrollment were a major factor. Lost on no one: Voluntarily or not, the newcomers left those district-run schools that Clinton claims “take everybody.”

I think both chapters of my story illustrate why Clinton’s comments inflamed nerves. Nothing exposes belief gaps like someone showing that while success might require effort and flexibility, it’s very possible.

The other day the phone rang with a report of another tough moment. The social worker said my son had been in his office for half an hour.

I apologized profusely. During the long pause that followed, I fought back fears our luck had run out.

“Don’t apologize,” came the reply. “This is my job, you know.”


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