Monday, February 11, 2013

A Tale of Two High Schools, Part II

On Chicago's north shore, with tongue planted firmly in cheek, you often hear that just like in Lake Wobegon, all the children are above average.  Of course the truth is that it's the standard of living that is well above average for many, but not all, who live here.  The average child living in Chicago's wealthiest suburbs has above average opportunities and experiences.

The educational opportunities for the average child with an above average standard of living are phenomenal here. Of course, there are plenty who lament that the schools don't do enough for their above average or gifted children.

At the other end of the spectrum are those who, for a variety of reasons, achieve at levels that are below average. For the past seven years, through my relationship with our neighbor Aaron and his mother, I have become increasingly aware of how difficult it is to navigate our system of "supports" for children with special needs.

Can Aaron read?  Yes. He plays video games and texts his friends, both activities that require reading and decoding. Moreover, texting and playing games are activities that he finds compelling. Can he analyze a text and write about it?  Maybe. Maybe not. 

What do we do about it?  We're still trying to figure it out - but so far the approach seems to be to schedule a lot of minutes in the day for "support" which in turn limit the available time to pursue the subjects that really interest him.  He's getting an A in Engineering but struggling in English.  Meanwhile, he's in a Learning Strategies class with five other students that is supposed to help him stay on track with homework and time management. Despite the "support", he fell weeks behind with math homework. Proposed solution: drop the Engineering class that he really likes and where he succeeds to pick up another "support" period.

While support can be valuable, I'm not sure Aaron sees it that way.  In fact, he seems to resent the time he's expected to spend in "support".  For example, as a freshman, he was assigned to "Speech".  He didn't understand why he needed "Speech" and developed no rapport with the teacher. Generally regarded as a mild-mannered guy, he had a bad attitude about Speech and was rude to the teacher who then gave him a detention. I knew about the incident and addressed it with him. Imagine my surprise, though, when I learned that he spent all day in in-school detention.  A student who has been identified as needing extra support gets in trouble for rudeness and spends an entire school day out of the classroom in detention!

Later I met with the teacher and a counselor and raised the question, "Why does Aaron need Speech? He doesn't appear to have any problems with speech." They explained that "Speech" is short for "Speech and Language Development" and that he was supposed to be working on expanding his vocabulary.  No one had ever explained that to Aaron or his mother.  I speak 4+ languages and have several degrees, and I didn't understand why he was in speech.  I'm not surprised that he didn't know why he was there and resented it.

So, while I think that extra support can be incredibly valuable, my experience so far leaves me unimpressed with how it is implemented for our neediest students.