I Thought Mother Teresa Lived in Abject Poverty

In 1995 my writing career appeared to be dead in the water so it came as somewhat of a relief to me when a special education  director from a small town south of San Antonio called and asked if she could come by my house and talk to me about a job. Turned out she was desperate to get somebody–anybody with Ed Diag or LSSP credentials– out to her district to conduct her 3-year Special Education reevaluations.

“How’d you get my name?” I asked. Her response provided me with my first glimpse into the old boy network that makes up bureaucratic special education services in Texas. “A friend at SAISD searched applications and gave me your name and number,” she admitted. So much for confidentiality, I thought. But I let her come by the house anyway.

Jeanie Z was a nice lady who tried to do her job in the best way she could. She needed current SE evaluations to keep federal SE dollars and enhanced state ADA money coming into her district. The fact that full individual evaluations (FIEs) are intended to be used to develop individualized educational plans (IEPs) wasn’t a consideration, at least it wasn’t something that we talked about that day. Bottom line: she was worried about her SE budget and accountability to her school board, not the quality of services she might obtain for the district’s SE students.

In retrospect, this 1996 conversation serves as my personal Red flag # 1 pointing toward the utter disregard for the needs of special education students that has become the present day cornerstone for Texas educational policy. Later red flags are much less subtle. Stay tuned for subsequent posts.

Back to 1996, I’m not saying that Jeanie Z was unaware of what she was asking me to do or  that she was uninterested in providing her district’s handicapped students with FIEs that could be used to develop effective educational treatment plans. What I am saying is that, per TEA guidelines, she had to keep the district’s SE kids qualified with a current FIE in order to provide them with any SE services, good, bad or indifferent. She simply could not allow herself to become concerned that I was ten years out of practice and had last administered individual cognitive and achievement tests, and precious few of those, when I was fresh out of graduate school and worked as the Emotionally Disturbed Consultant for Region 2 Education Service Center in Corpus Christi.

“It’ll all come back to you, your references are fabulous,” Jeanie Z assured me. Yikes! The woman had also seen my references? Was nothing sacred? Apparently not.

I’d provided 5 references when I queried Bexar County school districts for part-time work. My references were:

  • The Summit School in North Carolina where I’d taught 4th grade to, for the most part, very rich privileged kids,
  • The University of Houston professor for whom I’d worked as a TA while getting my ed diag/special ed master’s degree,
  • The Puerto Rican lady who had started a school in her home and hired me to teach elementary level curriculum to English speaking ex-pat’s kids refused admittance to the other English language private schools in San Juan,
  • One of my fellow consultants at Region 2 in Corpus Christi, and
  • The principal of the Texas elementary school were I’d been working when I was hired as the Corpus Christi newspaper’s education guest columnist.

I was the teacher who’d made a name for herself and her school district with her first column entitled “Teachers Resent Being Treated as Trained Monkeys. ” My principal, to her credit, had resisted calls from central office to muzzle me; still, more or less one year later, she didn’t place any roadblocks in my path when I decided to resign my contract less than halfway through the school year. To the best of my recollection my five references said zero zip nada about my expertise as an educational diagnostician. This wasn’t surprising as I hadn’t worked as an educational diagnostician in any of those jobs.

Have you ever heard the expression, I’m beginning to think that there’s no there there? If not, perhaps the names of the infamous paramours Lisa and Peter will jog your memory, however I am not going to get into that political boondoggle here. My point here is, I had absolutely no business trekking out to a school district that provided no supervision for its assessment staff and passing myself off as capable of conducting special education initial or re-evaluations. I explained my concerns to Jeanie Z. My master’s level program had been excellent, but, let’s get real here, graduate school for me had come and gone a long time ago. If I went to work for Jeanie Z, I was going to have to learn, not brush up on, how to administer tests and interpret data and write reports. I was also going to have to learn current SE law, which I cared literally less than nothing about.

