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Friday, October 10, 2014

Crossing the Bridge: How Far Would You Go to Find the Right School for Your Child?

From Great Schools

By Dorothy O'Donnell
October 5, 2014

When your child has a disability, finding a place where she can thrive may take you into unfamiliar territory.

Watching my 10-year-old skip down the street, I blinked back tears. Sadie had spent the day visiting a small school — housed inside a cozy San Francisco Victorian — for kids with learning differences. I couldn’t remember the last time she left school happy.

Sadie has bipolar disorder and ADHD. She’s smart and creative, but problems with anxiety, organization, focus, and processing information hamper her in school. Keeping track of her materials is a battle. She dreads reading because she constantly loses her place. She’s easily overstimulated and gets distracted in loud, busy settings.

Not “Private School People”

Even six months earlier, I’d never have considered sending my child to a private school; I would have laughed at anyone who even suggested it. I associated such schools with precious, overachieving children; hefty tuitions; and drab uniforms. My husband, Jim, half-joked that private Catholic school scarred him for life. We just weren’t private school kind of people. Besides, private school seemed like overkill since we live in Marin County, which is know for its excellent schools.

Sadie attended a public school with a stellar reputation. She was in the middle of her final year, a fifth grader at last. On her first day of kindergarten, I snapped a photo of her flashing a nervous grin as she perched on a bench in the school garden, surrounded by vegetable beds and apple trees. Since then, I'd watched her go in and out of the school's putty-colored buildings hundreds of times. Over the years, I’d seen her smile slowly fade.

Since first grade, Sadie has had an Individual Education Plan (IEP) to help her cope with her learning and emotional challenges. We are lucky — many kids who could benefit from an IEP never get one. I trusted the staff at her school. I was relieved when they said Sadie was too bright for special ed and advised keeping her in a mainstream classroom.

I believed the plan, which provided her with modified assignments, counseling, and time in the resources room to catch up on her work in a quiet, distraction-free environment, would provide enough support for Sadie to make it in public school. Even when things started to go downhill in fourth grade and she began to fall behind, switching her to a private school never entered my mind. I hired a tutor instead.

Slipping through the Cracks

Within the first few weeks of fifth grade, increased workload, bigger class size, and organizational demands left my daughter floundering. “School’s moving at lightning speed for Sadie,” her teacher wrote in an e-mail in early October. “She seems to shut down the minute I ask the students to produce something, even though I keep reducing her assignments.”

No one was more aware of her academic challenges — or of how much she stuck out from her neurotypical peers — than Sadie. She stopped raising her hand and joining in the class discussions she’d once loved. The few assignments she finished rarely made it into the teacher’s hands. Tears, crumpled worksheets, and the sound of pencils being snapped in half punctuated the nightly homework sessions we both dreaded.

I began to question whether “mainstreaming” Sadie was doing her more harm than good. If she was failing to complete or turn in the bulk of her assignments and shutting down in class, how could she be learning anything? And if she was this overwhelmed and miserable in elementary school, how would she fare at our local middle school, where she’d be changing classes every hour and navigating a sprawling campus of more than 1,000 students?

Her teacher echoed my concerns when we met on a cloudy December day. After telling me how much she enjoyed Sadie’s wit and imagination, a rueful smile flickered across her face. Sadie had shown no real improvement in her ability to complete work in spite of even more cuts to her assignments. She was in danger of slipping through the cracks in public school, her teacher said.

Sadie didn’t belong in a program for severely impaired kids. But expecting her to succeed in a regular classroom was akin to asking her to row across the ocean without any oars.

I tried to push down the panic rising inside me. Trudging across campus, I passed the basketball court where Sadie’s class was starting P.E. From behind the corner of a building, I paused to watch. The thwack, thwack, thwack of rubber slapping blacktop mingled with laughter and excited yelps as the other kids dribbled basketballs across the court.

