It's one of those feelings you can't quite describe. The support of a community of loving parents, all working towards one, seemingly simple goal of keeping their kids right where they are, and not changing a thing. Seems pretty easy - a non-issue, right? So many old adages can be applied here, like, "why fix what isn't broken."
I attended a board meeting two nights ago to appeal a decision made by the Special Education portion of the Boulder Valley School District, to advocate just this: Nothing. Change nothing.
So what's the problem?
Legally protected special needs children, which can mean anything from social and emotional challenges, to unique learning differences, are HAPPY WHERE THEY ARE, at Mesa Elementary in Boulder, Colorado. In most cases, Mesa was not the first stop on the bus-route of their elementary schooling. The majority of the children in the "ICAN" program at Mesa, have already been to one or two UN-supportive schools prior to landing in this current safe-spot. In addition to attending more than one school prior to where they are happily situated now, they've often had to leave halfway through school years, being abruptly uprooted from schools who just couldn't get their act together and support these amazing children.
This opaque plan is to bus these kids starting in the Fall of 2017, to a school 30 minutes away (each way) to start a new ICAN program, where even the ICAN support staff, doesn't necessarily want to go. Ironically, the 60 minute commute is one of the smallest factors.
Moving these kids will throw off the schedules of the children, educators, and parents who are relegated to make this move. Transition/change to these kids, is like being pushed off a cliff with no guarantee that someone will be there to catch them. This new school obviously has no history of being able to support and comfort these kids. It is a huge school, with no track record, and no familiar faces.
For the families of these ICAN kids, their journey hasn't been easy. For any of them. At any time. Until they got to Mesa.
Common stories include these and other parents alike, needing to secure legal counsel, spend months, if not years of fighting for their children to simply be supported in a safe environment whilst bravely going up against a barrage of resistance and bureaucratic red tape just to get them to a school that works.
*If you are reading this, and have a child in elementary school who happily goes each morning, or at least doesn't have panic attacks, tantrums or physical outbursts on a daily basis - be thankful. Be very thankful.*
The Boulder Valley Mesa Elementary School ICAN program, WORKS. Under the guidance of unrivaled Principal Josh Baldner, these ICAN kids have friends, they laugh and joke in the hallways, are seamlessly integrated with other students who recognize the pure privilege of being among them.
Unfortunately, just before the holidays this year, the parents of these children received an impersonal email - their decision was made. Without imput from anyone. Clearly not taking into account what these parents went through to get their children where they ARE in the first place (a thriving and happy environment for an entire community). Never mind any empathy for the daily challenges these families already face outside of school. It is clear the Superintendent and District members have never spent a day in the life of one of our families. And where is the promised transparency in all of this?
It is common for families of special needs children to be utterly torn apart, some literally, by the difficulties of raising children who are square pegs in a system designed with round holes. My children are not ICAN-identified, but they too had to be taken away from their old neighborhood school because of their differences- halfway through the 2014 school year.
Like several ICAN families, we moved our family from one expensive area to an even more expensive one, so we could be closer to the school we now call home, Mesa Elementary. Our 18-month long struggle at our previous school almost seems "easy" in retrospect, compared to what some ICAN parents are about to go through, yet again. Ours was a VERY rough road; one that included an attorney, meetings with many school board members, support groups, not to mention the headache of moving houses, uprooting our kids, and getting out of the last school.
How can a school in the number ONE district in the entire state of Colorado so mindlessly fail our children? How can one of the wealthiest zip codes in the state and country, not be able to support what these kids needed?
ICAN parents have already fought a good fight to get their kids where they are now. Each child has a story at their core which has molded their personality, their behavior, their confidence, and most importantly, their spirit. Their parents found Mesa Elementary and have since been smiling; able to get back to their day jobs knowing their kids are being supported, loved, and properly taken care of during the day. But now the District wants to move them to a place far away without taking into account the personal demons that will reemerge in the process.
Even the recent Daylight Saving Time change of one hour, threw off Lochlan, one of the kids featured here. When he was adjusting to the time change, he spilled some things at school - but instead of people laughing or mocking him, his friends at school all helped him clean up, get himself together, and worked as a young micro-community that morning to lift his spirits and make it a great day.
Seven-year-old Kai, also pictured here, has learning differences and social/emotional needs. His previous school could not "handle" him, so they would lock him in a conference room which became a "holding cell" of sorts when they didn't know what else to do. "I walked in one afternoon (one of his last days there) and there were 3 adults standing outside the door to the conference room, all chairs had been pulled out, and Kai was in there pacing and growling like a caged animal," remembers his mom, Alison. He was treated like a dejected inconvenience.
His single mom was left to pick up the pieces before and after school every day, that is, if she could even get him to school. He would wear layers and layers of clothes to school, two hats, two pairs of gloves, multiple shirts and other attire, almost in an attempt to shield himself from the world who had punished him for being him.
Now at Mesa, Kai gets excited to go to school and wears a t-shirt and shorts most of the time. No need for extra protection for Kai. He's "got this," now. He has come leaps and bounds with the support of the Pera Educators there who work with him daily, integrating him into the classroom. Oftentimes his friends don't even know why the ICAN kids are called ICAN, because they're just like anyone else there. A child at school. Learning. Happy. Has friends.
Our final appeal to the board was last night. A huge turnout of parents came, and it was standing room only. The support and love felt from the community, many of whom don't even have kids at Mesa or in the ICAN program, showed up to support this cause, because we ALL love having the program at the school. After all, our school was the first in the entire Rocky Mountain Region to receive the "Welcoming School" Award from the National Human Rights Campaign. Doesn't it seem counter-intuitive to take part of what makes us so wonderful, AWAY?!
Needless to say there wasn't a dry eye in the room when these parents bravely stood up to speak to the poker-faced board.
Why fix what isn't broken?
Boulder Valley Superintendent of the Year, Bruce Messinger, has a heart. I just know he has to. It's in there somewhere. Dr. Messinger, please do the right thing and keep things the way they are. As said in the meeting last night, your new school in Erie, 30 minutes away from Mesa, can learn from our ICAN program, and in time, make it a great one. But not at the expense of these vulnerable children, parents, and their community.
It has been said that when a flower isn't blooming, you change it's environment, not the flower. These parents already changed their environment for the better. Their environment is working! Please leave these beautiful flowers to bloom where they have already grown sturdy and healthy roots.