Preschools, #2

"If justice requires it, we must bend all our efforts to make sure that it is done, even if it proves costly."  --Martha Nussbaum, Frontiers of Justice

In her comment on my last post about preschools, Jims said,
The walking requirement is really odd. What would these schools do in the event that they have prospective students who will never walk or whose walking ability will always be limited?
What an excellent question!  One I myself considered as several different preschools objected to the non-walking Maybelle being in a class with 18 month to three year old kiddos.  The walking prerequisite is rarely specified in writing in the preschools' paperwork, but it's generally voiced as you're getting the tour--and I will specify that it's voiced after we've let the staff know that Maybelle has Down syndrome.*  "Yeah, the kids need to be able to walk," the staff will tell us.  One place even said, "You can see that they have to be able to carry their own stuff around."  A common refrain was, "We just don't have the resources to carry the kids around."

Walking with RachelNot having the resources.  Jims' question came to my mind on every single tour we did:  what if Maybelle didn't have Down syndrome but were a kid born without legs, or with lower-body paralysis?  Would she simply be excluded from this school?  Would she have to stay in the infant classroom through high school?  Study for her SATs while around her, little sweet-faced infants gnaw on their pacifiers?  I never asked these questions out loud (in part because I was trying to make a happy parent good impression), but I strongly suspect that the answer would be, "We just don't have the resources."

What does the need to walk really mean?  The kids have to be able to get around.  Aren't there many, many ways for kids to get around?  In a wheelchair, for instance, or, in the case of a certain member of our household, by very eager and enthusiastic crawling?  These schools demand a certain kind of kid, a kid with a certain kind of skills.  This kid, and those skills, are defined as "normal," and "normal" doesn't require extra resources.**

At one of the schools we toured, I was very happy to hear about a program they've instituted to include children on the autism spectrum in each of their classes.  In fact, I was delighted!  This piece of information immediately put this school on the top of my list:  not only are you believers in full inclusion, but you are actively making an effort to make this a strength and a contribution of your school!

The person giving us the tour said, "Yes, and you'll see that in every classroom the child with autism has a 'shadow'--an adult assigned to help with his or her special needs."

I thought, well, okay.  The kids I saw didn't seem to need all that much extra adult attention, but couldn't hurt, right?  "And the shadows are staff members of the school?" I asked.

"Well, not really," our tour guide said.  "The families of the children with autism pay the salaries of the shadows.  That's one of the requirements for their kids to come to the school."

Ummm...so these parents are shelling out somewhere in the neighborhood of $950 a month for their child to be in one of the best preschools in Charleston, and then they're paying the salary of a full-time nanny for their child, as well?  I was appalled.  I am appalled. The more I think about it, the more appalled I become.

And this wasn't the only school with this policy--at least one other school we toured also had a "shadow" program for their kids with disabilities.  These schools have obviously decided that the resources needed for kids with disabilities are full-time adult caregivers, and that the people responsible for providing these resources are that child's parents.  These schools didn't, for instance, decide (like our #1 and #2 school choices) that shadows are unnecessary.  They also didn't decide that, if extra care is needed, they'd charge every family in their school a little more so that the cost would be shared.  They didn't decide that it's the right of every child to receive the best education possible, and that the responsibilities for this right should be shared.

I get that the schools we're examining are private schools, so they've already decided that it's not the right of every child to receive that excellent education--only children from financially comfortable families.***  I also get--hurray!--that our public schools are required to provide individualized support for Maybelle and every other child, no matter what needs they have.****  But the thing I'm wrestling with here is justice.  Not resources, but justice.  Resources are squishy, fluid, can be defined and directed in many ways.  Justice has a little more stability, and is far more important.  It is the right thing for our educational systems to treat all children as worthy, and to question how their resources can be used best to meet the needs of each individual child in a classroom.

*The fact that it's not in the paperwork and not mentioned initially suggests to me that these schools haven't necessarily considered this normative standard they're imposing on their kids.  It must just seem obvious to them--"Of course all 18-month-olds can walk!" 
**When Biffle and I attended Buddy Camp last summer, a camp for kids with DS and their friends who don't have disabilities, there was one kid there who did, in fact, require the attention of one adult the whole time.  And guess what:  he was one of the typical kids.
***Rest assured that I'll have another post about this.
****I know, although not yet from personal experience, that the public schools don't always do the greatest job of working with kids with disabilities, but the fact that it's their mandate is certainly worth celebrating.


Anonymous said...

Interesting and good luck! You lose me at the private school qualification, however. To choose a private school is to make a choice that is opting out of what we are to share in common as a polity, right? The assumption at a private school is that you are going to use your own resources for your child, I thought. I don't mind that- I prefer people spend all their money on children than on possessions. But it just seems to me nothing at all is "just" about a child placed in a private school. It's opting out. Or am I missing something?

Anonymous said...

