Last June, both of my sons graduated from high school. It was a remarkable day. No, they are not twins. Their educational paths were quite different, but at graduation, both were honored for the individuals they are.
My older son was diagnosed at age 2 with an autism-spectrum disorder. It was a difficult reality to confront. But our family was fortunate enough to have the resources needed for him to learn language, build relationships, and gain a measure of independence that allowed him to begin school.
When it was time for him to start kindergarten, our district, Springfield Township, offered a county-run language-development program. It was small and supportive and my son learned to love school. He made progress — so much that the district decided he was ready for a more typical setting.
I was less sure. As a mom, I feared that the school might not appreciate this boy. As a teacher, I did my homework — meeting with the principal, visiting the classroom, and asking questions of the special education director. I also visited some private schools that specialized in teaching kids with learning differences, offering smaller classes and more intensive instruction.
In the end, our family decided our boy stood a better chance of being understood at the small private school. The district disagreed, but we were lucky to find a way to make tuition manageable. My son spent 11 years in small, supportive private schools. Throughout much of the early years, he was valued for the person he is, and encouraged to grow as he tackled things that were difficult for him.
When he hit 9th grade, however, academics did not come easily. While he was given various accommodations, none provided the confidence or ability to do well. Each evening brought a two to three hour long homework session and feelings of deep inadequacy. At the end of 10th grade, he got Ds on two separate finals. We felt like he was being asked to fit into the school’s profile of a learner, rather than the school working with him as the learner he was.
Meanwhile, my younger, typically developing son was thriving in public school. He had access to theater, music, sports, languages, a mindfulness group, and a personalized curriculum. His gifts and interests were celebrated. He received support, like an independent study in German and time to discuss emotional health with adults who cared about him. In short, he was seen.
That had been my goal for both boys. Because their needs were disparate, I assumed they could not be met in the same place. The reality was my younger son, without a diagnosis, had been seen in ways my older son, with all the specialized instruction private school could muster, had not.
I called the school district to see what sort of programming they could offer starting in 11th grade. It was both scary and empowering. The special education director joked that I was doing everything backward — most families request to leave public school for private. The special education department read his testing, performed evaluations, offered options, and asked his opinions. In other words, they did their job of getting to really know him.
So my son started two short years in public school. Those years ended up rebuilding his confidence as a learner. His teachers crafted instruction for his needs. He formed diverse friendships, took classes he liked, started playing the guitar, became a manager on the boys’ basketball team, sat on student government, participated in the National Art Honors’ Society, raised funds for Relay for Life, and received vocational training on and off campus.
I sat in the stands at graduation with a large group of family and friends who had seen both of my boys for who they are — just as the students, staff, and faculty sitting on the field with my boys had.
It’s a curious and humbling feeling to walk away from a thing you thought you were certain of. I had made assumptions about learning environments based on my own fears and biases: What if they don’t like my kid? What if he is pigeonholed into the wrong “track”? Yet, watching my boys’ journeys reaffirmed my belief that being seen is the way we develop a sense of self, confidence in who we are, and an awareness of our impact on others. Public school gave that to both of my sons.
Nancy Ironside is a teacher at Science Leadership Academy Middle School.