Tuesday, April 15, 2008

A Montessori School Open House Experience

The following are notes from a conversation I had with the Director of Admissions at a Montessori school near us. The post directly above this one will be the letter I sent to the school regarding these notes (I've edited both the notes and the letter to conform with the use of intials as names on this blog). I thought this was interesting enough conversational material for us here. What does this say about where we are as a society when it comes to special needs? What does this say about what is happening in the world of Montessori right now?

Notes From a Conversation With the Montessori School Director of Admissions (J.)
April 8, 2008

At first I wrote down J.’s exact words because I found them so striking, but mid-way through the conversation I became very uncomfortable with the tone of the dialogue, so I did not feel that verbatim notes were necessary for my decision about my son’s placement.

Me (going through the questions on the enclosed form): “What experience does the school have in working with children who have special needs?”

J.: “We don’t really have resources for children with special needs.”

Me: “So you don’t admit children with special needs?”

J.: “No. It’s not fair to the children. We want to do what’s fair for the children.” After a pause she added, “I mean, it depends on the need. Like, a child with cochlear implants. That kind of thing we can handle.” [Note: She did not say a “deaf child.” The implication is that only a child who has had implants would be acceptable. Not a deaf child. I also want to note that earlier in the conversation when I asked what type of scenario would signal a child and Montessori are mismatched, her immediate response was, “When a child can’t listen.”].

She continued: “This is something we tell parents over the phone before they come in, so it doesn’t surprise anyone.”

Me: “No one told me this over the phone.”

J.: “Did you talk about special needs on the phone?”

Me: “Yes, I did.”

What follows is the remainder of the conversation. I am writing this just a couple of hours after my visit, so my memories are still fresh and clear. I believe this is an accurate representation of what was said.

· J. asked me about my son’s special needs, though she didn’t really give me any time for a real explanation. I told her that he has global developmental delays, and was about to share more when she continued talking. J. said that she wasn’t qualified to “know what that means,” but that her sister (if I recall correctly) is a special education teacher and that her sister has told her (J.) that “there are high and low functioning” children with special needs and that “[Summit Montessori School faculty] should read all the reports very carefully.”

· J. asked me if I had “any reports” about my son (she did not specify what type of reports from whom). I told her that I do, and before I had a chance to ask what type of reports, she told me that the faculty would need to see these in order to make an admissions decision. I said something very close to the following words, which I chose very carefully at that point because I wanted to make sure that I was not misunderstanding. “You said earlier that the evaluation process for admission involves an approximately twenty-minute lesson and observation period with a teacher. Are you saying that for children with special needs, the admission decision is not made on this period of observation, but rather from reading reports about the child?”

· I remember the first part of J.’s answer clearly. “Yes.” After another pause, she said: “Well, it depends. We have got to read those reports. We’ve had parents come in and tell us their kids are low needs, and then they come in and the kids are all over the place. Parents don’t really see their children. We can’t just take what they say.” [Note: the tone of J.’s voice indicated to me that she was talking about parents misleading the school.]

“Yes, we usually do twenty minutes of assessment for a child without special needs, but for a child with special needs, it might be forty-five minutes. We would read those reports for sure. Because in the end, yes, parents are important. But this isn’t about the parents. This is about the children.” J. re-stated several times that “reports” would be vital, and she consistently downplayed the role of teacher observation in the assessment of my son’s match with the school. It was clear to her that written “reports” of any type would carry a heavy weight, and that the teacher observation was only a small part of the process.

· J. also referred to the school as not being “a place for special education. We’re just not able to do that.” It was unclear to me if she truly grasped Maria Montessori’s work as being “special education” in and of itself. She also didn’t give any indication that she remembered that Montessori’s first work was with children who had been identified as having “special needs.”

If I was looking for a special education class for my child, I would be looking elsewhere. In fact, my child qualifies for free early childhood education in a special education setting, which would obviously be an incentive for me to place him in such a setting. However, I demonstrated throughout my visit that I am an educated, thoughtful parent who is well versed in and committed to the Montessori model. I also demonstrated that I want an environment for my child where he can thrive.

Clearly, as a parent, I am concerned about the match between my son and any school. I don’t want him to be in a school where his needs can’t be met, and of course, as someone who values the Montessori philosophy, I am aware of the need to respect the community as a whole as well. I wouldn’t be taking the time to tour Montessori schools if I didn’t believe that my son could be “mainstreamed” into a Montessori school. I am completely confused as to why J. would assume I would want to set up my son for a bad experience like that, after observing me tour the school and ask thoughtful questions.

