Friday, June 10, 2011

Choosing a school

When my son was approaching twelve months old, I had a frantic episode of researching private schools close by to our home and had them post out their school prospectus and enrolment forms. These actions were the culmination of talks I was having with other mum's who had children the same age as my son, and getting swept up in some kind of parenting vortex, I had somehow been convinced that enrolments must be done now, otherwise my son's future would be in jeopardy.

One mum was particularly smug, as she had enrolled her child at several private schools, and was even comparing which uniform would look best on her child. The prospectus' from several schools duly arrived home, and I set aside time each night to peruse each one, consequently ordering them in preference. As enrolling at each one cost $200 a pop, I then went about devising the best way to outlay this over the next few months.

For an unknown reason the enrolment forms tucked neatly in their respective prosectus folders sat on the desktop, and eventually had other things placed on top of them - as you do when you have a busy and messy desk such as mine. I didn't do any enrolments and my son is now just over four. I began to have a big long think about private school in the primary years. Was this what I wanted for my son? And now consequently my daughter? Was I going to join the parents ferrying their children to school in their four wheel drives?

In my mind's eye, I envisioned holding my children's small hands, one small figure on each side, walking to school. Looking around me, that meant a total of three primary schools that are in walking distance from my home. One is Catholic and the other two government. Anyway, it was this visual that stopped the private school enrolments in their tracks, and made me choose an alternative path. The plan now is to send them to one of these primary schools in walking distance from home and then do private schooling for their secondary years. I want them to take public transport from that time, thus ensuring some independence and new experiences.

I have now reached the time to investigate our three local primary schools. I have, what I've been describing to myself, a dual purpose in my school visits. I need to get to the Open day's, so I can hear the spiel about the school and take the tour, and then I need to make an appointment to chat about my son's special needs.

A few weeks ago, the two government primary schools held their open day's on the Tuesday and Wednesday respectively in the same week. I telephoned the Catholic primary school, to discover their Open day had been in the month earlier, so I made my appointment to discuss my Son's needs with the principal on the Monday.

Upon arriving at the Catholic primary, I was pleased to see that the Special Need's Coordinator had been alerted to the meeting and was also there. I did most of the talking, describing my son, his personality, behaviour and diagnosis. The welcoming vibe from both the Principal and Coordinator was enthusiastic and interested, and I went away feeling optimistic. I still need to get to an Open day, apparently there's another one in August, and I plan to then see the school's resources and spaces, and hopefully classes in action.

On the Tuesday I was punctual for the school tour at one of the government primary school's, and myself and a large group of parents were ushered into the Resource center, or Library. The Principal spoke for a good twenty minutes, explaining how the school worked, and about the brand spanking new building that was being built, making way for even more classrooms.

From there, three grade sixer's took myself and two other sets of parents around the school, where we saw classes in action. The students were a delight to talk to, and I came away thinking I would be happy to send my children to this school. The only thing, we're just outside of this school's zone.

I managed to catch the Principal, and he was able to set aside time there and then to talk about my son's special needs. After waiting a short ten minutes, we proceeded to his office. This is where I would describe the school as having some good things and some not so good things. I explained to the Principal about a Bridging program we were considering doing during first term of Prep, but he wasn't one bit interested in it. His biggest concern was that my son wouldn't be able to make those initial friendships in first term if he was spending that time away from the school. This of course makes ample sense. He also went on to outline how the school deals with transition for special needs children, and the different therapists they have access to etc. Basically if we were to send them to this school, we would have to rely solely on the way the school handled their special needs children, rather than have the additional outside help too.

Writing this down now I can see the merit in doing this, but I think I should point out that the Bridging program we're looking at doing is with the service that my son has been undertaking since he was two and a half. So there's a lot of trust built there, and reliance. However, as these services are early intervention, this will all end when my son turns seven and that means that all his special needs are then seen to by his school. At least that's how the government organises the funding. Overall I would describe the welcoming vibe in the Principal's office as moderate. It was also only after discussing all of the above that I said that we were just outside the zoning for the school, and it could be my imagination, but I think he was a little relieved that he's not obligated to take my son.

The final school that I saw that week was the other government primary school on Wednesday morning. I should say from the outset that at present this school is the current contender. When I arrived, there were parents everywhere! It was chaotic, it was noisy, it was disorganised. I was put into what I think was a group, but even now I'm unsure how that happened. I ended up just traipsing along behind some parents and found myself in a tour. The next thing I want to say, that although it was so crowded, and chaotic, I probably knew every third person that was there! This was parents from playgroup, parents from daycare and parents from kinder. It was such a warm, community feeling to have quick chats, smiles, knowing nods, as I was led through the school. We often bring our children to the school playground for a play on the equipment on the weekend, and the school abuts onto one of the local community centers. There is a Stephanie Alexander cooking and garden program. The size of the classrooms were massive, and I got to watch an impressive grade four maths class in action. I hated maths in school, but to me, even that looked fun! The noise level in the classrooms were extremely high, but looking around I could see that the children were 'on task' doing their work. Just like yesterday's government primary school, this one had a multi-age approach to teaching that I think will work well with my son. There were fantastic extra-curricular programs. It has a very small number of students, hence small class sizes. And lastly......As I was on my tour, I noticed another, led by a bright grade sixer - who had autism. I could tell. This boy could easily have been my son several years on. He would pause as he thought of what to say next, finger posturing as he did so, and then lead his tour group. I saw before me an articulate and confident young man. This was striking and heartening, what more could a mother with a special needs child ask for?

Anyway, after an extremely long post, I still have to tour the Catholic primary school and make an appointment to talk about my son's needs with the winning contender. I'm just hoping that conversation won't change things around. Choosing a school for any parent of any child is daunting, yet alone parents of a special needs child. Really I'd be happy for my children to go to any of these schools, but I'm so uplifted at the moment, that the school that I've found the most impressive, is my local government primary school, that we're zoned for. Oh, but the only thing, the school's uniform is just atrocious!!

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