Raising little Westies, and life as parent of a special needs son
Educating Westies (or: How We Won the Lotto)
Having been asked point-blank on the Queensland discussion I thought the only way I could do justice to where we’ve ended up with school in 2011 is a full blog post. (Secondary title courtesy of Rebecca)
For the history lesson.
Bec and I both come from distant parts of NSW. We are not Sydney people at all. About 1998 I “fled a failing project” and came to Sydney “for a few months or so” to get into a “real IT job”.
Well, I got “a real IT job” which became a few more IT jobs. 12 years later, we’ve moved from Inner Sydney (Sydenham) to a suburb of Mt Druitt.
Mt Druitt is a hard place to live, a hard place to grow up. As far back as I can remember, the State Govt has had to come up with all kinds of inducement to get teachers to work in the area – including “we’ll pay your HECS for you if you work here for “x” years” (HECS = “uni fees”).
The suburb is home to the “school that failed the HSC” in 1996 (HSC = “last exam you do in High School” in NSW).
A suburb which is smack bang in the middle of a federal electorate named after one of the legends of the Australian Labor Party, Ben Chifley. And since 1996 we’ve had Labor govt after Labor govt, both federally and at state level.
The education system took a hard cold look at itself after those headlines in 1996. They found a schooling system that fails to connect to locals – the white aussies, the indigenous/aboriginals (every second suburb is named for some aboriginal group or another – they are 40% or so of the population), and the migrants (also about 40% of the population).
Of course, this was all totally irrelevant to Rebecca and I until some time after 2004, when we moved to this suburb.
Rebecca and I made a wonderful life decision to have 1 child every 18 months, three children in a row, starting in July 2002 (we still change our minds daily as to that being a good or a bad way about having three kids).
In the meantime, schools in the Mt Druiit area were transformed. The “Chifley College” was established, giving each previously under-performing high school a specialist area to (attempt to) specialise and excel at.
Whole schools were put on programs such as “Reading Recovery”, or dedicated to problem students (habitual truants etc). Primary schools were tasked as “Opportunity Class” schools. Plumpton High School launched it’s “Teen Mums in School” program (which has lost it’s shine lately). Pre-schools were established, reinvigorated, and raised up from being “day care centres”. And a few schools were set up as integrated support schools. (This mirrored education reform across the state of NSW – but, the Western Region of the NSW Dept of Education had boundary adjustments, and the performance of schools in the Mt Druitt area has remained under the magnifying glass of politicians, journalists, and the Department of Education itself).
We attended a succession of play-groups with the children over the years – all of which were “mainstream” “Playgroup NSW” playgroups. Nothing special there! But great opportunities for social interaction for Mum, Dad and the kids (including things like “Santa on a Harley”)! And the wonderful “my kid is better than your kid” moments that inevitably crop up.
Our daughter attended a fantastic “day-care/pre-school” – about the time BTB Fan was born. Then the money got tight.
Her and Guitar Hero Addict both attended a couple of places the following year (the year of Princess P’s 4th birthday) but they weren’t much good – so they both ended up being taken back out. Princess P drove us absolutely nuts for the whole of 2006 – she was pre-reading for at least a whole year, chafing at the bit, demanding more and more attention, stimulation… while Rebecca and I had an evolving Aspie coming along at full steam.
Princess P started at our local school – the one we are “in zone” for – the year of her 5th birthday. She was 4 1/2, well developed socially, but hadn’t actually attended “real pre-school”. She was reading by the time she was 5 (in July) and fitted in fabulously. I understand that we wouldn’t be able to enrol her if she was turning 5 this year, they have bought the cut-off date early.
The following year, Guitar Hero Addict attended a state pre-school, 2 1/2 days per week. Rebecca dropped him off, and picked him up, with BTB Fan in tow, every session. About this stage we started asking “interesting questions” about our youngest son not reaching “development milestones” at about the same chronological age as his siblings. Our GP said he was too young for us to be worried, but my SIL’s and MIL continued to prod us, and our doubts were there.
I enrolled him in a couple of different day-care places to see what their opinions were: basically they were too busy sucking up to parents to make sure their numbers stayed good to bother observing kids, this was about the time of the ABC Childcare collapse.
