Monday, September 10, 2012

First day of school!
On Jack's first day of school last week I was feeling a bit nostalgic, until I got a look at the parents of the incoming kindergartners -- some were visibly terrified. And then I remembered how worried and scared I was last year as Jack started.

When I toured public schools, I had a list of non-negotiable needs, but it turns out that the school he attends has none of those features. It doesn't have a big school yard with an organic garden and chickens. No library. It's not a convenient drive. But none of that matters, because what the school does have is a fantastic staff who understand and support Jack. 

Last year we experienced the most profound changes in Jack's behavior, no doubt partially because he's older, but most of the credit has to go to his school. They teach acceptance, responsibility, social skills, kindness, and a raft of other techniques and traits that are buoying him through the lower grades. We were amazingly lucky last year to have a spectacular kindergarten teacher who is one of the kindest souls I've ever met. This year his teacher Mrs. T, is more strict, which I think is appropriate for first grade. 

Last week they started getting into a routine and focusing on rules and expected behaviors. Mrs. T set up a "token economy," where the kids get stones for making good choices and showing appropriate behaviors. For our approval-seeking little guy getting in trouble is just about the worst thing he can imagine, so he was excited and proud about the number of stones he earned each day. Representatives from all grades got together and created the school constitution, which every student signed and then was hung in the lobby. 

This week they start their academic work. It'll be interesting to see how Mrs. T deals with Jack's math talents. Last year his teacher kept him challenged with ever-increasingly tough concepts (the school uses individualized curriculum); he learned order of operations and got interested in algebra and fractions. At home we continue to emphasize problem solving and practical aspects of math such as baking, mileage, and bank interest. He is frighteningly good at wordy logic puzzles. 

Sometimes during the day while he is at school, I think of those new kindergarten parents and I send them peaceful thoughts. I have peace of mind that whatever happens at school Jack will be safe and the staff will handle any incident with grace and kindness. I wish that for every parent, everywhere.

Monday, August 20, 2012

It was not my intention to allow more than a year to elapse without posting. Jack is now getting ready for first grade! It's been an amazing 15 months of growth and I promise to begin writing again here once he goes back to school.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

We say goodbye to the school on the hill

Friday was Jack's last day in SFUSD's Language and Learning program. Designed for preschoolers with mild to moderate speech and social issues, it was the only early intervention service SFUSD offered Jack.
He started L&L a year ago, squeezing in a month of classes before summer break, then picking up again in autumn.

I remember his first day; his assignment was to Malcolm X, a small elementary school with a gorgeous hilltop view in Hunter's Point. We drove along with garbage trucks down Cargo Way, turned to pass the old power plant site, and headed uphill through the projects to arrive at the school. Jack's teacher, Miss Jeanna, welcomed him and I took off for a few hours, returning to see the kids walking down the hall toward the school doors together, each holding onto a different color of the walking rope. Jack was calm, but his tongue was sticking out a bit, and at the time that was his indicator when he was stressed -- first days can be like that! L&L gave him many challenges: Miss Jeanna kept the day structured with fine motor and gross activities, reading, singing, art, and snack. Everything is designed with communication in mind. Some of the kids this past year were simply speech delayed while others, like Jack, had sensory and social issues. He definitely made progress at Language and Learning, particularly improving his ability to share his space and tolerate a schedule. His speech is better, but social communication was hampered by the other kids' limited communication skills -- this year he probably had the best speech in his class. We deeply appreciated that Miss Jeanna (along with her aide Miss Shamika, whom Jack adored, in part, because he said she always smelled so nice) and Jack's teachers at his preschool approached his challenges the same way, so both programs reinforced each other.

I felt sad saying goodbye to Miss Jeanna. She's the best kind of teacher, smart and kind with incredible reserves of patience and creativity. SFUSD is lucky to have her. I also would not hesitate to recommend L&L placement at Malcolm X. The principal and staff obviously care deeply about their kids, most of whom come from the nearby neighborhood. The school is immaculate and the Language and Learning kids are kept as separate as possible from the other students, to minimize the fear some of the youngest kids might have for those big elementary students!

But we move on now, continuing at Jack's preschool (of which I will write about in a few months) until August when he will start kindergarten!

Friday, May 13, 2011

The lottery

The San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD), in an attempt to make school placement equitable, runs a lottery each year. Every San Francisco family has a chance to send their child to any public school, and preference is given to families who live in low test score and dense population areas (having a sibling already enrolled in a school gets you an even better chance to have your second get in there as well).