Consequently, in 1996, I began a career as a Texas educational diagnostician. The Jeanie Z caper happened approximately ten years after I wrote one final column for Corpus Christi’s daily newspaper. I don’t recall the title of that column, or any of its actual specifics, however the article’s theme and general content linger. I wrote about the ways in which Texas public education mostly sucked. I concluded my last column for the Caller-Times with a dramatic statement to the tune of I was giving up on the Texas educational system entirely. If I were to reread that column today, which I most decidedly do not plan to do, I’d most likely fall out of my chair laughing at my own pomposity. I had it so very good back then. I had been teaching a 4th grade gifted and accelerated class at Tuloso-Midway ISD. Tulosa-Midway at that time had the richest tax base of any school district (petroleum plants) in Texas. We didn’t have bad teachers, we had good teachers and really good teachers and absolutely great teachers. T-M’s teachers routinely were provided with the best possible resources to teach their students, approximately one third of whom lived below the poverty line.

One very obvious difference between then and now: back then, we had very few administrators. For example, the entire district employed one educational diagnostician for learning disabled students (called the mild to moderately disabled) who were expected to master general education curriculum; and one educational diagnostician for the severely to profoundly impaired population who needed to be taught as much as they could learn to be self-sufficient but who were unlikely to read and write beyond 2nd grade level if that. There wasn’t a SE director in the district at all, however we did have an assistant  superintendent who oversaw what special educators on the three elementary, one junior high, and one high school campus were up to. There was also a SE coordinator who ran all over the district peering into our file cabinets, checking to make sure teachers were completing their paperwork. Progress reports from special education hadn’t yet been invented, the SE teachers conferred with each student’s Gen Ed teacher and provided grades and comments that kept parents up to date.

There is no comparison between the paperwork then and the volume of documentation that is required of SE teachers these days. When I started out in SE, ARD meetings were written up on NCR paper with the required forms for annual reviews being two pages in length. Our initial ARDs necessitated one additional page, the consent for initial placement page. Teachers and diagnosticians could append one or more pages of notes to their ARDs and  sometimes would end up with a four or five page initial or annual review ARD document. The ARD notice consisted of a copy of the note we’d written telling the parent about the meeting. That was it. If we lost the notice, or forgot to attach it, there wasn’t any real concern. The fact that the parent had attended  the meeting and signed his or her name on page two proved they’d somehow or another gotten wind of the meeting, which was considered sufficient evidence. We almost never had meetings without parents present, even if we had to stay until after someone got off work at 5 or even 6. It’s plain to see that public education was more of a collaborative all hands on deck group effort back then.

In retrospect, SE paperwork was totally innocuous and yet informed the parent of precisely what changes were being made to the general education program in order to address exactly which educational deficiency. Goals were easy to understand. We’d write things like, instead of the 4th grade reader, we’re going to use the Breaking the Code curriculum with your child, he’ll have reading in the resource room with the SE teacher, who has an assistant and we cap the enrollment in the class to 12 students. He’s on mid 2nd grade level now, and we expect he’ll be at beginning 4th grade level after he finishes Breaking the Code which generally takes us 36 weeks to cover. You’ll get the classwork sent home every night which you will, under penalty of death for not doing it, go over with your child 2-3 times to reinforce what we worked on at school. Well, maybe we didn’t put in the under penalty of death part, but we did explain over and over again that parents who didn’t reinforce the learning that happened at school that day at night were unlikely to see their children make the academic gains that we knew were possible with these special education methods and materials. Sounds so simple compared to today, don’t you think?

Perhaps this is the place where I can insert the, for me, obligatory statement that Texas handicapped children would be far better served if public school districts quit paying Walsh-Anderson, now Walsh-Gallegoes attorneys $350 per hour to run ARDs and tell teachers how to teach students to read and write. Just saying . . . this has sort of become my pet peeve. I suppose you could say that I’m not a fan of the SE legal community.

Speaking to the concept of top-heavy bureaucracy, due to increased regulations coming out of Austin and TEA orchestrated by the federal government’s Department of Education, the number of administrators and support staff in a public school system will likely equal or surpass the number of teachers employed by the district. Suffice to say education in Texas wasn’t perfect back then, but compared to the detritus that the public education system has become, the 80’s and 90’s, when special education was getting started, were banner years. At present there’s a whole lot of swamp draining needed, however I’m not holding my breath waiting for that to happen and would advise you not to do so either.

