Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Is Summer School Really Worth It?

In our school system, summer school is an option offered to most Special Ed students.

(Now that I typed that first sentence, I realize I'm not entirely sure how accurate it is. I do know that Max has always qualified, but I also know that I have pushed & encouraged & requested it during each end-of-year IEP meeting. I also know that when he was still in preschool, summer classes were definitely NOT readily offered or approved and I had to get rather adamant about including him....but I'm assuming that full-day elementary school kids don't have to do much to get in. I suppose it is possible that The Powers That Be simply put some special code by my son's name that means "his mom will push for as much school as possible, so just go ahead and stick his name on the list." I really don't know.)

But here's what I DO know: I argue strongly for it every time, but then I question how worthwhile it really is and even OPT OUT of sessions in the end.

That sounds completely ridiculous, I know. But what sounds good in theory just doesn't always pan out in reality.

Max does wonderfully in school. He thrives on the routine, he enjoys the social component, he is happy to be there, he makes clear and consistent progress throughout the year.


Summer school? That's an entirely different creature.

The setting is different, the schedule is different, the faces are different, the "routine" is so scattered and widely-spaced that it never quite takes, and, quite frankly, I can't really see evidence of progress on our end of the thing.

Our summer school is offered in two different sessions, each lasting two weeks, held on two days. Read that carefully, because what initially sounds like 4 full weeks of summer school is actually only 8 mornings. And that's if your child attends both sessions.

In our particular case, we will be gone on vacation during the second week of Session 2, so we opted out of the entire second session. That means summer school for Max lasts a grand total of...four mornings.

Now, if those four mornings were back-to-back during a single week, it would be wonderful. But for a kid who sleeps poorly, eats poorly, and falls apart quickly when his routine is so disrupted, four mornings spread out over 2 weeks is actually kind of awful.

Why did we sign him up? Well, that's easy: Max is the type of kid who would benefit from an extended year program. Furthermore, I want to get him out of the house, with his peers, learning and playing in an appropriate and educational environment. I sign up because I don't want him to regress every single summer!! I sign up because I want the school system to see that there is a need for this type of service, thereby ensuring that they will continue to offer it.

We go into it knowing that along with the benefits will come some costs, and we choose to accept a certain number of negative consequences.

I wish I had more positive things to say about summer school. Oh, how I wish! But I don't.

Max just finished this year's round of summer school and it didn't go very well from our perspective.

Monday, my husband drove him there. (We originally signed up for bus transportation, but when we realized the pick-up time would be 7:10 a.m., we decided it would be easier on Max if he could sleep in a little longer. So, our plan was for my husband to drop him off on the way to work.) That plan didn't work well. Max was resistant to getting dressed, reluctant to leave the house, hesitant to enter the unfamiliar school building, and then had a full melt-down about going into his classroom. There was finally a familiar classroom aide who took him and my husband slipped out around 8:20am. School started at 8:00, so the time saved by sleeping in was then wasted on tantruming. And my husband was late to work. (And really, really frustrated.)

We quickly arranged to put Max's name back on the bus list. The bus really is an important part of the school routine for him. When he sees it pull up in front of the house, he knows exactly what's happening next and that predictability is comforting. He loves the driver, enjoys the ride, and definitely benefits from the cue the bus provides. Even with the early morning hour, we decided it was worth it after all.

So on the second school day, we got up at 6:30am so Max would have time for a nice hot shower, and semi-leisurely dressing and breakfasting. The morning went pretty smoothly, though he refused to eat a thing (no surprise there). And then the bus came at 8:00. To take him to his 8:00 class.

I'm not terribly uptight about schedules; I'm not worried about 10 minutes here or there, even though it does make the morning bus time somewhat unpredictable. On the other hand, 50 minutes is completely ridiculous.

I don't know what time the bus arrived at school, but obviously it was very late.

Max came home all wound up, excited about the bus (and probably happy with his school experience),...but also kind of wild and edgy and, most certainly, hungry. Bouncing back from a morning twist like summer school takes a long time for Max. He stays a little "off" all day, and we basically factor in a certain amount of uncooperativeness, overstimulation, neediness, etc. for those days.

And then when it all happens again 2 days later (just when we're back on track!)...well, the better part of the week is kind of a bust.

We got the bus figured out, and they came at a more reasonable and predictable time the last 2 days of school, so Max could sleep in a little bit longer. But here's the thing that absolutely killed me: both of those mornings, he slept right through the alarm and the noise and the door creaking and the footsteps leaving him all alone in bed. We had to wake him up.

For the FIRST TIME IN 9 MONTHS, HE SLEPT IN! ALONE!! IN HIS OWN ROOM. IN HIS OWN BED. This has been our goal since last August. And the day it finally happens? We wake him up.

I can't even tell you how frustrating that was; I seriously considered calling him in absent.

He came home grinning and waving at the bus. He told me had crackers at school. He brought home a stack of worksheets he had done. But that's literally all I know.

I don't know how big the class was. I don't know who his teacher was. I don't know what they worked on. I don't know if he wore pull-ups or underwear there. I don't know anything. The first day he came home with a note that said, "Max had a good day." And while that was comforting to know, since the part my husband experienced was terrible, that's just not enough.

I think if I wrote questions or sent requests for information, I would get some. But I also thought it would automatically come to me without a request. My kid is nonverbal. I'm not there. He rides the bus, so I don't drop him off or pick him up; there is no verbal exchange taking place at those times, no sizing up of the situation, no introductions or greetings, no first-hand knowledge of anything.

I know budgets are tight. I know staffing issues exist. I know I should be grateful for the program that does exist, instead of picking it apart and criticizing. But I really think there has to be a better way to do summer school for our kids.

I KNOW there would be a way to make it work better for my son.

I have asked about the possibility of sending him every day Mon-Thurs for ONE week only. (There is one group of kids meeting Mon/Wed, and another group of kids meeting Tues/Thurs. for those two-week sessions.) He would attend the same number of days (4), but it would be chronologically more predictable for him. This request was turned down; it would throw off the numbers, and his classmates would be completely different from day to day. (Both valid points.)

I asked about sending him all 4 days for TWO weeks, thus condensing his hours from two sessions into one session. This would keep his presence consistent & predictable throughout one entire session, so appropriate staffing could be arranged. And though his classmates would still alternate from day to day, there would be some overall consistency (kind of). This request was turned down, too. It was no surprise, but I still had to ask.

I get it. I really do see their side of things. I do!

But is anyone listening to our side?

Surely I'm not the only parent who finds the current schedule hard to work with. Surely my son isn't the only child who had difficulty adapting to it.

It just seems like there should be a way to make this work more effectively -- for BOTH sides of the program.

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