I have a sister who has autism. She's 12, and in addition to dealing with challenges that come with autism, before she was adopted by my parents, she was severely neglected, leading to many developmental delays. She's lucky to go to a well-resourced public school that makes efforts to integrate her into mainstream classes, and also to be offered OT and speech therapy and intensive literacy help. And the school provides aides. Unfortunately, the aides barely make minimum wage, and thus they aren't able to recruit the kind of talented, patient individuals who could really provide the kind of assistance my sister needs in her classes. My parents pay extra to get an aide with actual educational training, and have managed to get grant money to help fund this. Still, aides are hard to hold onto, and when they lose an aide, my mom ends up going to school with my sister and acting as her aide. Even schools that offer better-than-average resources for students on the autism spectrum or who may have other issues still have such a long way to go.

Kelly said...

I was a teaching assistant for a year in a special ed classroom at a public elementary school. Our kids were a mixed bag of "special needs" including several kids w/ DS. Many of our kids were mainstreamed for part of the day, including one kid I'll call Mike, a 2nd grader with DS. The mainstream teacher required that another adult come "shadow" Mike during lunch since he was supposedly such a burden and needed help w/ his lunch as well as extra supervision.

I would sit there and watch half the class go ask the other teaching assistant to help them open their milk, ketchup packets, etc. But none of them needed an extra monitor. It made me really angry-- having me there just created an added sense of difference/othering for him and flagged his behavior as abnormal when plenty of the other kids also needed an extra hand.

Thanks so much for writing up your experiences and being such a good advocate for Maybelle as well as other families who face similar challenges in getting the services that so-called "normal" ppl take for granted.

Alison said...

Anonymous: I hear you about the private/public distinction and the "opting out" that goes with private school. Since there aren't any public school options for 20-month-olds, we're not yet opting out in a conscious way. But we may in the future.

I have lots of thoughts about the great comments that have been made so far. I'm going to have more to say and will respond to some of these specifics (probably in later blog posts)--but for now I just wanted to thank you three for such thoughtful comments.

Ian McCullough said...

Carol used to do education organizing in Chicago around special needs issues. As far as I remember, every official in every school in the state of Illinois claimed they didn't have the resources to deal with the autistic/wheelchair-bound/DS/etc... child in question. Expect to hear this canard repeatedly throughout your life. If Maybelle goes to public school you may receive joyous news that it's (insert wildly popular activity) or your child.

Jims said...

I think what's just vis-a-vis the private school question is pretty complex in this situation. My first thought (which Alison confirmed) was that there would be no public preschool anyway--I didn't think things had changed that much since I was a preschooler in the late 80s. Second, in principle I don't support private schools because their existence enables the parents with the most time/resources to insist on better public schools to go another route. On the other hand, I attended one of SC's notoriously underfunded, under-performing rural public schools for K-12. I couldn't "justly" recommend anyone ever send their child to a school like mine, especially if that child had a disability. I remember that my school was still very into segregating the students with disabilities into their own class, called "special education." I had a friend who was placed in the class because she was dyslexic, but her parents fought for her to get out of it after they realized the school basically treated it as a daycare. In high school I recall often seeing the students from the "special education" class out in the school parking lot washing school buses. Something was pretty clearly wrong there.

The overall problem here is that neither of these school systems are being just. The public school system in SC only provides a "minimally adequate" education students, and minimally adequate in their view for a student with a disability is likely pretty appalling. The private school preschools seem to be setting up an inappropriate norm based on the idea that students with disabilities are somehow "more difficult" than any other toddler.

Taylor said...

What a strange hierarchy of carework. "We will provide care for your children, but as long as they're 'normal,' and if they aren't well, that's extra." Very strange. I wonder how much "shadows" get paid vs. teachers and other nannies.

Anonymous said...

Still interesting! If "justice" is about distribution of public resources, it seems another term is needed for the policies of a private preschool or daycare, even if no single public option exists. I don't know what the term would be... but something that fails to obscure the opportunity the public is not getting when it comes to private education.
That is a neat comment about the "inappropriate norm" setting.

Aaron said...

So, what is the function of a Preschool?

Martha said...

I can only imagine the frustration and outrage. Why aren't preschools subject to anti-discrimination laws like those in housing? My own two year old scratched someone at his preschool and, in addition to doing a better job cutting his nails, I was asked if I knew a social worker who could come in and shadow him--to intervene before he'd scratch someone. Of course, I thought this sort of intervention was one of the jobs of the preschool teachers. At another preschool, my 3 year old son did not get "let in" when he went for the 10-minute "interview" with the teacher (I called it his "try out") because he did not give enough eye contact. He was expelled from another preschool because he was too difficult to handle and they "didn't have the resources" to help him--and this child had no medical or other condition or label. If such attitudes are typical, and I suspect that they are, and parents are lined up on waiting lists given the shortage of daycare, then preschools can cherry pick "easy" kids with no special needs or issues of any kind. This should be illegal!!!

Martha said...

PS to my post that this cherry picking of the "easy" kids should be illegal...I've just substituted "preschool" for "housing"--wouldn't this be kinda nice?

Preschool discrimination based on your race, color, national origin, religion, sex, family status, or disability is illegal by federal law. If you have been trying to buy or rent a space in preschool and you believe your rights have been violated, you can file a fair preschool complaint.