By the time I became an empty nester, I’d been working for one particular school district, not Jeanie Z’s, in some capacity or another for 16 years. Per TEA, I had 3 years to go before I could retire. In the last district that I worked in, I specialized in early childhood assessment and developed a reputation as a child advocate who churned out a boat load of test reports year after year, always went to bat for appropriate and meaningful SE services for the students, and stayed as clear of central office politics as possible. Put another way, I was never a team player as far as the other assessment staff was concerned. Even though I can’t pinpoint the moment when my career went off the rails, I can identify some very early warning signs that I ignored.

Take what happened the day the SE Director, another very nice lady, this one a former speech therapist who now worked as an administrator and misguidedly listened to SE lawyers tell her how to run SE programs, showed up in my office. “Do you know what the other assessment staff members are calling you?” she asked. “No doubt I’d just as soon not know, I have an appointment with a three-year-old and his mom in ten minutes so talk fast,” I replied. “They call you Mother Teresa,” she said. “Oh,” I said. That was it, I couldn’t come up with another single word to say. To this day it amazes me that the woman, we’d always been pretty good friends, had believed that I was going to be upset at what she’d come to tell me. I don’t see myself as Mother Teresa, didn’t Mother Teresa live in abject poverty herself, I could have said that. Abject poverty is a condition to which I have personally never aspired.

About a month after the director and I had that conversation, which hadn’t turned into an official letter of reprimand, she wrote me up for talking about my colleagues. My offense: the SE facilitator on my campus (let’s just call her S.B.) walked up to me out in the hall flapping two long overdue reports from the district’s completely worthless supervising LSSP in my face. We chatted, amicably I would have said. After our conversation the facilitator apparently ratted me out to the director who turned me in to central office for talking about my colleagues.

The actual verifiable facts aren’t in dispute.  By that time S.B. appeared with 2 FIE reports for kids enrolled on my campus, I’d already gotten with the PreK and PPCD teachers and developed appropriate goals for the students in question. I ask you, what else could we have done? The kids, twins, very different little guys both diagnosed with autism before they ever came to us, had turned 3 and started in our full day 3 year old PPCD program 6 weeks earlier. Our dedicated teachers weren’t going to start teaching those kids without an educational treatment plan. “I don’t need those reports, you can just file them,” I’d said to S.B. About an hour earlier, I had gone online and read both of the reports; the lazy LSSP had literally used cut and paste and find/change to write the exact same report for both of the children. “Why not? You’ve been bugging me that you didn’t have them,” the facilitator asked.

She asked, I answered. “I haven’t mentioned the twins’ reports to you since what’s her face did the initial ARD two months ago without them. The teachers and I have already figured out present levels of functional and academic performance and written goals and objectives for both of the kids. What did you think they were using to develop their daily lesson plans if not IEP’s? That woman’s reports, when she even bothers to write them, are crap. I wouldn’t touch anything she does with a 10-foot pole.” It must have been the 10-foot pole part of my verbiage that stuck in the director’s craw, at least that’s what she wrote about me in the next official letter of reprimand. She wrote them on NCR paper. I was always given the pink–least readable–copy. I might still have them laying around in a box somewhere. There were quite a few of them; during the last year that I worked for the district, I probably averaged one, maybe even two reprimands per week.

On the night of June 10th, 2013, I walked into a Beth Moore Bible Study group at Trinity Baptist Church. I heard Beth, not the real person, the Beth on the video monitor, ask this question, “Ladies, have you ever stayed in one place too long?” When I tell you that I literally felt chills going up and down my entire body upon hearing those words, I’m not exaggerating. I believe that God talks to his servants directly; our job is to listen. Sometimes we hear God speaking to us through familiar voices, at other times the voices that guide and direct us are of a more obscure origin. That night as she was embarking on a study on the law of love, Beth Moore’s words, ladies, have you ever stayed in one place too long? more or less knocked me off my feet. As far as I was concerned, Beth wasn’t just referencing the 40 years that the Israelites had lingered in the desert, she was clueing me to the fact that I’d stayed in the district past the point where it was a beneficial thing to do.

