Graduating high school was not one of the goals I had for Jeremy. Now he’s college bound.
In 2007, my son Jeremy walked the graduation ceremony at the local high school along with the other seniors from his severely handicapped class. On June 18, he will be walking the graduation ceremony again, in the same gold and scarlet robe he wore three years ago. This time however, he will have earned and will receive a full academic diploma. He has a GPA of 3.5. For me, this is unbelievable. Graduating high school was not one of the goals I had for Jeremy. The goals I had were mostly those based on functional living skills.
When Jeremy was diagnosed, I was told to find a good institution for him. I don’t think the medical professional who diagnosed him meant “college,” but that is where he is headed. People ask me how Jeremy made it to this point, and the truth is, there is no short answer. Like most parents, I started out hoping to find that “one thing” that was going to make a huge difference in Jeremy’s life, that would improve his chances of overcoming the challenges he faced. But I soon realized that there is no magic bullet.
Jeremy, now 21, has received numerous treatments, therapies, and educational strategies (some of which he still continues) with acronyms such as ABA, TEACCH, OT, SI, AIT, VT, RPM, and some biomedical interventions including methyl B12, HBOT and more. All of them have helped somewhat, some more than others. But the most important ingredient to Jeremy’s success has been the same that it is for all of us: having the right people as teachers and mentors – people who believe in you, who motivate you to do your best. People who see beyond the label and who are willing to see the person. People who are willing to try different ways of reaching and connecting with the student, when the traditional ones do not appear to be working.
Any tasks requiring motor planning and sensory processing have always been extremely difficult for Jeremy. My office is full of binders that include Jeremy’s task analysis and data sheets for all kinds of skill acquisition such as fastening pants and brushing teeth. When he was younger, many educators and other professionals took Jeremy’s inability to respond as a lack of intelligence, rather than as challenges due to visual processing issues and difficulties in initiating and controlling his motor planning. Teaching methods based on visual strategies did not work with Jeremy. He is not a visual learner, and his visual processing was not working correctly, but no one recognized that at the time.
When he started high school, Jeremy attended a class for the severely handicapped at the local school. When Jeremy’s teacher, Rachel Page, came to our house for a home visit and saw how I was teaching Jeremy to point to letters to spell words. Jeremy had been taught by Soma Mukhopadhyay twice a month, over a period of 14 months, using the Rapid Prompting Method she had developed, and I continued to work with Jeremy using this method of teaching. Rachel tried what she had observed at school and was successful. By then, I had had enough battles with the powers that be to even consider asking them to use an unknown method to try and teach Jeremy. (The year before, Jeremy had come home from the middle school with rug burns on his chest and back inflicted unknowingly by an inexperienced occupational therapist, and had ended up filing for due process when the school district refused to provide training. At the IEP meeting I had requested, the OT said she didn’t need anymore training. No comment.) I had decided to do what I did at home and to just focus on Jeremy having a safe environment at school and coming home unmarked.
Rachel then invited me to the classroom to show her and Jeremy’s paraprofessionals how I was teaching Jeremy at home. At an IEP meeting, it was decided by the IEP team to allow Jeremy to attend one general education class on a trial basis. This was a major victory for Jeremy at this school district at that time.
Jeremy’s most important growth period came over the next three years, thanks to Allan Gustafson. Allan was Jeremy’s second teacher in the SH classroom and is the best teacher that Jeremy has ever had. He helped Jeremy—and all his students—grow not only intellectually, but emotionally as well. To give you an idea of the type of teacher Allan is, read Allan’s assessment of Jeremy for an Individualized Transition Plan (ITP) meeting in 2006. It says it all about the type of person he is:
“Jeremy is a complicated young man who people cannot judge on appearance. A good metaphor would be to describe Jeremy like as an artichoke. Each leaf on the artichoke has to be taken separately, each having its own characteristics. As you go through each layer of the leaves, it becomes more apparent that there might be something inside, something worth getting to. It takes time to get there, but there is a heart inside, worth the time and effort to expose, as some people say is the prize for the patience of delving through the layers of leaves. Jeremy is this man.”
In June 2007, Jeremy was technically a senior and it was time for him to attend the off-site transition program, thus his participation in the high school graduation ceremony. By that time, Jeremy had made it clear that he enjoyed learning, and wanted to continue learning even if he was no longer on a high school campus. Some of his IEP goals by then included preparing him for taking the GED sometime down the line while attending community college. It was clear that he was capable of doing that, although I would never have though that possible a few years earlier.
However, Jeremy did not handle the transfer out of high school into the transition program well at all. Meanwhile, my father was dying from lung cancer and I was traveling a lot to helping him and my mom, who lived two hours away. I wasn’t able to work towards changing the situation. Bruce Cochrane, an administrator new to the school district (now head of Pupil Services), became concerned about the complete change in Jeremy, from a model special education student to a non-compliant, unhappy and disruptive person. Bruce started asking questions, studying Jeremy’s school records, interviewing teachers, observing Jeremy. Jeremy, still considered a transition student, was moved back to the high school where his behavior improved. He continued on a couple of workability projects, but started taking general education classes again.
Then, at an IEP meeting, Bruce brought up the question – was Jeremy interested in working towards obtaining his diploma? According to Jeremy’s official transcripts, Jeremy needed more credits in certain subject areas, and he needed to pass the California High School Exit Exam, which is routinely given to tenth grade students. Students are allowed six chances to pass this test. The IEP team recommended that the test be given to Jeremy the first time as a baseline, if he was interested in trying to get his diploma. Jeremy surprised us all by passing on his first attempt all the parts of the test he was given. However, for some reason, the school did not administer the essay part of the test, and Jeremy had to retake the complete English section of the test a few months later. Again he passed. Since then, he has steadily been taking two classes a semester towards his diploma.
This June, I am doubly blessed. Not only is Jeremy graduating from Torrey Pines High School, his sister, Rebecca, is graduating from the other high school in our area, Canyon Crest Academy. I am proud of both of them, and thankful for the educators that have crossed their paths, not to mention the army of paraprofessionals, therapists, support staff and other professionals who have joined us on our journey. Clearly, there is not one magic bullet. Rather, it takes an army, and we will never forget them.
This article was first published in Spectrum Magazine, June/July 2010 issue.