Wednesday, November 13, 2013

How the suburbs swayed me

Last year Sue Robins wrote an anonymous BLOOM piece about her son's deteriorating school situation. "I see now that I felt I had to be anonymous because I feared the ramifications of speaking out for our son," she says. "I'm no longer fearful to use my voice to speak up." Here's an update on how things have gone since Sue's family moved 18 months ago to get her son into a more inclusive school. "While no situation is perfect, our crisis in 2012 reminded me to always listen to my gut—sometimes giving up and walking away is the best choice for our children." Thanks Sue! Louise

How the suburbs swayed me
By Sue Robins

I arrived in the suburbs kicking and screaming. Our family came in exile from a mature neighbourhood near the university. We had a gorgeous, flat-roofed 1960s home, with a walk-out basement and a wrap-around balcony. The river valley was down the street, and our chocolate Labrador retriever could frolic in the nearby farmland. We were 10 minutes to the hospital, where I worked, and close to the subway. On paper, this was one idyllic place. Except for one thing:  no nearby school would educate our son.

Our youngest son has Down syndrome, and the idea of inclusion and cognitive diversity is still foreign to schools that boast academic excellence, or those staffed with teachers nearing retirement, or the one where the principal told us:

"If I let one special needs in here, they will all want to come here."

Three local community schools would not educate my son because of his differences, offering instead what amounted to a reluctant babysitting service.  I knew in my heart that my boy could learn and excel and grow academically if he was taught in a way that he understood. 

My most strident inclusion friends say that you can make inclusion work anywhere. But after countless meetings with my son’s Grade 3 teacher and principals, and too many times being summoned to the principal’s office to pick up my weeping boy, we knew the little community school wasn’t working. 

For four years, we did everything we could to make it work: I volunteered and my husband sat on Parent Council as Treasurer. But our son's troubles and social isolation never went away. He was labeled a "behavior problem" and written off. One day, I couldn't bring myself to take him to school for another day of misery. I gave up. I pulled him out of that community school and he never went back.

This is where the suburbs entered my line of vision. We happened to be friends with a soccer dad who was the assistant principal in a distant suburban school.  The school was new, and already overflowing with kids. It was in a neighbourhood teeming with young families, about 20 minutes further out from our urban home. We met with the school leadership, who were progressive and enthusiastic about welcoming our son to the school. I felt the smallest flicker of hope. 

There’s always a rub. The new school has closed boundaries. So we had to sell the beloved home we'd lived in for a decade to move neighbourhoods. And that meant moving to the suburbs—very much against my will. The day we moved was bittersweet. We left quietly, and sadly, from a place that had never ever accepted our son.  A community that excludes one is not a community at all.

Reflecting back, I see that acceptance comes slowly. It has taken me a year-and-a-half, but I’ve finally come around to suburban living. Yes, it takes 40 minutes to get downtown, but as a freelance writer, how often do I go downtown, anyhow? I can walk to get my groceries, something I could never do in the old neighbourhood. Independent, boutique stores are popping up amongst the chains in the strip mall—including a bakery, pub, flower shop, kitchen store and Indian restaurant. There is a gorgeous new recreation centre that my son considers his second home. This somehow doesn’t seem too bad. 

The neighbourhood is surprisingly ethnically and socio-economically diverse.  The density out here is higher than it is in the core of the city—with apartments, townhomes and affordable single-family homes being built at a fast pace. I know the "mature neighbourhood" citizens hate us urban-sprawl types. I used to feel that same disdain for suburbanites too. But I like to say that there’s a reason we live here: for some, it is the affordable price for land and housing, and for others, like us, it is because of the quality of the schools.

While I lost the status of a more prestigious neighbourhood, and a bigger home, our son gained so much more. We now walk across the street to school every day. He has teachers that believe he can learn, and his reading levels have taken a considerable jump. The leadership team treats our family with respect, and communications from the school are balanced and positive. Our boy still receives few play-date and birthday-party invitations, but in school, he is included and treated with warmth and dignity. Most importantly, he is valued in that school, where he spends seven hours of his day. I’ve seen his confidence rise as the teachers and his assistant nurture his independence, and demonstrate to him that he has worth.