On June 11th I turned my letter of resignation in at Central Office, two days before the end of my 2012-13 employment contract. Quitting that job didn’t take me any time at all, especially in comparison with the time it had taken me to become employed out there in the first place. I was in Central Office that morning for give or take fifteen minutes including the time spent waiting for the secretary who would process my paperwork to finish up with whoever was in her office when I arrived. Afterwards, I drove ten miles–remember I worked in a rural district–to the early childhood campus to gather up my personal belongings.

By the time I arrived at the campus, the school had been alerted to the fact that I was no longer a district employee. “We heard you quit today, I’m sorry, I thought you were working three more years, are you going to be okay?” the secretary asked when I walked into the early childhood center. “Never better, my plans changed,” I replied, now feeling shell-shocked at the action that I’d just taken. “It’s done, so it has to be okay.” Not to be overly dramatic here, but imagine how the Israelites felt standing behind Moses at the Red Sea right before God parted the waters. With the Egyptian army in hot pursuit after them, no doubt those only just moments before released from bondage slaves experienced a few anxious moments themselves.

I left the front office and walked through the cafeteria down a short hall to my office. It was reflex for me to sit down at my desk and check my email when I arrived at work each day, so that is what I did first, thinking that I’d send out one last group email to my now former workmates, bidding them all goodbye, wishing them well, that sort of thing. Immediately I learned that I had been  locked out of the district email. This wasn’t unexpected; anticipating that it was going to be the case,  I’d moved all of my emails over to my personal computer earlier that morning. For those of you who are perhaps wondering why I expected the district would render me incommunicado quickly as possible, I’d been written up more than one time for documenting the things that I was told by the director to do–and especially the things I was told not to do–in regards to assessment and placement ARDs in emails that I copied to the entire assessment staff. This is called creating a paper trail and is a habit that I now advise parents trying to obtain appropriate meaningful SE services from their children’s school districts to develop to the point of becoming obsessive, compulsive, and rigid about doing. It does no good at all to go into an ARD or eventually a due process hearing wailing about how the district has done your kid wrong if you can’t whip out the needed written and audio documentation to make your case.

The alacrity with which my letter of resignation was accepted and made irrevocable did take me aback. I’d quit, I’d left them, they hadn’t left me, however . . . the district had done everything possible to make quitting this job very very easy for me to do. I’d be lying if I tried to tell you that that didn’t bother me a little bit. Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as if working for the Lord and not for men. Colossians 3:23. Most of the time, it didn’t matter to me what other people thought of me, however . . . I’d worked in this one particular district for a long time, to the point where it had taken on the feeling of a home away from home to me.  Leaving that day, after I’d effectively burned the bridge behind myself, proved to be harder than anticipated.

The teachers were all gone by June 11th and it was just me, the two secretaries, the two janitors, the principal and the SE facilitator left on campus that day. The head janitor brought boxes to my office. “They made you quit. We heard them talking about how to get rid of you, they act like we don’t have ears,” he said. He was talking about the principal and the facilitator, he named their names, but I won’t do that here. They too, I suppose, were just trying to do their jobs as they understood them to be. Not my place to judge them. I left the campus about one hour later. The janitors helped me load up my car. The secretaries hugged me good-bye. The facilitator and principal never stepped out of their offices.

My Ed Diag career officially ended on June 11, 2013. At that time, I believed that I was all done fighting SE battles, however in May 2015, I filed my first request for a TEA mediation on behalf of a handicapped child. Lucius Bunton drove down from Austin to attempt to reconcile the IEP that I was requesting for the student with the services that the district was offering to provide. This was the first opportunity that I’d had to participate in any sort of mediation. I went into the meeting with high hopes, but then I’ve always been something of an optimist. For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the spirit of sonship. Romans 8:15 I once had a Nike T-shirt with the words No Fear written in very bold big letters across the front. My personal opinion? Trusting in the power of the Holy Spirit is the only way a person is going to get through this life.

Lucius did a couple things that were, in retrospect, extremely kind of him to do that day. First off, he forgot to get me, the parent, or anyone on the school district side of the mediation to sign a confidentiality pledge. Second, he learned what he could about the student from the parent and advocate’s point of view, quickly assessed the lay of the land as far as the district’s willingness to provide services, and told us the truth in words so direct that there was no way that the mom and I could fail to understand what he was saying. This is how that two-hour meeting went.