But Sadie straggled behind, looking lost and confused. She’d barely started bouncing her ball when her classmates swarmed around her, already on their way back, leaving her dazed and alone in the center of the court.

There had been many similar scenes in recent years: Sadie at her desk doodling because she’d forgotten, or couldn’t find, her materials. The times she couldn’t join her book club for their much-anticipated weekly meetings in the garden because she was too far behind on her reading.

Suddenly, I was doing something I never thought I’d do — seriously considering a private school for my daughter. The possibility that such a school might help Sadie dispelled all my preconceived judgments about what constituted a private school person. I’d happily turn into one, I realized, if that was what Sadie needed. That night, I started researching private schools for kids with learning differences.

Across the Golden Gate

A week later, I toured a highly acclaimed school for students with learning challenges. I was impressed with the teachers and the quiet rooms. But it felt too prison-like and sterile for Sadie. Then a friend told me about the little school in the city. I talked to the staff and liked what I heard.

“Go for it,” Jim said when we discussed letting Sadie spend a day there shadowing another student.

As we drove home that day after her first visit, Sadie bubbled with tales of the new friends she’d made, the small classes where teachers had time to help anyone who needed it, the kids who didn’t snicker when someone laughed too loud and long at a silly joke.

“Can I go there, Mama?” she begged. “Please?”

I’d told myself we were just exploring options for next year. But by the time I pulled into our driveway, my gut was telling me something different. The fact that we were fortunate enough to able to afford a private school made the thought of fewer vacations and a longer commute — almost an hour door to door — more bearable. And it eased the pang of sadness I felt as I contemplated yanking Sadie out of her community and separating her from long-time friends — friends she otherwise might have stayed with through her senior year in high school.

The school on the other side of the bridge was clearly a better place for Sadie. And it would be crazy to let her struggle on this side a second longer.

New School, New Normal

Sadie floated easily through the first few months at her new school, quickly fitting in and making friends. She raved about her teachers, jumped into class discussions, and bonded with the two on-site psychologists.

With only a handful of other students in her math class, she regained her love of the subject by working at her own pace on problems tailored to her skill level. Instead of coming home defeated because she couldn’t keep up with her classmates, or bombed yet another timed quiz, she beamed whenever she plucked a finished workbook from her backpack and announced that she was moving on to more challenging arithmetic.

Reading stopped being an exercise in torture. With the help of an iPad app that let her follow along while a narrator read out loud when she was struggling to concentrate, it was easier for her to sustain focus and comprehend the words on the page. Her days were also filled with options that satisfied her creative side: art, music, and filmmaking.

After school, instead of rushing home to catch up on assignments with a tutor, she was free to hang out with friends or participate in sports or other activities.

Brain Attack

Sadie was doing so well that over the summer break we decided to wean her off the bipolar medication she’d been on since she was 7. The medication had helped her tremendously, especially during the first couple of years she was on it. But it also caused her to steadily gain weight. Plus, I was curious to see how she’d do without medication now that she was older and her brain had matured.

Sadie, her private therapist, and her psychiatrist were all on board. My husband was less enthusiastic but agreed to give it a try. Knowing that Sadie would be returning to the small school where she felt safe and nurtured motivated me to move ahead with our plan.

The first few weeks of the new school year went okay. But the strain of having to hold it together for almost eight hours a day, focus, navigate social situations, and then be expected to do homework soon took a toll. One of her school therapists noted that she seemed “more revved up” than she had the previous year. She couldn’t sit still and her constant chatter distracted her classmates.

And, though Sadie admitted that she was more comfortable at the new school than her old one, her attitude was becoming increasingly negative. She started resisting going to school and complained that her homeroom teacher was too hard on her.

Signs of my daughter’s deteriorating stability were evident at home, too. She was often unreasonably angry and paranoid, fixating on what she perceived as mistreatment by friends, teachers, and me. Almost every night, she experienced a combination of excessive, irritable energy and anxiety that made sleep nearly impossible. She’d scream that her brain was attacking her and that she was “ruined” and “broken.”

