I had done quite a bit of research leading up to my meeting with the Principal of the local public Montessori school. I contacted friends and friends of friends who know about Montessori education. I hashed it out online with fellow parents. I belong to an inclusion group for parents of kids with Down syndrome. I work closely with an education specialist at work who is well versed in special education policies. I read Wrightslaw newsletters. I know the lingo and I feel like I'm beginning to understand IDEA and IEP's and FAPE and all the rest. But when I showed up to my meeting I was unprepared. How is this possible? I know my stuff! I was unprepared for how emotional I would instantly get when I asked if there were any students with special needs at the school (a PUBLIC school) and was met with “No.” My head started spinning like I had had one drink too many.
Let me make sure I point out that while I was shocked and emotional and was not met with what I was hoping for (I’ll get into that in a minute) this Principal was kind, calm, smart, generous with her time and we parted on good terms with an understanding of how I was going to proceed. I in no way want to make the Principal out to be a villain. I believe her only real fault was that she was not prepared to meet with me and therefore not as open to discussion as I had hoped.
What happened? How did this go so wrong? I had asked in my Facebook group if other parents had experience with Montessori schools and while there weren’t many, there were definitely some and they were all supportive. My research suggested similar things. Basically, Montessori can be good for kids with Down syndrome for a number of reasons: Learn at your own pace, hands on learning, fewer classroom transitions due to multiple ages in one room, helps teach self direction, to name a few. There were some down sides too but they boiled down to: the potential for him to get lost in that environment is large. This is not a minor point and I accept it. But I also know that regardless of the general education environment, the potential for Cooper to get lost is large. He will process things at a slower pace than his peers and it will take him longer to learn to express himself. He will need assistance to succeed in a general ed setting. It does not, however, mean that he cannot process, that he cannot learn and that he cannot express himself.
So I felt like I could handle that argument if presented to me. It went something like, “With the proper modifications, with a teacher willing to try and with the support of the public school's educational requirements of his IEP (OT/PT/Speech and/or an aide) I’d like to find a way to help Cooper learn to navigate a Montessori environment because the positives far outweigh the potential negatives.”
My first question to the Principal was, “Do you have any other kids here with special needs?” Her response of “No,” as I said earlier, started the meeting off on a terribly wrong track. “But aren’t you a public school?” I asked. “Yes, but our students have to be very self directed in order to do well in this environment.” “At 3? Because I don’t know a whole lot of self directed 3 year olds.” Getting worse by the word! I had emailed before the meeting to let her know that I was coming to talk about my two year old with Down syndrome, so I thought maybe she would be more prepared to talk about it. She had forgotten that I wasn’t just a typical parent off the street looking for a tour and when I started challenging some of her statements, her defenses went up…and mine were sky high at the answer to the first question!
I took a deep breath and owned my emotional state. Saying it out loud seemed to help bring everything down a few notches. I said, “I’m sorry. I’m very emotional. This is all new to me. I want something for my child that apparently no one else has ever asked for here. I appreciate your willingness to talk to me about it.” All the while I’m screaming in my head, “YOU ARE A PUBLIC SCHOOL! YOU CAN’T DENY MY SON ACCESS BECAUSE YOU DON’T WANT TO DISRUPT YOUR FLOW! YOU ARE A PUBLIC SCHOOL! HOW DARE YOU ASSUME MY SON CAN’T FUNCTION HERE BEFORE YOU GET TO KNOW HIM! YOU ARE A PUBLIC SCHOOL!!!!” There was a lot of screaming in my head. I almost ended the meeting and walked out because I didn’t know what to say next. All I could hear was the screaming.