The mom and I walked into a conference room where there was a pitcher of water and a sandwich tray from Jason’s Deli waiting for us. “I don’t recommend that you eat the sandwiches or drink the water,” I said. “I brought four bottles of water, two for you, two for me.” This–me bringing my own provisions and most particularly my own water to work with me–had begun years earlier. The district’s tap water wasn’t, in my opinion, safe to drink, but no one really liked to hear that.

I’d been written up for handing out copies of a San Antonio Express-News front page news article to parents of children that I’d assessed at initial placement ARDs. The article documented research about increased cases of autism due to water contamination from the coal-fired energy plant at Braunig Lake which was slap dab in the middle of our district. “The secretaries get the water straight out of the faucet,” I said. “As for those sandwiches, they’re likely okay, although there’s no telling how many rooms they’ve been sitting out in. Most of these buildings are old, and there is a big problems with rodents and roaches, I know this from personal experience,” I cautioned. I wasn’t the only one working in the district who thought this way. One of our SE secretaries had gotten herself fired a few years earlier when she’d started handing out copies of her own research, a list of all the district employees in the district who’d died from cancer. Most of them had lived and worked in the district, whereas I drove out from town every day, however I wasn’t taking any chances.

We never saw anyone from the school district at all that day. Lucius talked to us, left the room, talked to the school folks, came back to the conference room we were in, talked to us again, left the room a 2nd time to meet with the SE director, the school principal and I have no idea who else, and came back to the room where Aleczander’s mom and I waited. He sat down next to the parent, took both her hands in his and said, “You need to get your kid out of here, this place is corrupt, but then they all are. Save your son, find a charter school.” Turning to me, without the hand holding, Lucius said, “You won’t fix this place in time to save Aleczander. It’s not just this school district, it’s most of them, and it’s the city, county, state governments as well, all of these bureaucracies  are corrupt.”

There was no denying that this one particular district had become extremely corrupt, which is why it took Lucius less than one hour to get the lay of the land and warn us off. TEA’s perfidy has been exposed for all to see, and the US Supreme Court (Endrew Decision, 2017)  has ruled that schools that accept federal dollars must provide appropriate IEPs that contain meaningful effective goals, however some districts have been slow to get the word.

Almost five years have passed since I began advocating for Aleczander, who left public education at the end of first grade and attended a private school in the district for 2nd, 3rd, and 4th grade. This year he’s being homeschooled. Next year he should, but won’t, go to middle school. He needs significantly more services now than he did when he was six. Having been deprived of the needed (and very expensive to obtain privately) educational services for dyslexia, dysgraphia, and oral motor disfluency that were diagnosed while he was a first grader, he’s gotten farther and farther behind. However, he’s such a trooper, that kid is. He just never ever stops trying.  The fact that Aleczander works diligently for every bit of academic progress that he accomplishes doesn’t mean that his peers, average intelligence kids without learning disabilities, are sitting on their hands waiting for him to catch up to them. Here he is with a drawing of a turtle, his favorite animal, that he did last year. Stay tuned for further progress reports.

Whatever the case, it’s all good, as Aleczander’s first Salem Sayers teacher, Melissa Urtiaga, taught me to proclaim! Aleczander had wonderful teachers at Salem Sayers Academy for the three years that he was there. His last year’s teacher now homeschools him; Becky Myerly is truly an amazing person and teacher. She’d anticipated that Aleczander would progress two grade levels in reading this school year–not so sure how that’ll work out given the fact that the government shut the schools down back in early March. Whatever the case, I’ll continue to advocate for Aleczander as the district, led by its hapless SE Director and ignominious SE lawyers continue to deny the child they diagnosed with these specific learning disabilities needed and mandated by law special education services; as you would expect, since March 6th when they finished all of the testing parents had agreed to, the district is telling us that they can’t consider Aleczander’s educational needs or provide any services because of the global pandemic. Not to worry, invariably, the parents and I always–always–live to fight another day. To God goes every bit of the glory. We praise his Holy Name!

 

 

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