When hard times come in life, it's difficult to see when you're in the midst, that anything good could come out of your experience. I've felt this way more times than I can count. My judgment is clouded and I wonder what purpose it all serves. Then later, looking back, though sometimes still painful, I can see the good. I can see the opportunities that have come about for me to help others on the same path. And sometimes, there's even a bit of healing. God is good that way.
Last year, as most of you know, I had a really ugly pretty bad ending to Kennedy's school year. We ended up in mediation and probably should have gone to Due Process, but instead I am homeschooling her this year, which has turned out to be a wonderful thing for both of us. Kennedy is learning a lot and is growing in leaps and bounds. I am enjoying our one on one time together and I love to watch her accomplish everything I knew she was capable of doing.
On the same note, I know that homeschool is not the right choice for every parent, and even I am looking forward to Kennedy going back to school once we move to Colorado, mostly because I know she enjoys it so much. I have heard wonderful things over and over about the inclusive school district there and I am excited for Kennedy's (and Kellsey's) academic future. Still though, I hear more and more stories from frustrated parents all over Middle Tennessee... from the wrong placement, to horrible services, to restraint and seclusion. Having a child with an IEP here can be scary!
A little over a month ago, I received a friend request on Facebook from a lady who worked in the Special Ed sector of the Clarksville Montgomery County School System. It was the day that Kellsey was in surgery having her tonsils and adenoids removed, and I was sitting in the waiting room, staring at my phone, thinking, "What do I do with this? Why would she want to be my friend?" Just eight months before, she sat across the table from me at mediation, on the school district's side, as they tried to talk me into placing Kennedy into the Life Skills classroom.
Ironically, our story did not begin there. I first met this woman when Kennedy was almost three. In 2007, we had Kennedy's transition meeting where she would age out of Early Intervention and go into the Special Needs preschool in our school district. Or so I planned . That was when I got my first slap in the face that the school district and parents don't always agree. Who would have thought?! ;) As thrown off as I was by that meeting, she taught me then to think outside the box and to advocate for Kennedy. She taught me to look past her Down syndrome to the little girl behind the diagnosis. She taught me that special education is not a one size fits all program. And because of her, when Kennedy finally did go to preschool, she went to the best place possible, in a typical setting, with her typical peers. And she thrived.
Three years later, we were on opposites sides of the table again. When I walked into mediation last year and saw her standing in the room, it kind of took my breath away. I scribbled a note to my lawyer telling him who she was and what the connection was, and that was that. I thought we had come full circle. We'd always be on opposite sides of the table. So be it.
So, back to my Facebook friend request. As I played out the last five years in my mind, I wondered what to do with this request. Do I accept? Do I deny? Do I leave it there? I sat on it for a couple hours and then, partially because curiosity got the best of me, and partially because I had nothing to lose, I accepted. I knew she no longer worked for CMCSS and after a few hours I sent her a short message. We then went on to exchange a few hours of messages back and forth. We talked a lot about last year: mistakes that were made; things that should have been done differently; regrets on both our parts. She sent me the initial friend request because she's been reading my blog - this blog - for years, and wanted to check up on Kellsey's day after her surgery. Who knew?! I think that we both healed a bit that night, and though I don't think that I'll ever be able to look back on that experience and be happy about it, or smile about it, at least I finally felt like I could take one step forward from it. This time, I truly felt like we came full circle.
A couple weeks after our initial conversations, I was asked by Sheila Moore, the Executive Director of the Down Syndrome Association of Middle Tennessee , if I would be willing to lead a session at the Statewide Down Syndrome Conference in May. She wanted me to talk about when to make the decision to say goodbye to the school system and how to begin homeschooling a child with Special Needs. Who better to ask than me, right?! Except, she wanted me to talk for an hour! I wasn't too sure I could do that... (any of you who know me well are laughing right now and all I have to say is shut up!). I threw around ideas and decided I wanted to put out a nationwide survey, but my snarky-ness was showing (yes, that is a word!) and so I decided to get some help.
I went to my new friend and asked her opinion on what I had so far. She commented on how "funny" it would be if we got together and wrote a book... and then quickly wrote back and said, "You know, that actually wouldn't be funny. That would actually be really helpful to a lot of parents." And then my brain started spinning. I made a phone call to Sheila the next day and then went back to my friend and asked her if she would be willing to co-present with me at the conference. And she said yes. For me. For Kennedy. Because it's the right thing to do.
And so, on May 14th, Linda Brake (formerly with the Special Education Department of the Clarksville Montgomery County School System) and I (as a parent and advocate for my children) will be leading a seminar at the Fired Up! for Down Syndrome Statewide Conference . Our session will be called: Parents and the School System: How to Come Full Circle. We will be touching on lots of topics from navigating the IEP process, to having to file for Mediation and Due Process to deciding to call it quits and homeschooling your child with Special Needs. At the end there will be a Q&A session where we are hoping to have a full panel of people (parents, advocates and other experts who have been there/done that) to field questions and help parents prepare for the 2011-12 school year. It is our hope that we can help parents avoid the heartache that I went through last year by tapping into the resources available to them and learning their rights as their child's number one advocate. We want to help parents see that Special Education is NOT a one size fits all program, despite what many counties believe, and that what works for one child may not necessarily work for another, hence the name, IndividualizedEducation Plan. And, if it's time for some families to cut their losses with the school system and try to homeschool their child, we want to help there, too. It can be a great way to bond with your child and watch them succeed, and there are so many resources out there!
And remember that survey I talked about? Well, if you have a child with Special Needs, we need your help! We would like to get this survey spread as far and wide as possible, as fast as possible. We want to gather statistics about your child's school experience, whether your child is in public, private or homeschool. Please take a few minutes to fill out the survey and then pass it along to any other families you may know with a child with Special Needs. This is not just for families with kids with Down syndrome, this is for anyone who has been through the IEP process or will be going through the IEP process at any time. The more families we can reach, the more accurate our statistics will be, and the more families we will be able to help. Thank you for helping us make our seminar a success! There's a lot to be said for coming full circle.