Tuesday, December 11, 2007

East End Back-of-the-Bus Riders

I live in a county whose land boundaries are shaped almost like a school bus. When residents refer to anyplace in the county, the reference is always to either the West End of the county or the East End of the county. I have always lived in the West End, however recently my oldest daughter, Jessica, was moved to a high school in the East End. The East End high school could not be any different than the school she used to attend in the West End. The differences take me back to a time when riding the back of the bus was reserved for those people deemed inferior than front-of-the-bus riders. The East Enders are back-of-the-bus riders, and the West Enders get the reserved front-of-the-bus seats.

The West End schools, elementary, middle and high, are primarily shiny and new. Classrooms are large and bright – computers are everywhere, including in the hands of every student – landscaping is colorful and well-planned – and most of the schools are accessible. The East End schools are old and born of an architecture style that reminds one of fallout shelters and fabulous fifties furniture. Classrooms are small and dark – the only computers I saw were in the office – landscaping is raked dirt – and accessibility was obviously an afterthought, a retrofitting that has failed. I had hoped that the major differences were these visible things, and that the education, especially of students with disabilities, would be consistent between both ends of the county. Unfortunately, that was not the case.

At the IEP meeting I was attending last week at the East End high school, the school staff seemed surprised that I was requesting actual academic instruction for my daughter with significant disabilities. Jessica had been doing reading, math, science and civics at her West End school. The East End school fills her day with laundry, bowling trips, cooking, and stuffing shredded money into little plastic bags to be sold. I said I liked that Jessica had been doing PowerPoint presentations and sending email at her West End school. The staff at the East End school seemed surprised that I wanted her to have a computer. The daily schedule posted on the blackboard (West End schools have dry erase boards) at the East End school showed 45 minutes each school day of ‘functional academics’ – 45 minutes out of a 6.75 hour day. When I asked how many other students in Jessica’s classroom were verbal, I was told only a couple, and was then offered speech therapy for Jessica. I was told she could not go to the ‘higher functioning’ (their words, not mine) classroom at the East End school because the children in that class had major behavior problems. So, setting aside for a moment that we were there to discuss Jessica’s needs not the school’s poorly planned program, I could easily understand the behavior problems. There are approximately 20 teenagers stuffed into a classroom made for 10, and the teacher seemed to have better things to do than teach. The students in that higher functioning classroom were discussing who was sleeping with whom. Educational perhaps – but not the type of education any of the children at the school needed.

If the meeting I was attending, with the attitudes and comments of the school staff being made, were in the West End, things would be totally different. Parents of students in the West End would not tolerate such a meeting. If a West End high school meeting contained discussion on children doing laundry and not having a computer, a West End parent would have lawyered up in the time it took to pull her Blackberry out of her Gucci bag and press speed dial.

East End parents may not even have a phone at home. A lot of them don’t have the knowledge of their children’s rights, or how to effectively advocate for their children’s needs. According to the East End staff, it’s a good day if some of their students show up at all for school. The East End students are the back of the bus students, and I am appalled that my school district allows such discriminatory and inequitable practices to continue.

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