We prepared for this year's lottery. I researched the prospective kindergartens online, then we narrowed down the options by proximity and eliminated the schools that would require nearly an hour of driving (one way). SFUSD announced that starting with the 2011-2012 school year all schools would offer inclusion spots, but we would only consider a space in a school with an already-existing inclusion program. During tours, I spoke with some parents who had been told point-blank by school staff that they did not want inclusion. And those were the ones who admitted it! I'm sure there are others who also are not keen on inclusion, but kept their mouths shut. We really wanted to meet the inclusion staff and see how they would work with Jack. Some schools did not emphasize their inclusion programs and were less than enthusiastic; those schools also did not make our cut.

Here is the list of schools we put on our lottery list:
1) Clarendon. A lovely school with great student diversity and a staff who obviously love their jobs. It's generally regarded as one of the best elementary schools in the city and I fell in love with it.
2) Miraloma. An up-and-coming school with a young principal who seems to truly embrace inclusion. It was the only school we toured where the staff set up a meeting for parents interested in the inclusion program, at which we got to meet the inclusion staff and the principal. Miraloma also has a gym and an auditorium (most SF schools have a combined space), and the gym has a climbing wall, which we loved. They also have a cute garden and chickens, which was a surprisingly strong point for me.
3) Lakeshore. Nice location, good grounds, impressed with inclusion staff.
4) Argonne. The resource specialist sold me on the school. She is experienced and a huge asset to a school with very strong test scores. Not a great location for us, but we thought the drive would be worth it.
5) Dianne Feinstein. Our safety-net school.

I rustled up our paperwork and documents, waited in line at the SFUSD downtown headquarters, and then we waited.

The envelope from SFUSD arrived, and Hans opened it.

Have you read Shirley Jackson's book "the Lottery"? It's a grim tale of an annual village superstition where one person is stoned to death to ensure an adequate harvest. The victim is chosen by lottery. The look on Hans' face as he read the placement letter was not as grim as it would be for one about to be stoned; it was more an expression of disgust and disbelief. We got none of our choices, and were offered a school without an existing inclusion program. We'd "won" the SFUSD lottery.

For me the biggest frustration is all that wasted research time, with zero payoff for the hard work. And I know we're not alone, for quite a few other families in our area got none of the schools on their lists either. Some are now waiting for round 2 results. Others may home school.

In the end, we hit the jackpot in a different sort of lottery, one we were happy to win -- Jack was accepted to a small private school that welcomes kids with minor to moderate learning difficulties. Thanks to grandparent funding, he'll start there in the fall.

So goodbye to SFUSD, with its broken promise of a good education for all.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Here I am

Yow. I've been meaning to write but got waylaid by the inertia of having not written for so long. That's such a nastily written sentence you can see I'm out of practice. But I have to start somewhere, so here I am today, starting somewhere.

Since late September, we have:
* been attending a great preschool as well as a fantastic language and learning program (Jack)
* mostly adjusted to a new job in San Francisco (Hans)
* rode around the mountains for a weekend on a motorcycle rally (Hans)
* traveled to Baton Rouge for a family visit
* enjoyed a visit from my mom and sister
* stayed two nights in a Steep Ravine cabin e
ven though Hans had the stomach flu
* celebrated Jack's 5th birthday with a small party
* made it through holiday time off from school, which is always the hardest for Jack
* survived being sick -- all three of us at the same time, thankfully Jack was least sick
* made a day trip to the Sierra for Jack's first exposure to snow
* stayed in Yosemite Valley for two nights
* strapped on skis for the first tim
e and had a lesson (Jack)

It's all been really mostly ok. We've been stretching ourselves to do things which previously
felt impossible, such as traveling, one of us parents
going away for a few days, trying ne
w things which might be scary (snow, tubing, skiing, staying in unfamiliar places), and these new experiences have been difficult but also fun. We've discovered that Jack likes being around people (although not too many at one time), is able to follow directions and focus, and is increasingly willing to try new things. By the way, he loves to eat snow and the Little Mermaid is just too scary.

Jack has found ways to surprise us with unexpecte
d emotional growth. Out of the blue in mid-December he asked how Santa was going to get into our house on Christmas Eve. He had never "got" Santa before -- we actually though it was a quandary that we would never need to anguish over. He's interested now in holidays (and not just because of presents), the solstice, seasons, and days of the week. Minor growth, for sur
e, but to me it shows an increase in the awareness of his place in the world. He also comes home from school remembering activities and talking about books they read, absorbing his days rather than having them wash over him like a bank of fog.