And that means a lot more than a big old house in a leafy neighbourhood, doesn’t it? (Yes it does, dear readers. Yes it does).


I recently (two weeks ago) pulled my son out of his school that he attended for four plus years. He was in mainstream Grade three. And he has Down syndrome.

My husband and I could not take another morning of tears, and another note in his agenda about behaviour. We had hoped (beyond hope) that our son would have been entrenched with friends and buffered by inclusion so that when the academic gaps started to widen, he could keep going in the same school.

We had ideals and fantasies of our son going to the nearby Subway as a teenager with the same kids he attended Junior Kindergarten with. We were fooling ourselves and I dare say that perhaps we were sacrificing our son's happiness and self-esteem as a result.

It's been two weeks now since our son has been "homeschooling". He's happy. This has been the first morning when he didn't ask me "Is there school today?".

As parents who dreamed of inclusion while I was pregnant with our son, letting go of the idea was one of the most difficult things I've ever done. We don't know how long we will homeschool our son. We do know that we won't settle for "integration". If and when we search out another school, we will be searching for acceptance and inclusion no matter what.

Good for you for making your decision, Sue. It is hard to make lifestyle changes but it's worth it. Give your son a big hug from us!

Hi Lianna - I can totally empathize with you!! (And I will start following your blog - I'm so happy to connect).

What I've realized is that we all have to do what's best for our children. And yes it is shameful that we don't have a consistent high standard of what inclusion means across Canada (gosh, we don't even have it across our own cities). We are one principal-change away from being in that same situation again. My wish is that our story gives families hope that there are progressive schools/principals out there - but the burden is on us to seek them out.

When our son (also with Down syndrome) was 3 we were told he could not "handle" being in a mainstream classroom, which we argued. Because of a move, he ended up in a regular pre-K class with a personal aide. And he did great! Then we moved back to our previous town and despite our hopes, when we looked at kindergarten and visited several classrooms, we just knew that would not be a good fit. It was essentially him sitting with an aide away from the rest of the class. That is not inclusion! He has severe speech delay and most general ed teachers do not have the expertise to deal with. So now he is in a self-contained classroom that is housed in the local elementary school but run through a different agency. He gets to mainstream in some classes and everyone knows him and is happy to see him, both the kids in his room and in the wider school population. He even got to be part of the school play in 2nd grade. He has an augmentative device that helps him talk to his peers and other adults in the building. His academics are not on the same level as his twin brother, but they are at a spot where he can succeed and make progress. And since he's all about relationships, having the same teacher for several years in a row has been a blessing for all of us. Next year he'll have to move onto another class and I have no idea what the choices will be or if we will indeed have a choice (according to the district anyway! LOL) and I feel that familiar pang in the pit of my stomach that I haven't had to deal with for 4 years. But no matter what, we'll do what is best for him, whatever that ends up being. As parents we know what will work for our kids. Good on you Sue and Lianna for making it work!

Hi Sue Robins, I think that you should write to the Principal, Superintendent, Head of Special Education, Director of Education and Trustee to share what your experience was and the current situation that is working much better. They need to hear directly from you regarding how their system allowed -even encouraged - your child to fall through the cracks, lose his dignity, value and worth. There is no equity in education. Inclusion is only a buzzword used by the policy makers and board officials to give the impression the kids matter to them. It is so far from the truth. Too many school board trustees are living in the past when segregation was the norm and they are unable to get their head wrappped around the fact that inclusion benefits everyone when it is implemented properly. A major problem is that any parent who decides to pull their child from the public system and switch to homeschooling, a private school, the Catholic board or move out of province should have the opportunity through an Exit Interview or Survey to explain why they are leaving the public system and the school in particular. It is about time that school administrators be held accountable for the students who have been left behind. The new director of education in the Toronto public board relies too heavily on the information she gets from staff and her gatekeepers. They all forget or ignore whom they are supposed to serve. They need to hear from families like yours who gave up on the public system because their children were not making progress, being bullied, sitting in the office all day, being sent home, etc. And don't even get me started on the inadequacy of IEPs. Please consider writing. Just think of the thousands of children with Down Syndrome or other special needs who are sitting in classrooms but not being included, who don't feel they belong. So sad.