The messages that were communicated to me verbally (and nonverbally) during this conversation included:

· Children with special needs are not welcome. J. does not want me to apply for my son’s admittance. If I want to push it, I might be able to get admittance for my son, but first I need to prove that he wouldn’t “be a problem.”

· As a child with special needs, my child would be under a level of scrutiny in the admissions process and in the classroom that other children in the school do not experience. (By the way, can you imagine a job interview in which you had to sit there and talk about your own special needs/challenges/etc. for twenty minutes...wouldn't you end up sounding like an impossible person to work with?)

· I am not considered to be among the experts on my child and his needs. Anyone who can write “a report” (of what type, it never was specified) on my child must hold more expertise than I do, and would be better equipped to provide information about whether my child would do well in a Montessori classroom where specific special education services are not provided.

By the way, it is very sad to me that even in the public schools, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) ensures that parents are viewed as a part of the team of experts involved in a child’s life, but an independent Montessori school does not take this approach. Also, you should know that my child will be receiving special education services from his school district, including speech and occupational therapy, via IDEA, even if he is enrolled in a Montessori School. He is an unlikely candidate for a one-on-one assistant in either setting, so this wouldn’t be a concern or issue in the “match” at this point.

· As a parent, there is a considerable possibility that I would mislead the school into admitting my son even if that wasn’t going to serve his best interests, or the interests of the school.

· If my son were to be admitted, he would be considered a liability to the integrity of the community. Once I mentioned that my child is developmentally delayed, J. stopped listening and started talking. She wasn’t interested in hearing about what I knew about his challenges, let alone his gifts and strengths. She was clearly very focused and concerned about what level of “burden” he might be, and she clearly felt I wasn’t qualified to be a part of that conversation.

I am choosing a school for my child. I am going to be investing money in this school, and I am going to be handing over my precious little one and entrust a school with his care and education. I am having a lot of trouble imagining myself applying for my son’s admission into Summit Montessori School.

For all of my children, even those without special needs, I want them to participate in educational communities where individuals with special needs are seen not in simple terms as a liability, detraction from and burden to the community, but that they are seen as human beings who, like everyone, can participate meaningfully in the life of the community. I would hope that all of Summit Montessori School’s parents would want their children to learn to relate to people of all abilities, to be in an environment where they can practice how to be fully inclusive of people who have both the same and different strengths and challenges from them.

I've come to treat my son's special needs as a normal part of human diversity. In my life’s journey, I’ve learned that every human being has “special needs.” My son's needs are simply among the slightly less common. But some of those same needs are part of what affirmed for me that Montessori would be right for him.

The “no admittance for people like your son” sign has been posted on Summit Montessori’s door. What a loss for not only my son, but for the children in the school who lose out on the opportunity to learn to engage in a diverse and interesting human world.

I do want to send a special thank you to D. and one of the founders of the school (whose name I have forgotten, I am sorry to say), for asking me as I was stepping out of the building, what I thought of the school, and for taking the time to chat with me as I worked through the initial shock and confusion, as well as utter sadness, I had experienced during my conversation with J. The messages D. gave me were empathetic, considerate, and warmly welcoming, and the founder’s messages were cautiously welcoming. I also appreciate the founder offering that I could call either D. or herself if I wanted to arrange for an assessment for my son for entry into the school.

On a completely different note, I want to say that I am surprised at the reaction I received from the school’s business manager when I asked about staff compensation and financial aid. I told her I understood that asking about staff compensation was unusual for parents, and she agreed and asked me why I was interested. I told her that I want my children to go to a school with “happy, healthy, satisfied teachers” (and I should add “people who are highly qualified and who feel valued for their work”), and she said that made sense to her. I am just surprised more parents don’t ask. I was so glad to hear that your school strives to be very competitive in its salaries and compensation of teachers and staff.

I also asked her about financial assistance for two reasons. First, because Summit Montessori is by far the most expensive Montessori school I have found in the area (double the average cost for the half-day program), and I wanted to know what assistance might be available because we are a lower middle class family. Second, because the school’s current director and my tour guide had mentioned that the school strives to be diverse, I wondered if that included economic diversity. I asked the business manager what percentage of students receive financial aid, and she told me this number is confidential. However, she did give me the percentage of tuition that provides the financial aid budget. I thought you might be interested to know that it is unusual for a school to make confidential information on the approximate number of “scholarships” they award each year.


hopalong said...

You left the Admissions Director's name in there in a couple of places -- just wanted to let you know.


Masasa said...