This post started out as an answer to a question to our Therapies post, but it soon became clear that it deserved its own post. The comment was:
Thanks so much for this information! I think I was the one who originally asked about this, but I’m sure others have asked as well.
One last question, does Jonathan go to a private school or public? Did you investigate both options and why did you choose the one you did? And…did he go to a preschool? If so, public, private or Early Intervention?
Hi Heather, thanks for the questions. We moved to Savannah from Green Bay, Wisconsin, so I’ll answer your questions for both locations.
Jonathan goes to public school. We targeted our neighborhood due the exceptional public elementary school. Good thing too, as the private schools don’t seem to have the ability to give Jonathan the one-on-one he needs (this comment is based on very cursory exploration.) Because the public solution was satisfactory, we didn’t do a deep dive into the private solution. Our primary motivations for choosing a school were the quality (reputation of the school); the ability of both kids to attend the same school; and tuition was certainly a factor. Because the public option was strong, we stopped looking.
We know it doesn’t always work for everybody, but we believe Jonathan is better off attending the same school as his sister and his neighborhood and church chums. Jonathan is in first grade this year after going to Kindergarten for two years. He receives full coverage from a paraprofessional, who is by his side all day, making sure he’s “getting it” and staying on track. (He needs the same kind of one-one-one assistance when it comes to homework – He does the work himself – he just needs direction to make sure the work gets done.) In his class of 20 children, there are three other special needs students besides Jonathan.
These three are the only special needs kids in the entire first grade this year. However, the new kindergarten class at our school has about a dozen special needs students. We believe this growing special needs population speaks well for our neighborhood school. First of all, it’s more reflective of society at large. And secondly, it’s our hope that this group of children will continue on at the school through fifth grade and that awareness and acceptance of those with special needs will grow. That being said, however, even if Jonathan were the only special needs child in the entire school, we would probably keep him there as long as his academic needs were being met because we believe the most important factor for Jonathan education-wise right now, is to attend the same school as his sister and his neighborhood and church friends. It’s all about what Sue Buckley, the founder of Downsed, calls creating an “ordinary life” for our children with Down syndrome- more on that in my next post.
As for preschool, Jonathan started attending preschool in Wisconsin when he was three. (Charlotte and I nervously followed his bus in my minivan the first day – It can be a bit daunting to see your tiny three year old board a big ol’ school bus for the first time. Charlotte sure was jealous, though!) The bus took him to a strictly special needs pre-K class two mornings a week at a local public school. Three other mornings a week he attended our church preschool (private preschool). Because he was not potty trained at the time, the private school required to he had to have “full coverage.” He had a special-ed teacher from the public school system who came in to assist him for part of his time in the private preschool, but because of the potty training issue, when she wasn’t there, I was there. Fortunately, I worked nights at the time and was able to make that schedule work.
I loved the special needs preschool because the teachers in that class were so enthusiastic and so attentive to Jonathan. But the private church preschool provided some major aha moments that made me convinced early on, that long-term inclusion was probably the best way to go for Jonathan. During Jonathan’s first October in the private preschool we had a Halloween party. Many parents were on hand to help the children at different activity stations. One activity involved identifying numbers. The dad who was manning that station yelled out in the middle of the party, “Check it out – Jonathan is one of only four in the class who is getting this right!” Although I guess I could have been offended – “What – you’re surprised Jonathan can do this?,” I was actually quite grateful to that Dad. It made me aware that just because Jonathan has Down syndrome doesn’t mean he always has to be at the back of the pack and that I, as his parent, should always have the expectation that he can and will succeed. I thought it was also a great awareness moment for the other parents who were there that day. (Not that we always have to be a “poster family,” but I believe Down syndrome awareness is often best achieved through these small one-one-one experiences.) The private preschool class also made me aware that friendships with typical children were a real possibility for Jonathan. By the time we moved the following December, the teacher was telling me she was dreading telling the children that Jonathan was moving because he was such a popular kid.
When we moved to Savannah, however, Jonathan quickly went from Mr. Preschool Popularity to Mr. Menace. I was trying to replicate what we had in Wisconsin in Georgia, so I signed him up for a private church preschool near our new house two mornings a week. (Several other church preschools had refused to take him. This one said yes, but barely. The director said yes Jonathan could attend – if I came with him because of the potty training issue and if it was okay with the teacher. It was pretty clear it really wasn’t that okay with the director, but thankfully the teacher was willing to give it a go.) The teacher couldn’t have been more enthusiastic and wonderful. However, her class did not have the structure Jonathan was used to. Jonathan became a huge discipline problem, refusing to listen, hitting and biting other children, often kicking and screaming. At one point, I sat alone on the floor of the classroom circle area while the children were having a snack and started crying. I’m thinking, “Before I moved here, I had a CAREER – Now I’m going to PRESCHOOL – and I can’t even get that right.”