At the end of the school year 2008, Bec and I fronted Guitar Hero Addicts’ pre-school and I said “if BTB Fan is to start school the same age his sister did, he needs to go to pre-school in 2009”. At that stage he was 3 1/2 and we were proposing he enrol in Kindergarten (in a mainstream class!!!) in 2010.
The pre-school director said “he’s not coming here without a letter from your treating paediatrician telling us expressly what support services he requires. He is being seen by a paediatrician, isn’t he?” At this stage he wasn’t but that changed pretty quickly.
(By the way, the Director was right on the money: while they did a fantastic job with Guitar Hero Addict, they were in no way equipped to handle BTB Fan.)
We went and saw a paediatrician. He referred us to people. We talked to people. We enrolled BTB Fan in a mainstream, public pre-school. While all this was going on we settled Guitar Hero Addict into Kindergarten. Somehow his sister taught him to read, we think by about April. By about this time, we found an early intervention pre-school run by a church in our area. We worked out that it would be best to plan on two years of pre-school, four days a week. He also saw a speech therapist one day a week. We got onto the early intervention pre-school through recommendation both from the mainstream pre-school which initially accepted an enrolment for BTB Fan, which was endorsed through word of mouth from the mother of a neurotypical classmate at Princess P’s school.
At the start of 2010, we had Princess P heading into 3rd class at the same school that Guitar Hero Addict was heading into 1st class at. This school is a “Reading Recovery” school – which means every kid in the school gets small group time dedicated to reading, for at least one hour per week. Both our children were “off the reading syllabus” (ie: reading at or beyond Year 6 / 12 year old level) by the time they were 1/2 way through 1st class. So, the key subject area isn’t really doing those two kids much good.
Princess P spent 1/2 of 2010 having 1/2 the morning session devoted to learning Samoan – due to the inclusion of two refugees from the Pacific Tsunami. Again, “nice” but… her maths was lagging behind.
But in all, for us Westies, it was a great school… for our two eldest. But a great school targeting educational needs which we pretty much see as “irrelevant”.
There’s the history lesson and intro! Onto…
“Choosing” a school!
Late 2009 I started asking “how do we find a school?” It is one of the questions that bought me to Autism United! Two of my first blogs here covered “The path till now… Diagnosis & pre-school placement and Finding a “Big School”. Rebecca and I sent e-mails. We went to meetings. Eventually we had our son assessed by PECAT (who said “wish we’d seen him last year”).
They wrote a very specific report. BTB Fan’s Early Intervention Pre-School also wrote a very specific report.
We attempted to enrol our son in school, after school, after school. “You’re out of zone, you have to enrol at….” “_____ School has services for children with ______” “You have to enrol in the school you are in zone for” “Enrol at the school that seems to provide the service you need” “Enrol, and the Enrolment Committee will place you at the right location”. We got bamboozled, and confused.
We got a letter (from “the (Western Sydney Dept Education) enrolment committee”) telling us our son would be offered a place at a school we aren’t in the enrolment zone for – but it offers the class we need (an Autism Support Class) within an integrated setting. I took a day off work (sick? RDO? I don’t remember – I needed it and I took it) and Rebecca and I went to cast a very suspicious eye over what kind of hell-hole public education could offer us. At this stage I had already discussed ASPECT schools, ASPECT satellite schools, Autism Schools, etc, to death with all sorts of people (here, face to face with strangers, with work colleagues, with the speech therapist, the paediatrician, the early intervention pre-school).
Rebecca and I were gobsmacked. As she said, we’d won lotto. The grounds are fantastic (and safe, and secure). The extra-curricula activities, for both “with needs” and “mainstream kids” are all what we are looking for (focus on social interaction for BTB Fan, “Real Footy” (Auskick / junior AFL) for Guitar Hero Addict & Princess P). They are responsive to suggestions. They seem to get it. We seem to have been offered a place in a school which is pretty much the holy grail of inclusive education.
But to be fair and honest, it’s too early to actually say that, isn’t it? We haven’t lived it yet. Let’s see what I’m posting at Easter, mid-year holidays, Christmas 2011…
Something tells me, quite a few of our Christmases have come early though.
Reproduced from the now-closed autism united ning website
appologies in advance for broken links