It's started: the middle school Open House season. Tomorrow we're headed to two of them, and there are two more in December. We also have to schedule a visit to another middle school, our base school.
I'm nervous about it all, of course--nervous because of all the what-ifs out there: what if I don't feel right about any of them? Or, what if I feel right about more than one? Or just what-if a million different things. I've already written about how we came to the decision to send L. to his current elementary school. Hindsight, of course, is 20/20 and, if we'd known then what we know now about how L. learns, and how much anxiety and pain school would cause, and what types of needs he would come to have, and just how painful and dark at times this whole journey would come to be, then I have no doubt we would have approached the school choice with less "gut" and more reasoning. Or packed it all in then and there and run screaming for some other option. Maybe. Maybe we would have made the same decision, maybe not.
The maybes and the what-ifs, they still haunt me.
Middle school includes only three grades here, 6th-8th, so there's not a lot of time, when you think about it, to turn around a bad or less-than-ideal situation. We've spent a great deal of time already in thinking about the middle school decision but now, with the application deadlines looming in the not-too-distant future, it's time to get more serious.
Scott and I will be attending both Open Houses tomorrow, but at different times, since our schedules are too incompatible to allow for us to go together. But I think it's better anyway for us to go separately; this way we can each make our own impressions, and compare notes later. To help me get the most out of the visits tomorrow, I've put together a list of what we'll be looking for during middle school Open Houses.
Here's what I have on my list so far:
Scope out the general layout of the classrooms and building. Are the classrooms large? Well-lit? Organized? I'll never forget how my heart fell when we first visited the kindergarten classrooms at L.'s current school. Although we were thrilled he had gotten into the school, the classroom layout made my heart sink. The shelves were overflowing with books and art supplies, the classrooms were all connected, so they were nosy and claustrophobic. We knew L. had extreme sensory issues at that point, and I already felt uneasy about how he'd deal with the messy rooms and the small size of the classrooms. Maybe the physical environment of the classroom might not affect other kids as much, but since L. is unable to filter out noises and smells his environment greatly impacts his anxiety levels and his ability to learn.
I plan to ask for a sample schedule for the school day and run through it on my own. How many times will
L. change classes? How far will he have to walk between classes? How many times will he need to go to his locker? How long do students have to transition between classes? Like many kids with AS, L. doesn't handle transitions well, and even a few small transitions during the school day can push his anxiety to difficult levels.
What supports are in place to help with the transition to middle school in general? This fall was particularly challenging for L., and he spent more time running to the resource teachers for help with his anxiety than he did in the actual classroom. But access to this help was critical for him, and the emotional support he received helped him get through some of the more painful patches. Will he have access to this type of support? How will teachers respond to this type of situation?
How receptive do teachers and staff seem in general? How knowledgeable are teachers and staff about autism spectrum disorders, and how adaptable are they to a child's individual leraning needs? L.is a connections kid, in that he really needs to feel connected with his teachers; he needs to feel they value his intelligence, and that they are relating to him on an "adult" level, rather than in a power dynamic over him. I'll be listening and looking for indications that this could be difficult for L. to find at that school. And we've learned the hard way that some of the challenges presented by AS in the school setting are subtle and difficult to understand and address, unless the teacher has a good sense of what these are or is willing to learn.
What is the lunchroom like? I know there probably isn't a lot of variation between school cafeterias in general, but I'll be looking for some specifics: how are kids seated in the cafeteria? By choice? By class? Is the room large and spacious enough that the impact of the noise and smells might be diminished? Is there a degree of understanding and flexibility when it comes to how/where a child eats lunch?
How do teachers and staff communicate with parents? From what I've heard already, communication between teachers and parents drops dramatically once your child enters middle school. This can be a frightening prospect for any parent, but especially for us because we seldom get any information from L. We've come to rely on getting almost 90% of our information about school, classes, homework, events, etc. from teachers, staff and other parents. We're looking for a school that will value and respect the need for ready communication between teachers, staff, and parents, whether it be by notebook, e-mail, or phone call.
Is the school open to drop-in, regular visits by parents? One thing we've always aprpeciated about L.'s school is how open and welcoming it is to parent visits--no need to call ahead, make an appointment, etc. Parents are always welcome in the classrooms and lunchroom and playground at any time. While I'm sure this might be a little different in middle school, we need a school that will have an open attitude about parent visits. If we get the vibe that these are in any way unwelcome, then that isn't going to be the school for L.
Will the school allow visitors to view a class-in-progress? What is the classroom environment like? Do the kids seem engaged? Respectful? How are they seated in the classroom? Are classroom expectations clear?
Are there any signs indicating how much or how little the students respect/value their environment? Are the bathrooms clean, are the walls written on? Do the kids seem to take pride in their school grounds and building? Does there seem to be a real sense of community among students, or does that school seem a breeding ground for teasing or bullying? Finding a school that will be a SAFE place for L. is number one our list. I'd rather forego the bells and whistles if I can be assured that my child will be safe, accepted, and respected.
I think my list could go on and on, but these are some of the critical basics I'll be looking for when I visit the Open Houses tomorrow, and again next month. Let me know if you have other ideas/suggestions, and wish us luck!