Educating a Child w/ Severe Special Needs: Abi’s Experience in the Public School System So Far

Abi’s experience in the public school system so far has been amazing. I know every system is different and I truly believe it’s the individual people in that system that build the journey. For that reason, everything I’m about to say is specific to OUR experience. I know it may differ greatly from someone else’s.

Abi aged out of the free Tennessee Early Intervention Services (TEIS) when she was three. At that point, they said she was eligible for free early childhood program in the district. I was thrilled this opportunity existed, but I was hesitant. If we accepted the offer, she would be attending preschool in a BIG elementary school. With BIG kids. And a YEARBOOK. And a CAFETERIA. AND ALL OF THAT.

Luckily, I had talked to other moms who had done this who were thrilled with their experience. I’m so thankful they shared their stories with me as I’m not sure we would have tried it at all. Everyone reiterated that if we didn’t like it we could take her out and pursue private preschool or no preschool at all.

So we tried it.

globe and classroomWe went in for the evaluation and I nearly lost it when I saw 5th grade boys pass us in the hallways. Compared to my darling toddler in her wheelchair/stroller, these were grown men. We were immediately swept into an empty classroom where a physical therapist, occupational therapist, speech therapist, and guidance counselor began doing simultaneous evaluations. It was a hectic hour and Abi fell asleep within 30 minutes. Everyone was happy and optimistic and LOVED Abi. The air was bright and we were feeling awesome. Her future teacher came in to meet her and after the evaluations we got to see her future classroom.

Before long, we were contacted for our first IEP meeting. Abi would be starting as soon as Christmas break was over and they were eager to have a plan in place. I walked into that meeting very aware of the fact that this was my first IEP meeting where I wasn’t the teacher. I was the parent. I was eager to hear what they had to say and they quite honestly blew my mind. That meeting was the beginning of a relationship I have valued beyond my wildest dreams. They offered good, attainable goals. They expressed enthusiasm to have her in the class. They were PREPARED. They were knowledgeable. And NOBODY, NOBODY seemed intimidated. The nurse even sat in the meeting and said, “Would you like me to feed her through the g-tube while she’s here? I’d be happy to have a daily snack for her.” I left the meeting and cried happy tears in my car. It was an incredible feeling.

That was two and a half years ago. We’ve had 2 more IEP meetings since then. This program is inclusive. Half of the kids in Abi’s class do not have special needs. And yes, she is still in the same classroom with the same team and the same teacher. (Unbelievable…) I am super aware of how blessed we are. In our last IEP meeting (this past December) we discussed her transition to a new school next year. Preschool will be coming to a close after her final week of summer school, and kindergarten will be right around the corner. The elementary school she is zoned for is being built right now and Abi loves talking about her “brand new school building”.

Kids, Crafts, Arts And Crafts, Creativity, Colorful

This last IEP meeting was amazing. I could go on and on about it, but that’s a post for another time.

To sum up our three years in the public school system so far, here are some highlights:

  • They ordered Abi her very own Rifton Activity Chair when they realized her wheelchair couldn’t access all the activities in the classroom. This chair allows her to go down to the floor during circle time and up to the very low table when the students are working at a group table. When it arrived they realized they needed a few more pieces like an additional head rest. They ordered all of that as well.
  • They provided her with a head switch made from AT buttons.
  • Using equipment donated by previous parents of the program, Abi has a stander, a crawler, a kidwalk at school and because they are owned by the district (not necessarily the school) these pieces will follow her to her new school for kindergarten.
  • Abi has tons of friends.
  • Abi has access to the playground with an accessible swing set.
  • Abi’s therapies happen in an inclusive classroom.
  • The ratio of adults to students per class is roughly 5:12.
  • This program is inclusive. Half of the kids in Abi’s class have special needs, the other half do not. These kids are called “peer mentors” and must apply to be a part of the program.
  • The AT team has done an evaluation on Abi and will come back out to do another soon. Anything they suggest, the district provides.
  • We can check out any of Abi’s equipment to use at home during breaks. Her school-PT even lives a mile down the street from us and has offered to come over and help me use it if need be.

In addition- Abi is able to attend summer school each year with the county at the same location. This program includes fun summer activities with peers, along with additional OT, speech, and PT. (Praise hands.)

So all in all, our experience thus far has been heavenly. Truly. Here is a picture of Abi in her  classroom enjoying some music and working hard on standing straight and tall.

Abi in school

So good and so grateful.

PS: I mentioned to a teacher that she is highly motivated by the music of Ms. T-Swift. The very next day they had programmed her buttons to all Taylor Swift songs! Heavenly team I tell ya.

PPS: A school bus for ONLY preschoolers in this program has been available to us this entire time. We have never needed to use it, but I love knowing it’s there if we chose to go that route.