theebrandenburgs blogspear

This page is designed to share information about our struggle to gain equity for our unique children and their learning styles in a public education system that is designed primarily to teach a single type of learner, and which is increasingly sidelined by fiscal and philosophical issues that challenge the core of its collective existence. We are especially interested in unique learners, and the talented people who teach them, their families, and our shared value as human beings. We seek the end of discrimination, the end of seclusion, separation, and isolation, as well as an end to chemical and physical restraints that are commonly used to assault our children and our unique interpretations of the world.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

National Inclusive Schools 'Weak'

By Tony Brandenburg

November 25, 2011, 

Originally run in the Sierra Madre Patch

In 1981, English pub rockers Ian Dury and the Blockheads released the single Spasticus Autisticus, which was promptly banned by the BBC. Dury, who at age 7 contracted polio, was placed in a school for the ‘disabled’ before his mother insisted on his receiving an academic education like the education his non-disabled peers received. Dury went on to receive an Art Degree, and not only taught art, but became an influential and successful writer and vocalist.Spasticus Autisticus is seen by many as one of the earliest forms of protest music from the perspective of a person with a disability.
As we approach December’s National Inclusive Schools Week- which was approved unanimously by the board on November 23- I can already anticipate a hastily thrown together set of events at our local public schools, if anything at all. There is a well meaning PTA “art contest” and a focus- at least in rhetoric and fanfare- on including all- but as long as there is a special day class at Sierra Madre School, then, really, nothing has changed from last year's forced removal and exclusion of my youngest child to his current placement in a segregated classroom. As long as key members of the Sierra Madre Elementary School PTA and School Site Council infrastructure are allowed to continue to devalue my child with no reprimand and no apology, then the bigotry and bullying towards people with different behavioral and learning needs will be allowed to reign supreme.
The brilliance of my child’s return to school has been epitomized by one recurring theme of ice breaking. Oh, I know. In the land of rainbows and wistarias and unicorns I am supposed to feign that I am grateful for the educational rights that other parent's children get handed to them on a silver platter. I am not grateful. I find it insulting that we even have to discuss inclusion at all. When I was a child, the pat phrase, “If you can’t find anything nice to say, then say nothing” has been replaced with it’s politer older sister: the greener, and eco-friendlier, “Find one nice thing to say, no matter how mundane” to which I say hogwash. Inclusion is not a gift granted to us for a week. It either exists or it doesn't. 
I am waiting for another statement, one that I still haven’t heard: “Welcome. We are glad you, and especially your child, are here.” That is inclusion. This facade for a week? That is fanfare, the same kind of worhless gesture that accompanies self congratulatory awards and cronyism back-slapping.
I sat in a School Site Council meeting earlier this month. Well, actually I sat in two. One as a professional, and one as a parent. I have sat on both sides of the room, so to speak. In one circumstance I was a welcomed member of the committee, and my participation was valued. In the other, I was a fly on the wall, buzzing occasionally, but acutely aware that a newspaper could come down at any moment. 
That is not to say that there were not any people who welcomed me. There were people who were generous and inviting. There were, and that was a nice gesture. Unfortunately, one bad apple spoils a barrel, and it was evident, and I will not hesitate to say that one bummer in a room is the one that I always point out- even if I am the bummer. It is the way I am wired. Just the same, it was clear that, no matter how you look at the situation, there was a bad apple in the room. I guess it really depends on which side of the room you sit.
It’s not by accident that the apple is seen as the symbol of learning. It was the symbolic fruit that cast the first thinkers out of Eden and to the east. That symbolic notion- that knowledge can result in damnation eternal- isn’t lost on me as I am a very literal thinker who appreciates literature. Admittedly, I am confused when people give me apples; it’s as if they somehow know the secret- that I am the shiner of light on dark things; the one who seeks knowledge and truth more than facades and pleasantries. I don’t see rainbows and unicorns; I see prisms- and horses with horns. Rainbow people don’t appreciate storm bringers; they believe prisms happen in a vacuum. They don’t recognize that there has to be a storm in order for there to be a rainbow. There has to be light or the roaches won't scatter.
But I digress. (Sort of.)
I was most impressed by a discussion on the Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) program. It was a fascinating, if not thoroughly heartbreaking discussion of unrealized potential, balanced with misunderstanding. I listened as a teacher shared of the energy and time put in motion to develop a program, only to have the hierarchy (district? state?) confound it by dismantling, and changing the criteria completely. Of little consolation was the fact that, at least peripherally, the base of the ideal is being provided to all (well, most) of the students, anyway. That is a success to celebrate. I am familiar with the teacher, and I know she differentiates instruction, but that isn’t the issue. The issue is that not all children receive differentiated instruction if the structure of the system denies entry and access to the instruction in the first place.
