Our school journey with our oldest son, and what brought us to his current school, is a long story. But it’s a good one.
When Eli was a toddler and we were in a large crowd of people, we used to tease that he would easily go home with a complete stranger and never think anything of it.
He has always been one of the strongest extroverts I’ve ever known. But that’s not always worked out for him.
In kindergarten he was in a class of 32 students in a Title 1 school. At the young age of 5 and 6, he struggled with friendships, unable to grasp how someone could be his friends one day and then not the next. He understood friendship at a deeper level than many adults I knew, let alone kindergarteners.
At the end of the year, his teacher expressed concern that the school might not be a good fit for him — that he would be overlooked and wouldn’t be challenged because so many other students would need the teacher’s attention. Just one example was the fact that he was the most avid reader in her class, but there was also a child who had been to three different schools that year and didn’t know his letters. Her attention, therefore, was always directed toward the child that needed more, and Eli, she was afraid, would get overlooked in that environment.
So we transferred him to what was made out to be one of the better elementary schools in the district. But kids that didn’t fit into the mold there…. into the box of bright and athletic… were overlooked. His teacher had the only two gifted students (at least that were part of the district pull-out program) in the first grade class, and both myself and the other student’s mom struggled with the insensitivity to their needs.
An example: around Halloween time, the kids were working in stations and told not to interrupt the teacher while she worked with reading groups. Eli was working at a table where he had to build a spider by placing paper legs on a paper body. By the time he got to the table, there were only six legs remaining. He hit a mental block because spiders have eight legs. He was stuck. He couldn’t do it wrong and began to panic, trying to get the teacher’s attention.
She became increasingly frustrated with his attempts to interrupt her. So much so that she eventually told everyone to clean up their stations and head to the carpet so she could explain to them what Eli did wrong and how not to do like he did. I got an email from her before he even got home that day, because he was distraught and she needed to defend why. I was livid.
As he’s gotten older, that desire to speak with everyone… and I do mean everyone… has turned to social awkwardness in the eyes of his peers.
That summer we were supposed to move into another district, so we started him at yet another school — one that was just opening with a brand new shared classroom learning approach. The sale of our house fell through, but we remained at this school as a transfer. It was here that he began really struggling to make friends. Kids threw things at him when the teacher’s back was turned. He was being verbally bullied, coming home crying everyday as a group of boys were telling other kids not to be his friend because he was a weirdo and nerd.
He would come home devastated because his playground buddy no longer wanted to play with him. That kids were tired of him. He once said to us “Friendship means you spend time together. If you can’t agree on a game, you spend the whole recess finding something you both want to play. You work together. But no one will with me.” He’s understood unconditional love for years… long before his peers.
That’s the year his anxiety became so severe that we were both crying everyday. Him because he was miserable and me because I no longer knew how to help him. He started counselling that fall.
When I informed his teacher of his struggles and the bullying, she brushed it off, saying he talked to other kids all the time and appeared to have many friends (well yes, because he’s an extrovert, he tries with everyone). Telling me she’d take care of difficult situations, only to tell the other moms that nothing was going on (a fact I learned directly from one of those other moms, who followed with “I don’t know what’s going on with your son, but mine has nothing to do with it.”).
It persisted. My husband and I met with the teacher, principal and counselor and developed a plan for the teacher to check in with Eli each day. Within a week, she informed me she suddenly observed him having difficulty getting along with the other kids. That he was attempted to interact with them, but few kids wanted to. That is, she noticed two months before the end of the school year. The damage had already been done.
By third grade, our house finally sold and we moved into a different school district so, again, he switched schools. Fourth school in four years. And the guilt struck — desperate to help him find a place he fit, I may have failed him in other ways, namely in providing dependency and stability in his education.
But God was there all along and third grade was an incredible turning point for him. His teacher was one of those that totally changes the trajectory of one’s life. Friendships were no longer as big of a struggle as academics suddenly were. Third is when letter grades started, and Eli’s debilitating perfectionism caused major anxiety for him. But his teacher started implementing strategies to help him that were so successful, we put them in a 504 Plan.
Fast forward to the end of 4th grade and middle school looming around the corner. My husband and I dreaded that for him and decided that we need to start preparing for the possibility of homeschooling. During this time, our youngest was diagnosed with sensory processing disorder and a whole host of other educational environment difficulties headed our way, but he was thriving in comparison while at school, so our attention focused on Eli.