I started over. “I realize now that you don’t have any experience with children with special needs.” “Oh we have some with mild EI or CI. I don’t want you to think we don’t have anyone. I just meant that we don't have anyone with Down syndrome in this school, currently.” I clung to the currently! Progress. “In my research, I have learned that there will be challenges to having Cooper in a Montessori school but potential benefits to him are intriguing to me and I’d like the opportunity to pursue them.” The screaming was getting quieter but behind that statement was “I SHOULDN’T HAVE TO PLEAD MY CASE!” But I guess I do. I went on to tell her what I like about the idea of having him in this school and that I was well aware that we might get to next school year and it would be evident he wasn’t ready yet. “Rest assured, I want my son to learn. If this environment, with the proper supports in place, is not the right one for him, I will be the very first person to know it and do something about it.” We were quiet for a few seconds and then she said, “But we don’t really have the people to provide that support.” Defenses back up! Screaming in my head commences: “YOU WILL HAVE TO GET THEM! FAPE! IDEA! I READ WRIGHTSLAW! YOU ARE A PUBLIC SCHOOL!” Somehow I managed to say, “My understanding is that because you are part of the public school system, if it’s in his IEP, you will have to provide them.” Long staring, much screaming in my head. But I waited. She replied, “But in the least restrictive environment.” Huh? Did she just throw out a term that she didn’t think I knew? Probably not. I think she was just grasping at straws. I said, “Yes. And if I with his IEP team think that this is the least restrictive environment…?” We left this line of questioning with her admitting that she didn’t know and would have to consult with the special education director.
I had really hoped this meeting would go so much better than this. I’ve done so much research into inclusive education and I have wanted to find a school that valued it as much as I do. I wanted her to answer my first question with, “Yes. We’ve made some modifications to help these students. Yes, Montessori school is an environment based on student choice with hidden structure but we’ve worked hard to find a way to make it successful for students of all learning types.” Idealistic, I know. But there are schools out there that have done it and value it. I wanted desperately for this school to be one of them.
I’m not really sure how we turned the corner. All the screaming in my head makes it a little hard to sort out. But somehow we did. I think I might have let go of my idealistic vision and accepted that we might have to be the ones to blaze this trail at this school. I asked her to explain what a typical day in the 3/4/5 year old class looked like. She expalined that the students are dropped off and play outside for ten minutes, they all line up, they come inside for circle time and lessons, then they go and choose their work. I asked, “How many of the three year olds are able to follow that from the first day?” She said, “Most of them but there are a few that require a little more teacher attention.” We talked about whether teachers were willing to help students make choices of what to work on until they are able to do so on their own. She said they already have to do that for some students. Hmm, and this is different from helping Cooper, how? But I didn't say it. It was apparent. She's a very smart woman. I concluded with, “This is what I’d like to do. I’d like to apply and if we are selected (it’s a lottery), I will evaluate as the school year approaches, to make sure he’s ready. If he is not, then I will enroll him in ECSE (early childhood special education) and reapply in a year. If he is selected and I choose to send him here, how will we begin the process of making sure he has the correct supports in place?” She responded very well to that and we made a little plan about how we would move forward. Maybe it was because I stopped asking permission? I don’t know but it was clear that I had every intention of fighting for my kid. The screaming in my head had subsided. It was a calm, “You think we can’t? You have no idea who you just provoked.” I’m stubborn that way. And in her defense, she never told me no. She never said “No. He can’t come here.” She only ever said that she didn’t have the experience and that she was concerned they didn’t know how to support him appropriately and didn't have the resources currently in place. But inherent in the responses was a clear sense that she wasn't sure Cooper could handle it.
That’s the biggest disappointment. I just wish so much that there didn’t have to be a fight. That there didn’t have to be a proving ground. That my son would be accepted with open arms. Doesn’t everyone want that for their child? Idealism, meet Realism. The reality is, Cooper is going to have to further the cause not just be the beneficiary of other’s hard work. In the end, maybe Montessori school isn’t the right place for him, as it might not be the right place for some typical kids. I appreciate that the Principal was able to come around with me during the course of the meeting. We very obviously went from a tense, argumentative meeting to a place of better understanding. It's not resolved and there may be many more conversations along these lines but I left with the feeling that she was willing to try. The screaming in my head has still not totally subsided. Until people stop placing limitations on Cooper before he's given a chance, the screaming in my head will continue. And until Cooper is in the right environment, being educated by people who care about him as a person not a diagnosis, the fight will continue.