School Choice, Autism and the On-Line Curricula

Yesterday ended School Choice Week 2015.  As these are crazier times for me with four at home for public school, it came and went as anything else in my life.  The blog post may be a day late, but it is certainly not a dollar short.

You may know we have four children.  What you may not know is that one of them is autistic.

You can probably guess that school choice was very important to us.  It helped us to fine-tune a more rounded education for all our children, not just an autistic one.  Thanks to improved interaction with teachers, classrooms, and parents with a new school (Texas Connections Academy @ Houston) as well as flex-time to spend mastering each topic, each of our children are thriving in the on-line school — general ed and special ed alike.

A few months ago, my friend Melissa at Writing For Daisies Blog wrote a piece that took my breath away. She like many other parents I visit with on a given day had become frustrated with what the brick-and-mortar public school has ultimately become.  The timing of another Fresh Pressed piece can not be understated:  our current American public school system is putting undue strain on parents everywhere in America.  People are struggling to make sense of it all, looking for a better solution; we were no different.

I think back on my own life coming up through high school, my mother and father freshly divorced. They couldn’t afford college, so they opted instead for a smaller, more intimate education to give us an edge to entry through scholarship money — enter the magnet school. The magnet school is like a private school but publicly funded. With a graduating class of only 150 students, my mediocre grades were paired with a unique skill (I played bassoon) instead of college money; it literally wrote my ticket to higher education. I’ll be forever thankful. It’s hard to say what I might have been without it, though music had nothing to do with the person I became.

Having a child with autism in public school is no picnic. It takes a team, honest work on the part of both educators and parents to ensure he doesn’t slip through the cracks. We are financially in a better position than my own parents were back then, but we still cannot afford a private school education, and of late, our teachers are being given more and more responsibility with less and less support by their district. We began looking at switching earlier than entry into middle school.

The on-line public school gave us what we wanted and more. Initially looking to achieve more schedule flexibility, a reduction of waste and inefficiencies, and the option to take our school “on the go” should we move overseas, it was a unique curricula that would ultimately help a 5th grade boy who had been struggling to keep up in school.

An autistic child doesn’t learn like the others. His autism make it harder for him to master concepts, and some subjects (like reading) that come easily to more adept children are always difficult to grasp. Inferring an author’s or character’s intent is a mystery most times — even when the evidence is in black ink right on the page. For his teachers, the work is in figuring out how to present a thing in an absorb-able fashion, helping him to master the material, not just remember it for a test. For us parents, it’s bringing the teacher’s work into the home, keeping consistency until something suddenly quits working.  Then it’s our job to communicate it so we can all get him back on track again.  It’s real work and it never ends.

Testing skills for a child with autism are a separate but equal challenge to content.  Annual state testing (the STAAR in Texas) is a reality if we are to remain in the public school system, so we must make the best of it.  For the first time at home through the on-line public school, testing skills are learned and practiced, honed to eliminate the anxiety that often locks him up. As grades don’t always correlate to what he actually knows or doesn’t know, finding the right “recipe” is a tricky business for his Learning Coach (his father and me). This year, he will take the test in an unknown place with unknown people — an added challenge.  Should he choose to go to college one day, he will be required to do this very thing in addition to note-taking, lecture-attending, and problem-working — entirely on his own. That is reality and our job is to prepare him for it now, while he’s young and flexible.

With an on-line public education, we feel we’ve lost nothing of the public school, but gained everything of the private, minus the money. Our autistic child is thriving once more, learning, growing with more one-on-one guidance, not only by teachers but also by his parents. Each of our children can perform at his/her best, at his/her pace and frequent field trips with fellow students and teachers assure exciting and engaging learning. Flexibility in our school schedule works in concert with our life schedule, not against it.

For more information about public on-line schools and other school choices in your area, go to SchoolChoiceWeek.com and click on your state.  You can also visit ConnectionsAcademy.com to communicate with a parent in your area and see if public on-line schooling is an option for you.

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