Wednesday, April 21, 2010

IEA and Private Education

Today, I was fortunate to take part in a rally in our state capital. I joined about 15 thousand people as we marched to bring attention to the plight of public education funding in the State of Illinois. Our state is looking at 20,000 teachers without jobs next year. That equates to a huge effect on the children of our state. There are many things at work...priorities, a true lack of revenue, politics... it reads like a novel.

Two State Representatives took time to speak with IEA Region 14 participants. Representative Keith Sommers and Representative Dan Brady both represent the areas our schools encompass. There were several talking points that supported IEA's stances, and it sounded like the bills for these issues were not going too far at present. Our state legislature has decided to slow itself to almost a halt until we see who the Governor will be in November.

While in Representative Brady's office, a topic came up that makes my blood pressure rise: school vouchers. Now, please understand I oppose school vouchers, but not for the reasons IEA opposes them. I oppose them because with money comes the idea of control. The more state money is involved, the more the state will try to micromanage private schools like they have public education. I know the money would be great, but at what price?

The topic came up as to whether Dan was opposed to a voucher system. The question was obviously planned, as the askers knew that Dan is in the same situation I am in: we chose Catholic school for our older children, but we could not choose it for our younger children, who are diagnosed on the autism spectrum. So, we have one foot in the "private" sector, and one foot in the "public" sector. Dan indicated that he was not interested in the bill on vouchers as it was affecting schools in Chicago. But the question persisted, even though the same answer was given. THEN the floodgates seemed to open and I had a really hard time keeping my mouth shut.

The main points that seemed to be surfacing were that, if private schools wanted public money, then "shouldn't they have to adhere to the same high certification standards that public school teachers do?" Shouldn't they have to be "highly qualified?" "They" always seem to need the public schools for special services, so aren't "they" already getting "benefits" of public education? Now, my IEA camrades, here is where we part ideology.

I pay taxes. And I chose to pay tuition for my son to go to a Catholic school. That is my right, the exercise of my religion, the choice to educate my son in whatever way I see fit. I want my son in an environment that allows for him to talk about God and things of God with the adults that work there. I want each subject he is taught to have the opportunity for a discussion of faith and what we believe as a family to be right or wrong, as opposed to the moral relativism that runs rampant in our society.

My son's school had already gotten some money from the State of Illinois: it is part of the Textbook Loan Program; we received reimbursement for having to transport him to and from school each day; we are able to claim the tuition on our state taxes; the list goes on. So Catholic schools "getting" money from the government is not new. But now, it has all been cut, just like everyone else's state funding.

My older son is on the autism spectrum. He has Asperger's. Although his school does not, in the opinion of some of my colleagues today, have special services, they do what they can. They had speakers come in to discuss accommodations for students on the spectrum. He was not diagnosed until 6th grade, but his previous teachers were caring and concerned professionals. His current teachers are open to working with us to help him in any way we can.

Teaching in the public sector and being "highly qualified" means little, and I am speaking as a person who does that and is, indeed, "highly qualified." I know plenty of teachers who look great on paper, but should not be in the classroom. They make it hard for us to maintain a positive image to the community from whom we are asking for more money. In fact, some of the greatest practices I learned in teaching happened during my first seven years of teaching, at which time I taught in a Catholic school, while making next to nothing on a pathetic salary schedule. I learned them from a teacher who had no state certification. She could teach circles around some people with whom I have taught. "Those" teachers in Catholic schools make a pittance for a salary AND if you think public school pensions look somber, you do not want to know about their pensions, or lack thereof. Since I wasn't vested after 7 years of teaching, I will get nothing for those seven years when I retire... not even the social security I paid in to. Makes it even more incredible that Catholic school teachers accomplish what they do. The argument that they "don't deal with" the same kids as the public sector is partial truth, but they have challenges none the less. Belittling a job to justify an unjust salary is a pathetic tactic. But, that's a whole 'nother story.

