by Ken Gorrell, Weirs Times Contributing Writer
Another year, another IEP meeting. Another wasted 45 minutes trying to salvage a student’s public school education by updating his ironically-named “Individualized Education Program” (IEP)
Perhaps “wasted” is too harsh a word. Maybe “futile” better describes a process where five well-meaning adults – two teachers, a special education specialist, the boy’s guardian, and I – try to craft a plan addressing the learning needs of a 7th grader testing at a 3rd grade level. When pressed, one teacher acknowledged that next year at this time we’ll be discussing how this student will be heading to high school armed with his elementary school abilities.
This boy (I’ll call him “Jim”) is a good kid: friendly, polite, willing to please. I don’t like kids as a rule, but I like Jim. His teachers like him, too, and are quick to point out that he doesn’t disrupt class, isn’t a behavior problem.
I’ve worked with Jim since we were matched through a mentoring program when he was in 1st grade, shortly after his mother passed away. If one were to make a list of childhood disadvantages, Jim could check off almost every item. But from his happy-go-lucky attitude and quick smile you’d think Jim’s life was on-track.
Jim isn’t dumb. I’ve seen him learn and grow these past six years. He fully participates in our Boy Scout Troop, completing the work that earns him merit badges and contributing to Troop activities. In that competitive yet nurturing environment, Jim is both a giver and receiver. His private reading and math tutors made strides with him over the past two years working on basics, trying to build the solid foundation that the public school did not.
Multiplication and the grammar of a complete sentence are not part of this junior high school student’s toolkit of knowledge, but the public school keeps him on a curriculum track that includes algebra and Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle.” When the teacher mentioned Sinclair’s novel and received my silent, raised-eyebrow response, she admitted that Jim’s class is listening to segments of the book on tape. Another box checked for the school, I guess, but listening to the muckraking of an early-20th century socialist journalist doesn’t translate into skills for the 21st century working world, where semi-literacy is frowned upon. I suggested the time might be better spent diagraming sentences, but of course they don’t do that anymore.
So, yes, futile is the right word. In 3rd grade Jim was testing just one grade level behind; four years and four IEPs later he’s four grade levels behind where the public school says he ought to be. Deciding where Jim, or any other student, “ought” to be presupposes an end-state that, to be meaningful, must be based on some justifiable and achievable goal. But nobody at that table had any illusions that Jim is going to somehow catch-up to a grade-level trend line. His teachers know all about his learning deficiencies but work within a system that puts process over people, where metrics matter more than academics.
In private they’ll admit their frustrations with mandatory testing, Common Core, and other artificial obstacles standing in the way of treating students like Jim as individuals. To my question about the math curriculum – and another raised eyebrow – the math teacher admitted that she supplements the math program with material more appropriate for Jim and his classmates. How frustrating must it be trying to teach algebraic concepts to kids who couldn’t consistently make correct change, much less balance a checkbook or apply the math used every day by tradesmen?
Four hours after the IEP meeting I was transported from a school of futility to a school of promise, the local charter high school. Since Jim lives in a different state, he can’t take advantage of our tax credit scholarship program that provides NH students like him with options besides the schools that have been failing them, so this charter is his best hope for a meaningful high school experience.
Based on my research, our tour, and discussions with an advisor, I believe this charter school “empowers its students to take charge of their learning, to become responsible citizens and life-long learners.” The program “includes internships, individual learning plans, advisory, and a breakthrough college transition program.” Jim’s ears perked up when he heard that the school day runs from 9 – 3 (like most kids he’s not a morning person), but I think he also recognized that the charter program could provide him with not just a diploma but an education and life skills.
In a couple of months public high schools across the country will graduate thousands of kids like Jim. Or worse, they will add kids like Jim to their drop-out statistics. Charter schools are mindlessly opposed by doctrinaire advocates of the status quo (a certain NH Board of Education member comes to mind), but given the demonstrable shortcomings of traditional public schools and the inability of those schools to meet the needs of all children no matter how much money they are given (see the money-no-object Kansas City experiment), charter schools provide the only hope some students have of receiving the individualized education they deserve.
When it comes to education, there is an “I” in Charter.
Ken can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.