Previously I wrote an article breaking down greatschools.org ratings by showing the scores of several schools within the Winston Salem, NC area. The gist of that article was that high tests scores (and especially greatschools.org ratings) do not mean that a school is high caliber. Although parents continually hang their hat on that hook. Interestingly, one of the high scoring schools I used as a comparison (along with Jefferson Elementary), recently was in the local news for violating the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and failed to provide the Least Restrictive Environment. A highly performing school should be more aware of the laws, should be able to accommodate lower performing students, and should have highly trained professionals to be able to work with all types of students.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act states that every child is entitled to a free and appropriate education in the least restrictive environment. What that means is that public schools cannot say “no” to a student attending their building. When teachers and/or parents suspect that a student needs more support than is available in the general education classroom, a lengthy data collection process occurs (or at least should occur) where professionals use data to support why a student needs more time outside class. In fact, every time a student is pulled from class for specialized services, there should be a paper trail of data explaining why a student was given services (this ensures that a student is given an appropriate and least restrictive environment).
Here’s What Happened
The parents knew their daughter had down syndrome and wanted her in a general setting as much as possible. Current research on special education supports this move. Their daughter was mainstreamed the entire time she was in preschool and her education plans said she had no behaviors that would keep her from the general education classroom.
So the family picked Whittaker, was enrolled, and made sure the administration knew their daughter had down syndrome. Then they sent their daughter to kindergarten at Whittaker Elementary school. Ten days later she was reassigned to South Fork elementary school without parent approval (another huge mistake in the education law). The parents were told there was an intensive unit there for students with lower skills. They were also told that she would not have been admitted to Whittaker if the school knew she had down syndrome.
As a side note, this unit was in a trailer behind the school building. That in its self is actually also borderline breaking a law. It’s illegal for special education classrooms to look different from the rest of the school. Students shouldn’t be able to differentiate a special education classroom from a general education classroom.
Anyways, after trying to work with the district to get their daughter back in the mainstream school setting, they finally filed a lawsuit against the school. This past August, the judge ruled in their favor. The ruling required the school to pay for the expenses of private school until they have a plan to place the child in the general education setting with appropriate supports.
From the way I see it, Whittaker messed up in these ways:
- They did not communicate with the parents about placement. If there needs to be a change in placement, there must be at least 3 documented attempts to contact parents, and then the team must meet and decide the placement of the student. I have worked in this school district and I know that the policy is to try to hold the meeting 3 times, not just sent out a letter or call three times. There’s not way they had time to do that.
- They assumed that a student with a specific IQ, or specific skills, or a specific diagnosis would be best suited in a full time special education placement. They did this without getting to know the student, the parents, or what their goals were for their child.
- To jump from full time general education to full time special education is a HUGE jump. There are several tiers of services they could have added before removing a child from the classroom. None of these options were implemented.
- The school administration flat out lied to these parents. They said their child could attend and then said a student with down syndrome would never be admitted…
- PLUS that’s illegal. Schools are not allowed to deny a student just because of a disability. If they suspect that a student needs more supports, they have to prove it through data.
- Not to mention, this is kindergarten folks! What is going on in that classroom that this 5 year old girl couldn’t access? I have no idea where she is academically, but I have enough experience with kindergarten and student who are severely disabled (not she is, she could be very high functioning) to know that most kids should be included in kindergarten.
What This Means For Whittaker
Whittaker is a touted, desired, and high scoring elementary school year after year. The houses in that zone are easily 30,000 or more dollars greater than anywhere else in the city. Because the houses are so much more expensive, the richest children in the city attend that school. And do you know what research says about performance and money? Nothing is a greater indicator of how well your child succeeds than your family income. Nothing. Not the school they go to or the best teachers they have access to. Look it up if you don’t believe me.
So this means Whittaker attracts students who are going to score high on their tests anyways. This makes them look amazing! And this probably puts a lot of pressure from parents on the principal and teachers. Probably they were afraid of a student who actually needed help. From my view point, that makes me think this school does not actually have the skills and know how to help all students succeed. And they must not be aware of the the most updated research on inclusion practices (inclusion helps almost everyone).
Does that sound like a high caliber school?
P.S. Why do we stress so much about high caliber schools anyway? If you’re reading this, your kids are probably just fine! Who cares if they can write a perfect 3 paragraph essay by 2nd grade? That does not mean anything towards future student success. (ask me about the research if you don’t believe me)
Wrapping It Up
Whittaker is not a crappy school. They have the one factor I tell parents to look for: the teachers and principal are consistent. But they are not nearly as wonderful as the community and greatschools.org makes them appear.
Also I am not condemning parents who are worried about their child’s school. I am getting ready to move my family into a district with a similar population to Whittaker. And I have definitely been sucked into school placement stress. However, after many serious self talks, my husband and I decided to pick a community that we love – that also happens to have a wealthy student population. Going into an area with a wealthy population means: 1. I will need to work harder to make sure my children know how to interact with lots of different people. 2. I need to be ready to advocate for minority populations in my school and community. 3. I will need to be ready to act against incorrect or ignorant practices that exclude people.
If you are currently in high performing school, be aware. Look out for students who are struggling. Know about what research says. Speak up. And for heavens sakes, stop trying throw every student who is non-white, poor, struggles to be in a classroom, or has lower academic skills! If that’s you, stop it. You’re wrong, mean, and being totally rude. Those kids won’t lower your child’s chance to academic success. Educate yourself. That’s all.