It was indeed, far more challenging than anything I had ever encountered on the job. Jonathan had never been a discipline problem before. After consulting with his teaching aide in Wisconsin, we agreed that Jonathan did not feel safe in that class because it was too unstructured for his taste. We told the teacher and the director that we were pulling Jonathan out. I begged them not to see this as a “Down syndrome” problem, but instead a “Jonathan” problem. I was horrified that some other family with a child with Down syndrome would be turned away in the future and would be told, “Sorry, we had a child with Down syndrome attend here a few years ago and it just didn’t work out.”
When we moved to Savannah we also signed Jonathan up for the special needs preschool at our neighborhood school for the mornings he wasn’t attending the church school. All of the other children in that class were going for a full day, but I wanted to keep Jonathan’s schedule similar to what we had before. He was still only three and I personally wasn’t ready for him to go to school fulltime just yet. They accommodated me and allowed him to attend during the mornings only. He thrived under the structure of that classroom and the guidance of an excellent and caring teacher. There were no more discipline problems and yeah! – I didn’t have to go with him because the special needs staff was expected to (and used to) children that weren’t yet potty trained. The only missing piece of the puzzle for us at that time was that Jonathan was no longer in a classroom where he was interacting with his same age typical peers.
I wasn’t too worried about that, however, because I was confident things would be different the following fall, when Jonathan turned four. That’s because in Georgia, we have fully funded public preschool programs for four year olds (It’s called pre-K or pre-kindergarten.) Slots are filled on a lottery basis. There were 40 available slots at our neighborhood school and another 20 at a nearby school. This was my plan – Jonathan would get into the mainstream pre-K, we would pull him out for speech and everything would be perfect. Well, we all know what they say about plans. Jonathan drew a very high number and did not get into either school’s pre-K program. That meant Plan B, which was putting Jonathan back into the special needs preschool and doing it for a full day Monday – Friday. We did that, even though we were not entire comfortable with the idea that Jonathan would no longer be mixing it up with typical kids. We found, especially for Jonathan’s speech development, it’s been extremely beneficial for him to be in a setting where he can model children who do not have speech issues.
After about a month into that school year, I stumbled upon another nearby state lottery funded pre-K program for four year olds that had an opening. I went and observed the class probably three times before the staff sent over a special needs teacher who basically asked why I wasn’t ready to pull the trigger. (They were probably thinking: “if this mom comes over for circle time one more time, we’re going to have to either give her a snack and a nap mat – or offer her a job”
The reason for my hemming and hawing was that it really wasn’t broke for Jonathan at the special needs pre-k and I didn’t really know if I needed to fix it. Again, he had an amazing teacher at the special needs pre-k. She was also willing to accommodate our wish for more peer modeling opportunities. We were just starting to work out a plan where Jonathan would go to recess and what they call specials (things like art, technology, music and gym) with the typical pre-schoolers so he would have that peer modeling again. He would spend the rest of the day with his special needs peers. Also, the special needs pre-k was at the school Charlotte attended so that was a big plus.
Another thing that haunted me were those discipline problems at the Savannah church preschool. What if he freaked out the same way he did before? What if he didn’t fit in at the new school, since we’d be moving him five or six weeks into the school year? What if I made the wrong decision for him? The special needs coordinator at the new school said, “The only way to know is to bring Jonathan over here.” We set it up for the following Friday. I sat alone in an adjacent room for an hour and a half, trying to distract myself with a novel, while Jonathan tried out the new school. The special needs coordinator came back and said, “What’s the problem, Mom?” Clearly there wasn’t one. HE LOVED IT! There was structure very similar to our church preschool in Wisconsin, there was a speech teacher from a nearby public school who worked with him one-one-one several times a week and there was typical peer modeling. The only problem was the teacher, with her lovely slow southern drawl, had a habit of calling her kids “Baby.” Like, “Come here Baby. How are you today, Baby?” “Great job, Baby!” Jonathan would yell at her, “I’M NOT A BABY! I’M JONATHAN MAY!!!” Thankfully, she stopped calling him “Baby” and they were fine after that. So after all the worry and indecision, Jonathan was finally in fulltime inclusive preschool. The hardest part of the whole thing was “breaking up” with the special needs preschool teacher who we loved.
The bottom line is, in our opinion, there is no right or wrong when it comes to these issues. So far, we’ve found full inclusion to be the best situation for Jonathan. Others may have found just the opposite. I would, however, strongly promote the idea of getting your child with Down syndrome into some kind of preschool early on – especially full inclusion or a combination of special ed and inclusion that Jonathan had from the very beginning. (Even if you home school, I think a Mother’s Morning Out program where your child can mix it up with typical peers at a young age for a few mornings a week, can be very beneficial. Playgroups with typical peers can also be wonderful for our children with Down syndrome.) However, in a more structured setting, they will learn not only academic skills, but great social skills that they can build on for years to come.