Why We’re Giving Up on Public Education, For Now

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I’ve had this question posed, and really, there’s one short answer—and a much longer one. The short answer is that Liam’s challenges have accelerated faster than we can cope with in a public school environment, and we don’t believe it’s beneficial for him—or for the school system—to continue.

The long answer?

I believe in public education. For most kids, it makes sense. For my daughter, it’ll make sense. But we’ve been working for three years with the school system here in Chapel Hill. We went through every tier of intervention, and got his IEP last year. Unfortunately, due to his 2e (twice exceptional) status and testing results, he was not considered “autistic within an educational setting”—which, in short, means that, according to their tests, he doesn’t qualify for a special education IEP. His IEP was granted on behavioral and learning disability credentials. This is the challenge for high functioning autistic kids.

There were some consolations made including more time to himself, access to the special education teacher when possible, priority seating, and movement breaks. Due to his reading and IQ scores, he was also enrolled in the gifted classroom. But that didn’t work well. He felt kids were interfering with his alone time, continued to struggle following basic directions, and became absolutely stressed out due to both missing his “normal” class and the struggle of keeping up with the advanced work.

Listen: my son hated preschool. They made him take naps. And he hated kindergarten. And when I told his kindergarten teacher that he might be bored, she laughed. But by the end of kindergarten, he had been sent to the principal’s office. I remember sitting there, fit to bursting pregnant, sobbing, as he rolled on the ground and tried to punch things and went into his complete incommunicado zone in front of the assistant principal. They said they were “managing” him. First grade was a nightmare, with a series of inconsistent substitutes while his teacher was away on maternity leave, and we struggled through a series of ineffective interventions.

His second grade teacher was a miracle. Experienced, caring, and thoughtful, she was our greatest ally in getting him his IEP. She wanted desperately to understand him, to help unlock his potential. But with subsequent meetings, the IEP, and forward, it became clear that the very structure of public school doesn’t work for someone like Liam. She cried in frustration and sadness to tell us just how much he was struggling in the classroom and, by extension how much it effected everyone else.

That’s the hardest part of having such an amazing teacher. Knowing they won’t be there forever. Liam never once said he hated her (which is, believe me, the highest praise from him). He respected her more than any other teacher, and respect comes very slowly to him if at all (the kid just doesn’t see hierarchy).

But it’s more than that. Our next option is more intervention in a public school environment. More being taken out of class. More time in the special education classroom. And while, on paper, that might sound like a good idea, Liam is already painfully aware of how different he is. He gets depressed and dreads the thought of being in a large classroom full of noise and distraction and rules that, no matter how he tries, just feel impossible to follow. By the end of the year he was visiting the principal twice, sometimes three times a week. The special education teacher was amazing, but Liam wasn’t her only concern and she can’t be available on call. So when his outbursts become too much, he’s sent off to the principal. Or assistant. Or whoever’s filling in. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to walk a new administrator thought the ropes of what to do when Liam is struggling, how to talk to him, how not to talk to him. Then there was the time he went crazy in the principal’s office and started throwing things everywhere.

To say it makes it hard to work is an understatement.

Liam needs to be in a place that sees him as a whole person. That has rules and consequences and expectations, but can do it consistently and thoughtfully. Not a place that will let a tantrum ruin a week, or a day, or even an hour. His new school has dedicated space for kids who need to cool off. They are also on constant lookout for cues that tell them things are too much. He won’t be distracted by 22 other kids in the same classroom. His learning plan will be his learning plan. Other kids will have bad days. They can commiserate over their challenges, and celebrate their achievements.

During the interview for the school Liam, who isn’t typically very open to meeting new people, gave a heavy sigh and said to the director: “I just hate having autism.”

The director smiled and leaned over conspiratorially and said, “You know something Liam? Most of the cool kids have autism here, too.”

When Liam comes home from his new school, there won’t be homework. There won’t be the added stress of injecting the frustrations of his school day into the home routine. He’ll have friends that struggle like he does and, judging by the conversation on the day we met them, love Minecraft and cars just as much as he does. We’ll be able to work with the school and his therapist to create a plan that works for him. Not for testing, not for scores. For Liam.

Yes. We could fight more. We could put him back at school in Chapel Hill, go through the process again, and press on. But that would mean putting Liam in the classroom again. And to be frank, we just don’t have the energy for it. It’s hard enough at home for us to ride the rollercoaster that is parenting Liam. Our level of exhaustion is beyond words. My concern is that we’re going to take too long to make the right choice and that my unpredictable kid is going to lose out on his last chance at really loving the act of learning and trusting people.

When Liam loses it, really loses it, all bets are off. The bubbly and talkative exterior melts away, and he’s a flailing ball of anger and anxiety. Having already physically lashed out at both students and teachers, and threatened even worse, we can’t afford to wait it out. There are other options that I’m open to, including discussion with the school system. But right now our priority is the safety and success of our son. The other details will have to come later.