One night, she howled like an animal, babbling incoherently while I held her. She shrieked that she couldn’t go on like this and wanted to die.

I called her psychiatrist the next morning. On the day of our appointment to discuss going back on medication, I received an email from one of the school therapists that erased any lingering doubts I had about taking this step. My stomach clenched as I read that Sadie was rapidly cycling thorough highs and lows, unable to concentrate, and overwhelmed with worries.

The therapist described several disturbing incidents, including the time she happened to be passing one of Sadie’s classrooms and saw her lolling on the floor, completely unable to function. During one of their sessions, Sadie burst into uncontrollable laughter for no reason and couldn’t compose herself.

No one at her school ever hinted that Sadie’s disruptive behavior might get her kicked out. But I worried about it all the time. I couldn’t bear to think that Sadie might be forced to leave the school we’d had such high hopes for — not to mention kissing all the money we’d spent on tuition good-bye.

A Safe Place for Sadie

As Sadie adjusted to her new medication, a drug that had recently been approved for bipolar illness and doesn't cause weight gain, the school psychologists and Sadie’s teachers kept an eye on her — and they stayed in close contact with us. They implemented additional strategies to help her get back on track. Recognizing that transitions are especially hard for Sadie — next to impossible when she’s unstable — the staff devised a plan that let her ease into each day by spending the first half hour sitting quietly with a teacher in the lobby.

The teacher checked in with her to see how she was feeling and helped her organize her materials and complete any unfinished assignments. When Sadie was too restless or upset to sit still in class, she was allowed to wander around the room as long as she didn’t disturb other students. When these measures weren’t enough, or when she was sleepy — a common early side effect of her new medication — she headed upstairs to the therapists’ office and spent as much time as she needed talking about what she was going through, practicing meditation exercises, resting, or even taking a short nap.

Such a speedy, tightly-coordinated response to Sadie’s problems probably wouldn’t have been possible in a large public middle school where strapped resources and over-worked staff are the norm. Her IEP would have given her access to therapy, but she would have been allotted a limited number of hours with a psychiatrist who is only on campus part-time. When Sadie is stable, a brief weekly check-in with a therapist is fine. When she’s going through a bipolar episode, she needs daily sessions for a month. Or more.

As Close As It Gets

In a big public school, surrounded by hundreds of peers who might not understand mental illness, Sadie would face a greater risk of being stigmatized and isolated for her behavior. At her new school, she gets plenty of support from friends who have experienced similar struggles.

I, too, have found support from a school community where I never get skeptical looks or feel judged when I discuss my daughter’s issues. Morning chats with other moms in our carpool frequently revolve around meds, therapy, and the relief of seeing our children finally succeeding in school.

Looking back, I think I resisted the idea of a special school for Sadie because it would mean that she couldn’t make it in a “normal” setting (whatever that is). The issue wasn’t really about public versus private school. As long as she was in a regular school, mainstreamed with other students, her problems seemed within the realm of normal, something we could handle — and not so terrible or frightening.

But once we crossed that bridge, it became clear that Sadie needs more support to thrive. And now that she has that support, it’s easier for her — and for all of us — to weather the rough patches.

With help from her school, outside therapy, and the new medication, Sadie has been stable since last spring. She recently started seventh grade and couldn’t wait to see her friends and favorite teachers on the first day. Like most kids, she’s sure to hit some bumps as the year wears on: classes she finds boring, teachers she doesn’t adore, tricky social situations. When she does, I’ll remind her — and myself — that there’s no such thing as a perfect school. But for Sadie, the one she’s in now is about as close as it gets.


Dorothy O’Donnell has written about travel, health, and business for a variety of publications. Her last piece for GreatSchools, "Bipolar at 5," won a 2014 Maggie award. Her essays on motherhood have been featured in the Marin Independent Journal, Mothering and on KQED radio. She is working on a memoir about raising her daughter.

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