In a fluke conversation with Eli’s counselor in the fall of 2017, she mentioned a brand new private school. While she met with him, I looked it up online and noticed that very night they were hosting a social hour to meet the teachers and hear more about the school. I immediately arranged for childcare and drug my husband to this event — blindsiding him with the whole idea of it. But we left there floored at all this school had to offer that was so well fitted to our son’s needs — and the overwhelmingly shocking fact that it was and would forever be tuition free.
I put both of our boys on the Perspectives Preparatory Academy waiting list that night. There were 150+ students ahead of them. Our goal — our hope — was that Eli would get in by 6th grade, and Lincoln soon to follow.
The remainder of 4th grade went by with few concerns. In fact, by the end of the school year, Eli had gone from Bs and Cs to mostly As on his grade card — a huge testament to how he had overcome some of his anxieties about school work. But 5th grade was around the corner and it was going to be a huge dynamic shift. A fellow mom who knew Eli very well and whose son just completed 5th grade expressed concern. And it wasn’t unfounded. At that point, Perspectives seemed so far away from possible — and paying for private school wasn’t even financially an option — that I started preparing my heart for the idea of homeschool happening sooner than expected if 5th grade didn’t go well.
And our concern for Lincoln’s educational environment increased by the end of the school year. We were about to put a 504 Plan in place for his sensory needs, but the district occupational therapist was putting up a fight by providing additional accommodations in the classroom for him (an evaluation of Lincoln in the classroom environment the day before the last day of school — on Field Day, no less — led him to believe Lincoln didn’t need anything OT wise during school time, despite the fact that he had OT outside of school on a weekly basis). I knew we would have to get Lincoln into Perspectives eventually too.
Then in June, we received a call. The school had expanded, with just a few openings. They had done one round of interviews for those openings with spots still remaining and Eli was one of the next on the list. So my husband and I interviewed with the Dean (I came to her so overly prepared with three reference letters from former teachers and his counselor, and a whole host of other records and paperwork). The interview went well, my heart pounding out of my chest with hope the entire time. We were told we’d know in a week.
She called the next day to congratulate us. Eli was in.
I steadied myself as the tears of joy flowed. Could it be? Could it really be that we had finally found a place that Eli fit in? Where his differences would be celebrated and his struggles embraced with love and patience. Where he would learn in his best way, at his own pace. Where he would be with children just like him (and I mean that wholly — now that we are here, it’s a certainty).
Over the next few weeks I would learn that we had most certainly found his place. But it didn’t stop there.
We were told that siblings get priority on the waitlist (which now numbered past 250), but it would be at least another year because all spots were filled. We prepared Lincoln for waiting and he was okay with that. My heart hurt at them attending different schools, but it was bound to be that way eventually regardless.
Two days before school started for the year, we took Eli to meet his teacher and the Dean asked if she could speak with my husband and I privately for a moment. The boys were left in the capable care of a staff member and we stepped into a private room where she dropped a bombshell on us. Just 45 minutes before we walked in the door that night, she received an email from a parent saying her child would not, in fact, be attending this fall.
And Lincoln’s name was next on the list for that age group.
We were floored. How could it even possible that this school who had a million wonderful things for Eli’s needs had space for Lincoln too? Part of me over the past few months wanted him there because of all the sensory-focused aspects, but I wouldn’t let myself hope for it. And yet, here we were, two days before the start of school, and a place for him was dropped into our lap.
We showed Lincoln all of the things he would experience there without telling him the news — giving him the chance to see it with unencumbered clarity. Then we told him that a spot was there for him this year if he wanted it and left the decision to him. He was hesitant and asked to think, but within 10 minutes, enthusiastically jumped for joy at the idea, literally. He had so much excitement about the sensory gym they provide saying “This is something I need.” Such self-advocacy at 7 years old is rare.
So, on August 15, 2018, we sent both of our boys off on a new journey. And I whimpered as if it was their very first day of school all over again. Because, for so long, through a million missteps, we wanted a place where Eli belonged. And by the grace of God, we found the perfect place for both of our boys to thrive and reach for the stars.
I tell this story not to garner sympathy, but to breath excitement into you, that parent whose child is struggling with a “normal” education and maintaining “normal” friendships. There are going to be missteps and you’re going to be the one to take the wrong path sometimes; it’s natural as we search for the best solution for our child(ren). But don’t lose hope — there is a solution out there for your family, as long as you continue advocating for your children with all that you are through the entirety of your journey. Listen and thoroughly observe your kids — really paying attention to them — and you’ll see what they need. And then be sure to fight for it with all your might. Because it’s worth it — giving them the chance to find who they really are and pursue that is most definitely worth it.
If you’d like to help support the boys’ free private school so they can provide services to more awesome kids like them, please visit our Sky’s NOT the Limit! campaign page and donate!