For my younger son, I cannot choose a Catholic school. His autism needs are greater than his brother's. I wonder if my IEA colleagues understand how hard that decision was for us as a family? I wonder if they care, or do they just want to throw a tone of voice at me (and Dan, and any others like us) as if I am in some way "milking" the system? My son gets services he deserves, and we worked tirelessly to get in place. He needs specialists that, yes, the Catholic school cannot provide, but MY tax dollars have helped pay for. So, after 8 years of investing in public education with my tax dollars and paying for other education for my sons with my own dollars, we need to rely on the public school system in our town for help. Scratch that, we are getting the help we deserve as citizens of the State of Illinois.

One last item. I am a product of Catholic schools (1st through 12th grades). I teach in a public school. I can introduce you to my friend Julia... product of Catholic schools and a public school teacher. Or how about my niece, Jennifer... product of Catholic schools and a public school teacher. And my sister-in-law, Patty... product of Catholic schools and a public school teacher. And yes, we all also taught in Catholic schools for part of our careers as well. So, would you say public education is benefiting from Catholic education?

Friday, April 16, 2010

P.L.A.Y. Project

We are fortunate to be participating in a research study of the P.L.A.Y. Project. Our local Easter Seals is partnering with the University of Michigan to research the effectiveness of the program, developed and directed by Dr. Richard Solomon.

P.L.A.Y. stands for Play and Language for Autistic Youngsters. According to the media information provided on the project's website, the mission of the P.L.A.Y. Project includes:

~Promote early identification and early intervention
~Educate community regarding National Academy of Sciences recommendations:
~~Begin interventions early (18 months to 5 years)
~~Use intensive intervention 25 hours per week
~~Have a teacher/play partner to child ratio of 1:1 or 1:2
~~Use interventions that are engaging
~~Have a strategic direction (e.g. social skills, language, etc.)
~Use community based approaches to promulgate Developmental, Individualized and Relationship-based interventions (DIR®)
~Support families in a parent-professional partnership
~Scientifically evaluate effectiveness of program

We are participating in the final part of the mission: the scientific evaluation of its effectiveness.

Our journey began a few months ago when the Autism Society of McLean County sent an e-mail on behalf of our local Easter Seals. They were looking for families with children under age 5 to participate in the study of the P.L.A.Y. Project. I was first contacted by Jim Runyon at Easter Seals for a phone interview. He sent me some information about the different areas of the study and asked many questions about Max. Over the past few months, I have completed instruments that have assessed me as his primary caregiver (one parent has to be selected for that) and Max. We both went to Easter Seals for some baseline information gathering.

This week, a P.L.A.Y. Project consultant came to our home and did some baseline videotaping of Max engaging in play from a box full of materials. April, the consultant, will be working with us for the next two years as we implement the facets of the project. She will leave us with three goal areas to work on for the month. From her observations in her first visit, she left us with these three P.L.A.Y. suggestions about engaging in play with Max:
1. Be with him. (power of the words needed)
2. Keep language simple - no more than 2 word sentences
3. Mirror his actions in play

During the day, we are to find 2 hours to engage in play with Max. This time can be broken up throughout the day. During these times, we are to be mindful of her three suggestions. She noticed that in the videotape, I used a great deal of verbal with Max when we play, but he shuts me out after two or three words. He's done. That's where suggestion #2 came from. Now, for those who know me, you know that will be the most difficult part of the month... :)

Mirroring his actions in play is actually really interesting. Tonight, Ignatius and I both mirrored him taking a chopstick and pretending he was in a car wash (the photo is of Ignatius playing with his brother). We laid down on the floor beside him and copied what he was doing, sound effects and all. It was fascinating how much he engaged. For about an hour (half with me and half with Ignatius) he repetitively played, re-enacting one of his favorite activities. The chopstick was the water pipe that sprays water and cleaning fluids on your car during the wash.

He was completely engaged while we were playing with him, and that's a tough thing to say about Max, especially about that duration of time. We were meeting him where he was, allowing the control of the play to be his, almost being "permitted" to enter his world of play. It was completely different from the play we usually try to force on him. I am really interested to see where this goes, and I am very glad that he was chosen to be in the intervention group, rather than the control group. More to come!