Thanks to Sue and also to Lianna for sharing. We have just started daycare this year (my son is 2.5 years with cerebral palsy) and while the experience has been all positive (it is a specialized daycare where 50% of the kids have a special need) I know that I need to start thinking about the transition to school now. Hearing your stories are encouraging - though I am sorry for all the tears and distress - because I can use these conversations to help me think about what I might expect going forward. Thank you!

I'm so glad you wrote about this Sue! Especially as an update to last year. Your post had particular meaning to me today because I was called to my son's school this morning to pick him up and take him home because of his behaviour. In thinking about how you wrote your original piece anonymously 18 months ago, it made me think about how there is a shaming that goes on of parents who are in this situation. No one wants to have to write about their child not being included and to a large extent that silences people. It's hard not to feel like a failure as a parent when a school situation doesn't work. Thanks again for sharing and I'm so glad to hear about the change at the new school!

Hi Beth and Kate - I appreciate your words. It is ironic that I sent my older two kids to their community school with nary a thought - and there was no concern they weren't being educated! I hope that day comes for our children with differences too. In the meantime, let's continue to be resourceful and support (and not judge) each other too!

Yes, Anonymous!! I send the link to this post to both our new trustee (who campaign on a platform of inclusion - ISN'T THAT AWESOME) and he tweeted it out to his followers. I also shared with our current school's principal. I think we need to recognize and encourage the good work that's being done, well as address the huge gaps in the system. I will also forward to the superintendent and the direction of inclusion - thank you for the nudge.

I'll echo your "yes, it does" and if you get a meaningful response from any of the "educators" who failed your boy I hope you'll share what they had to say for themselves. I too had thought of relocating when I found we were in an intractable school situation but managed, not without considerable agony and tremendous help from some real experts, to successfully turn it around. In retrospect moving might have been a more holistic strategy.

Sue, it is great to hear the steps that you have taken since the posting. For every step you take in communicating with the trustee and other board people, the greater the likelihood that the message will get through that all means all. Hopefully your trustee (whom I believe I know) truly understands what is meant by inclusion and does not confuse it with mainstreaming and integration. Who is the director of inclusion? I just got from a friend a website that has great resources about inclusive education. My friend says she gave this to her daughter's teacher and the teacher said she would show it to the other teachers at the school. You are right that it is important to recognize and encourage the good work that is being done. It would be great if those teachers could act as mentors to others who really need to witness how well it can work with the right attitude, administrative support, training, resources and positive working relationships. If only more of them would understand the basics of developing an effective IEP and implementation as well as the basic legal requirements of holding a IPRC then there might be more reason to be hopeful. If these legal processes were followed, it would give more parents hope that their children won't fall through the cracks. And it could help parents feel more effective in their advocacy. As you eloquently point out, it's hard not to feel failure as a parent when a school situation doesn`t work. That`s why we have to support one another. No parent should feel alone. The stress we experience as parents trying to break down barriers is just too much at times. It`s no wonder some parents give up. Couples break up. Homes are mortgaged. Sometimes mental health illnesses result. I am not judging others, only trying to make the point that it can be too much and it is not fair. I mean, we just read about how Louise was called to her son's school to pick him up because of his "behaviour". That`s simply not fair nor legal. I am so tired of the way that parents are treated.

Have a nice weekend and you're most welcome for the "nudge" :)

Anonymous, this is great stuff.

I seriously seriously think you should submit a blog post to Bloom. I'm very impressed by your thoughts and your well-crafted words...we need to collectively speak out more about our realities! Thank you so much for sharing...