Wednesday, June 02, 2004

School Daze

I am still having trouble wrapping my mind around the fact that, come September, I will have one child in nursery school and one in kindergarten.

For a while now I have been very torn about Bug's placement for next year. I always thought that when he reached school age, I would be 100% in favor of mainstreaming him completely into a regular classroom. But with the school year just a few months away, I started to have my doubts. His birthday is in November, which means he just *barely* meets the cutoff for kindergarten, and even without the Down Syndrome I would be concerned about sending him to school at such a young age. As it is, I fear he would be lost in a class of typical 5-year-olds even if the school provided a full-time aide.

When it comes to decisions like this, it is so hard to separate my gut feeling about what is best for my son from my heart-wrenching apprehension about letting him take his first tentative steps into the real world. Would his needs really be best served in a special day class tailored to his skill level, or would he be more challenged and inspired by his typical peers in a regular classroom? Am I truly making the best choice by keeping him in special education, or am I just chickening out of fighting the powers that be within the school system? Is it okay to pick the option I think is most appropriate for him RIGHT NOW, or am I dooming him to be shuffled through a completely segregated track for the next twelve years?

Last week I visited the new school he is assigned to, and met with the teacher and the principal. I have to admit, I liked what I saw and heard. Woodside Elementary is a regular public school in a quiet, leafy suburban neighborhood not far from our home. There are bright, colorful play structures outside and cheerful murals in the hallway. Bug's class will have nine students in all (including his best friend from his current school) and four aides. The curriculum includes a strong emphasis on basic reading and math skills, like counting and letters and word recognition, with lots of time for stories and music and dancing and messy crafts projects. The students join the other first grade classes for P.E., music, recess, art and library time, and both the teacher and the principal assured me that, should we desire even more mainstreaming for Bug, they will arrange for him to participate in additional scheduled activities with the regular kindergarten class.

I am sure there are those who think I am selling out by not demanding full inclusion from the start, but I am comfortable with my choice. When it comes right down to it, I don't want to spend all my energy fighting for Bug to be stuck in an understaffed and overcrowded class of 30+ kids when, instead, he can have what every parent dreams of - a small class with loads of personal attention and a individualized lesson plan that is written specifically to address his academic goals and learning style.

I am all for inclusion, but to me - that has to mean real, meaningful inclusion in every sense of the word. I have no doubt that Bug could learn to sit quietly and behave himself and appear as though he belongs in a regular kindergarten class - but will the other kids play with him at recess and invite him to their birthday parties? Will the teacher call on him and challenge him and make sure he participates fully in class? I can't be sure of that - but I DO know that in Mrs. Fong's class next year he will be totally accepted by his fellow students, he will have solid goals he is expected to meet (and will experience a real sense of pride when he does achieve them) and he will have plenty of staff and faculty to help him focus on the little things - hanging up his backpack, tying his shoes, making straight lines with a crayon - that a busy, harried teacher might overlook.

I still think that Bug can and does benefit from lots of inclusion with his peers, and that is why I am trying to make sure he participates in Sunday School and summer camp and outings to the park and the zoo and frequent play dates with our friends and their kids. Maybe I will hit upon the perfect combination - or maybe there is no perfect, right-or-wrong answer, just a mom doing the best she can.


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