As long as children are segregated to special day classes I refuse to believe that they are receiving a comparable education. By design they are not receiving the core curriculum at their grade level. If they don’t receive the core curriculum, then it is impossible to go above and beyond to extend the learning. It is impossible for any teacher to simultaneously run three grade level curriculums and meet the standards in a classroom with 3 or more grades, regardless of how many awards the teacher has received. Forget about strategies for going above and beyond in a segregated setting. You can’t learn to ride a bicycle if you aren’t allowed to sit on the bike. You can't play the violin if you aren't allowed to receive the lessons.
The conversation went on to include a dialogue regarding the second graders not being allowed to take an entry test for GATE because they had piloted a program for GATE testing last year as first graders and were now being excluded. (Welcome to the Exclusion Club.) I couldn’t help smiling because of the practical point of view of one of the parents regarding Sierra Madre Elementary taking responsibility for its GATE folly- but I wonder if the irony was lost in the discussion. Most of the district is exploring ways to improve student achievement for all children, and our school spent thirty minutes discussing the needs of one group- who aren’t even identified as GATE students. 
Now, it’s a given that no one required the parents to OK the pilot program for testing first graders for GATE, and while they may not have realized that it was at the expense of testing in the second grade- does it really matter? Is it somehow  PUSD’s fault, or the staff at Sierra Madre- for not having the foresight to see that this would happen? Or could it be maybe, just maybe, it was our own arrogance and elitism as parents that our children are somehow- or for some reason- more valuable than the rest of the district because our children may be designated GATE at the age of 6- in the first grade- which is earlier than the rest of the district, and of whole state. Have we become that full of ourselves?
So the begged question- Can inclusion exist for my child at Sierra Madre Elementary School?- is one of infinite complications. I really doubt it. The needs of a few special education students is not the concern of the majority of the Sierra Madre Elementary community- even if it is an identified deficit area district wide, and even if it is part of program improvement district wide. Why? Well, it is because elitism rules supreme, whether it is recognized and acknowledged, or not. As long as we continue to splinter our interests and fail to move toward a common goal then we will bicker between ourselves. How yuppie of us.
If the key players in the ruling elite of Sierra Madre education (PTA, SSC) do not recognize that there is a fundamental crack in their system and a flaw in their logic, then nothing will change. As long as people fail to buy in- and to believe that all means all- then there will never be 100% of our students meeting proficiency in their respective growth and target areas. The moment one says that it is impossible to meet the 100% target, then we have all failed our children by excluding some- the ones we have already given up on- whether it is because of their behavioral differences,  or because of their specific learning styles. 
Inclusion is not going to happen, not without a system more complex than the Olweus Anti-Bullying curriculum recently adopted by the school. Olweus is a Norwegian philosophy that has had mixed results in the United States. If the players in this school leadership team- they are the ones that sit at the head of the table serving the meal- don’t recognize that bullying starts with the adults, and then is passed on to their children- if they fail to internalize this- then they will continue to serve sweet candied yams when they should be serving raw apples.
Change comes with true knowledge- the knowledge that we make mistakes- and the backbone to stand up, own them, and work toward correcting them. When we fail to do that we just model the same half-hearted idealism to the children. Empty words of idealism for show; public communion without any spiritual change. That's too bitter a pill to swallow, isn't it?
Last year for National Inclusion Week my child was excommunicated from his school and the (unspoken) remedy- a discussion about disabilities- was placed after the largest performance of the year- the Christmas Program. Anyone with even the most rudimentary knowledge of performance knows that if you follow the headliner your act is dead on arrival. The room, just minutes earlier being monitored by the fire department to make sure it wasn't over capacity, completely emptied. The presenter preached to the choir, so to speak.
The culmination of National Inclusive Schools Week 2010 was really nothing more than a photo op for our resident board member and an alleged remedy for the complaint I filed with the Office of Civil Rights. There was, and is, no core belief in Inclusion, not really, and National Inclusive Schools Week 2011 is now deconstructed to an art contest and a two minute speech to the parent volunteers by the resident intern. Bravo, Sierra Madre, your actions speak louder than words. 
This year's National Inclusive Schools Week will be upstaged by the naming the cafeteria after the principal who did so much for the failure of inclusion at Sierra Madre Elementary School for years past- but who did so much for singing, dancing, painting and perfection. See, it’s really about rainbows and unicorns, it's not really about systemic change. What matters is what you see. Smoke and mirrors.
I personally view the auditorium's christening as the mea culpa from the parents who destroyed the former principal's final year at Sierra Madre with their bullying agenda against a disabled child. They, of course, will see it as an act of thanks and gratitude and I will always see it as an act of charity. A feeble one.
You'll recall at the beginning of this esssay I referenced Ian Dury's Spasticus Autisticus as a form of protest music. Dury wrote it in response to the International Year of the Disabled which he felt was condescending and counter-productive for people with disabilities. He stated it was inspired by the pivotal scene in the Stanley Kubrick film Spartacus. As the Roman General looked out over the slaves after the failed rebellion, and asked which of them was Spartacus, they all responded, “I am Spartacus.” 
They were all crucified.

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