Left Behind

How junior high failed our special-needs daughter

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As a parent and a teacher, I dreaded my daughter's entrance into junior high. I feared disaster. I was right.

Tricia, our preadoptive, preadolescent daughter, joined our family when she was 11. The victim of a lifetime of abuse and neglect, she was learning-disabled and emotionally troubled. She was a special-needs student.

Although she functioned on a 2nd grade level in most subject areas, we had enrolled her in the 6th grade because she was too big to be placed in a lower grade. In just one school year, she advanced to grade level work or better in all subjects but math.

Tricia's success, though miraculous, was not mysterious. Her elementary school was a public school at its best. All staff members knew her and felt a stake in her success. They established clear limits for her, worked with her individually when appropriate, and required her to adjust to the group when necessary.

Moreover, the school welcomed parental involvement. Since Tricia had such obvious emotional needs, the school maintained daily contact with us at home through a daily report. Somehow, between the staff at school and us at home, we established a therapeutic community for Trish. She knew she was loved and supported for perhaps the first time in her life, and she knew she could never get away with a thing!

Having taught in secondary schools for 16 years, I feared we could not expect the same performance from the junior high. As a teacher, I have always understood how and why secondary schools differ from elementary schools; if nothing else, sheer numbers make close parent/school cooperation problematic. As a parent, however, I suddenly realized how impotent parents of secondary school students feel in the face of institutional indifference.

During the summer before Tricia entered junior high, I became increasingly apprehensive. I longed to talk with the principal, to establish my credibility with him, to tell him how worried we were, and to convince him that even though she looked so normal (better than normal, she was beautiful!), Tricia had very special needs. I wanted him to see that we were good, caring parents, that we needed the school to help us to help Tricia. Yet, fearing that I would look like an overly protective parent, I stayed away. Finally, I found an excuse to meet with the principal. We asked that Tricia's teachers prepare a simple daily report on her behavior, which involved checking columns on a form indicating whether Tricia's behavior was acceptable that day and whether her work was done on time. Such a report had been critical to her success in 6th grade, and we felt that Tricia would find the familiar report reassuring in her strange new school. We reasoned that, as a child who would do literally anything to get attention and to avoid work, Tricia needed daily feedback on her performance.

When the junior high principal saw the request for a daily report, he disapproved. When I went to see the principal in late August, he explained his reservations about the daily report. He feared that it would be a “red flag” for teachers and students, that Tricia would be held too responsible for behavior that all 7th graders exhibit. He argued that such a daily report demonstrated a lack of faith in Tricia and in the system.

As a teacher, I could—and can—understand his reservations. As a parent, however, I knew that educational philosophy was beside the point. I explained how I feared that teachers, though well-intentioned, often feel overwhelmed and don't make the home contacts they should. Moreover, I maintained, individual teachers, who see a student for a portion of the school day, might have little sense of that student's overall performance in school. The daily report, I suggested, would enable us to see the total picture.

The principal reassured me, told me not to worry about his teachers, that they would make immediate home contacts if necessary. Then he leaned forward, lowered his voice and confided, “Mrs. Kean, I've had many 7th grade parents coming in to see me—all with sweaty palms.” He laughed loudly. Like a co-conspirator, I laughed right along with him. In the back of my mind, though, I knew I was ridiculing myself. I left the interview feeling silly.

Tricia went off to 7th grade without a daily report. We waited anxiously through the first days of school. I watched Tricia and felt vaguely disturbed. She never had homework. She told disquieting stories about the fights she was having in the lunchroom, about the boys she'd kicked “where it counts.” Yet the phone shrieked with silence. I couldn't call the school to inquire since I'd already laughed at myself with the principal.

Tricia finally received progress reports midway through the first quarter. She had done none of the assigned work and was failing all courses. No teacher had called “immediately” as the principal had promised. Only the tutor the school had assigned to her had called, assuring us that Trish was doing well!

We didn't find out for weeks what we had suspected: that Trish had been lying to us and to the tutor. By the time the progress reports arrived, she was beyond help. In spite of the advances she'd made in 6th grade, she was too crippled emotionally and academically to make up mountains of work. Finding out midway through a marking period that she was behind was useless for us and for Tricia. Moreover, Tricia had become a social catastrophe. Her exploits in the darkened bleachers at the school dances, her fascination with sex, and her raucous fights with boys and girls in the halls of the school had scared off the decent kids. By December, my husband and I knew we had “hit the wall” with Tricia. For 20 months she had eroded the quality of our family life, but for the first 16 months, we had known that she was progressing. Suddenly, we felt we had lost her, that she'd stopped making progress.

In long, painful meetings with her social worker, her therapist, and our family therapist, and in excruciating late-night discussions at home, we came to realize that our home was no longer good for Tricia, that she needed much more than we could give her. With sadness and guilt beyond anything I can describe here, we said goodbye to Tricia at the end of February. She moved to a residential, therapeutic school for emotionally disturbed adolescent girls.

Perhaps Tricia's case was hopeless from the start. A child broken by 11 years of abuse and neglect is not easily fixed. I understand that Tricia's case was extreme, that she probably should never have been mainstreamed. But I can't help wondering what would have happened if Tricia had been held more accountable at the junior high, if she'd seen some sort of direct communication between the school and the home, if she had not been able to get away with all of her lies and manipulation. I can't help wondering what would have happened if the junior high had trusted us and had helped us to help her more. Still, I find myself unable to blame the school.

I also know from personal experience the reasons why Tricia's junior high rarely contacted us. We heard from the junior high about as often as my students' parents hear from me. I don't mean to shortchange parents when I teach their children, but I see dozens of students every day. Weeks pass at the beginning of each semester before I feel I really know my students well enough to have any kind of meaningful contact with their parents.

Even when I know a student is having problems, I don't rush to the phone to alert the parents. Because I genuinely care for students, as does the overwhelming majority of teachers, I talk to the students first. I want to give them a chance; I want to give them dignity.

Invariably, they promise to do better. And, for a while, most do. But often, the same kids start to slip again, and I find myself at the end of the quarter, staring at a failing average in my rank book, and knowing that I, too, have failed, because I forgot to make consistent parent contact. Perhaps I needed the severity of Tricia's situation to see how completely the secondary school system fails to include parents as partners in their children's education. If I, as a seasoned teacher savvy about the workings of a secondary school system, felt excluded and impotent when I tried to get help for my daughter, surely less experienced parents must feel crippled.

I now think more about what I owe to my students' parents. I call parents more than I used to. When I call, parents respond with gratitude. Many tell me I'm the first teacher they've ever talked to on the phone. Their children are average students, not good enough to be commended, not bad enough to be suspended. They ask me to call again. They tell me their worries about their children. Often, they are troubled by the same behavior at home that trouble me at school.

Interestingly, my students seem to feel closer to me now. When they miss a class and I fail to call their home, they ask me why I didn't call. One girl who had never looked me in the eye smiled shyly at me the day after I'd talked to her mother. Yet I know teachers do not make the contacts with parents that we should. And so, as a parent sending my next child off to junior high this fall, I'll watch him go—with sweaty palms.

Vol. 01, Issue 01, Pages 8-9

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