But the biggest change is a sharp new interest in girls. He says boys are hard to make friends with, but he is in love with girls. His gaze is drawn to them everywhere, all kinds of girls of all ages, at playgrounds, in stores, on the street! His interactions with them are clumsy and awkward, but he is
at least displaying interest for the first time. He adores t
he single girl at school (b
oth programs are all male except for that one girl) and expresses love and caring for her. They play together well but her parents don't speak English and we don't speak Spanish, so we haven't been able to get the kids together for a playdate outside of school. We sent a note home with her for Jack's birthday party but maybe they couldn't read it. Oh well, will keep trying.

At home Jack is crazy for his Wii, which he got for his birthday. We work on his balance with the Wii Fit and he likes the exercise "games," since they add up his time spent exercising and he moves up a level with more work, something he really enjoys. When the weather is nice he goes biking with Hans on his new trail-a-bike (a present from Santa). Drawing on the sidewalk with chalk as well as inside on paper with crayons is still on the top of his activity list. We did several Lego kits together over the holiday break, and he was able to focus very well on those projects. Otherwise he still plays with his toys in a mostly unusual way; he tends to make up complicated games revolving around a current obsession, games that are difficult to follow and rather confusing. Hans has been working on expanding Jack's tolerance here, pushing for the games to make more sense while exploring social issues and feelings. We also (mostly successfully) play Uno, Blockus, Labryinth, checkers, and Scrabble. Jack's getting better about losing, but that's still a work in progress.

One of the great joys in the past few months has been reading together. Hans read him the Hobbit, and I'm working through Narnia. It's lovely to see Jack asking good questions about the stories and understanding sophisticated themes.

Off now to do some chores while Jack is at school. More blogging soon!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

A new read

(Warning: Narnia spoilers in this post!)

Years ago Hans and I purchased a copy of The Complete Chronicles of Narnia. I had some knowledge of this C.S. Lewis classic but had never read it. It sat on our bookshelves until a few months ago when I read a few chapters in "The Magician's Nephew" (the first book in the series) to Jack. He thought it was too scary and we put it aside "until I am 5."

It became a joke between us; when selecting a book at bedtime I would sometimes offer Narnia and he would laugh and remind me he was not yet 5. Jack's birthday is months away and I'm bored with Fantastic Mr. Fox and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and the Dragons of Blueland and Winnie the Pooh. In fact very especially bored with Winnie the Pooh; I'm so jaded that "the Enchanted Place" no longer has the power to make me cry. So when Hans went out of the town for the weekend recently and I had bedtime duty 3 nights in a row, I bribed Jack into reading Narnia. I offered him 5 extra minutes of Toki Tori play time for each chapter of Narnia. He went for it!

At first he complained about how much he didn't like it; that he was only listening for Toki Tori time. But then we drew near the end of "Magician's Nephew" and a curious thing happened. He started asking questions about the story. "Why is Jadis so evil?" "Why did eating the apple make her pale?" "How did Aslan die and come back to life?" And more. This is the first book we've ever read together to prompt so much thought and discourse. I'm not even sure how to answer most of the the questions, but we talk about it together and it's been a rich conversation. Sometime we will sit and read a few chapters in the middle of the day without any talk of Toki Tori time. And Aslan has been popping up in Jack's roller coaster drawings, which is a compliment of the highest order.

We've now finished the first book and started "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe." Narnia continues to prompt conversations and enchant both of us. I love the wry humor and Lewis's lovely descriptive writing. The queen is super scary! And Aslan is so powerful! I think I've found the children's book for me.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

New beginnings

Jack started his new preschool this past week. It's a very small SF school which provides specialized support to kids who need help with social skills, speech, and physical issues. We supplement this afternoon program with a 2 morning a week SFUSD language and learning program.

Our new schedule means we spend a good deal of time in the car, and Jack's days are longer than he is used to. He has been tired at the end of each day, but happy. In fact, he reported "I have a friend," a girl he's been playing with at language and learning.

Yesterday Jack and I were talking casually and he said, "that was back when I didn't like myself." My heart froze for a moment as I tried and failed to rewind what he had said just before that. He didn't want to talk about that time, of not liking himself; it seemed to be something he has worked through and so does not need to be discussed further. We believe this summer was a detox for him -- whatever happened in his previous preschool was not good, and now he's better, to our immense relief.

One more thing. He doesn't pretend to be other people anymore. He's just Jack. Just the way we love him.