Advocating for your child when the school district won’t

“There is no school equal to a decent home and no teacher equal to a virtuous parent.”
-Ghandi

We recently learned that sometimes the very entity you hope is looking out for your child’s academic success can fail you in a big way. Last May, we received a letter in the mail telling us that our youngest daughter, L, was placed in the Common Core Math Pathway. These pathways, which are designated at the end of fifth grade, have been very controversial in our school district because they determine children’s math classes throughout high school.

The Common Core Pathway, or slowest path as it happens to be, does not give the students Pre-Calculus early enough to adequately prepare them for the SAT. We had heard of parents appealing their children’s placement, but my husband and I didn’t give it much thought because we assumed our daughter would place in the Accelerated or Exceptional Pathways. After all, she was just as good at math as her older brother, who placed in the Accelerated Pathway just one year prior, and she had a natural proclivity for STEM—math in particular. As such, you can imagine how shocked we were when we learned that she didn’t.

When we looked closely at her scores, we saw she had an above average score for the ITBS, but she received a zero for the CogAT. We learned that if a student did not score above a certain score on the CogAT, the student was given zero “domain points.” We assumed this must have been the case. Upon further inspection, we learned that L didn’t have a CogAT score at all! You see, she moved in with us from her bio-mom’s house in a different school district in January, and for whatever reason, her old school did not give her the CogAT.

As a result, we appealed the decision, noting it was not a proper placement for her because she did not have an opportunity to take the CogAT to prove her abilities. We told them that as her parents, we strongly believed the next pathway up, the Accelerated Pathway, would be more appropriate for her. A month later, we received a letter in the mail that our request was denied. L would remain in the Common Core Pathway.

That’s when I kicked it into high gear. I contacted the name and number at the bottom of the letter, who I learned was an analyst who served as a “gatekeeper” for the administration on this topic. She was armed with a calm voice and lots of pre-packaged compelling data points—she was the perfect person to walk overzealous parents insisting their child was gifted, off the ledge.

I explained L’s situation and how she didn’t belong in Common Core. Her father and I simply wanted to set her up for academic success, and we didn’t feel she would be appropriately challenged in the slowest pathway, I told her. I asked if L could have an opportunity to take the CogAT and prove she deserved to be in the Accelerated Pathway.

That’s when I was told that the CogAT was not a math test. The district simply used it for that purpose since it was already a State-required test, and they didn’t want to require the students to take another, more appropriate, one. 

It was a “test to identify students who were truly gifted.”

When I asked that L have an opportunity to take the CogAT, she told me only 50 out of 700 students in the entire district scored as high as she would need to score to be put in the Accelerated Pathway, and it was unlikely our daughter would score that high. She recommended L continue in Common Core, and if we still felt it wasn’t a good fit for her, we could appeal again in the spring of L’s sixth grade year. Our chances of approval were much higher then, she told me. If I wasn’t satisfied with this explanation and approach, I was welcome to take my concerns up the chain to district administrators.

That’s exactly what I did.

It took three emails, a phone call, and an escalation email to the Assistant Superintendent before I received a response from the administrator in charge of the Math Pathway Program. I then waited weeks for an in-person meeting, only to be called by her assistant the day before the scheduled meeting to tell me she needed to reschedule for the following month. I told her that was unacceptable. I planned childcare for my baby, and I had already waited weeks for this. She said she had time on her calendar that afternoon, if I could make it work, almost certainly a throw away offer because she knew I likely didn’t have childcare. I said I’d be there. I texted a friend who lived down the street to watch our baby, and I gathered my data and armed myself to fight for our daughter.

The administrator also came armed to the teeth with data. I learned before the meeting that she had a reputation for being stubborn and not changing her mind even in the face of surmounting evidence. As someone who used to brief U.S. policymakers in Washington D.C., some of whom were very difficult customers, I wasn’t intimidated. I diplomatically went back and forth with her for an hour, and I think she found I was a formidable opponent. It was clear she wasn’t expecting a well-educated, polished speaker who wasn’t going to back down when it came to her child’s education.

The administrator repeatedly told me that L “needed the gift of time.” She told me she didn’t come to my work and presume to be an expert, and similarly, I shouldn’t tell the experts who made L’s pathway decision how to do their job. I told her the “experts” who sat around the table did not know our daughter like we do. L had only been in the district for two months when this decision was made, and she was missing a test score that was instrumental in the placement decision. Why didn’t one of those experts speak up and say that L needed to be tested in order to make a proper decision? Why was she not given the same opportunity that every other student was given? There was no data that indicated L would struggle in a higher placement, so why not give her a chance?

After my insistence, the administrator agreed to let L take the CogAT. I worked through the analyst with whom I spoke initially to schedule a time for L to take the test. My husband and I crossed our fingers that L would do well enough on the test to be placed where we knew she deserved to be, but we were anxious knowing that the test wasn’t meant to measure math abilities at all.

L came home from taking the test feeling nervous, and we all anxiously awaited her test results. We received a call the following day, telling us L scored a 125, well above a 116, the score necessary to place her in the Accelerated Pathway.

She blew it out of the water!

Not only were we ecstatic, we were vindicated.

We know that if it weren’t for our advocacy and intervention, L would not have had the opportunity to prove her abilities and thus be put in the best pathway for her. It begs the question, how many other children are placed in an inappropriate pathway yet their parents have trusted that the district knows best? Or simply aren’t a stay at home parent like myself who has the time to ride the district until their child gets what he or she deserves?

The school district’s website says that they are “committed to preparing all students to meet their highest potential.” This, unfortunately, wasn’t our experience.

Telling us that the test was for children who were “truly gifted” and that L likely would not score as high as she needed to score was unacceptable. Do not tell me my child is not gifted. Do not tell me my child can’t do something. Give her a chance. She will show you what she can do.

We strongly believe we should never count a child out without giving her a chance to prove her abilities.

I sent this feedback to the Superintendent and Assistant Superintendent. If they don’t know when and how they’ve failed, they can’t improve.

I also sent this feedback to the administrator who sat across the table from me earlier this summer and insisted my daughter was not ready. That she couldn’t do it. I thanked her for helping us drive home an important life lesson to our daughter—do not let anyone ever tell you that you can’t do something.

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To the stepmom bringing home her first baby…

I see you holed up in the dark nursery with your tiny newborn and sore nipples, learning how to breastfeed. You don’t have the option to sit and let it all hang out on your comfy couch in front of the TV like other new moms because you have a teenage stepson and that’s just weird.

I see you biting your tongue and clenching your fists every time your step kids want to hold your tiny, fragile bundle of joy. Did they wash their hands? Why do they need to hold him at all? Don’t breathe in his face! Don’t touch his face! Only touch his feet!

I see you guzzling down the diet soda as you figure out dinner not just for you and your husband, but for your growing stepchildren too. You wonder what it would be like to only have the stress that comes with a new baby instead of also feeling the weight of managing a household of six—the meals, the basketball games, the laundry.

Postpartum hormones alone are enough to make a woman feel overwhelmed, but throw in the complicated feelings of a blended family, and that is MORE than enough to make a woman feel completely CRAZY.

I am here to tell you that you are not crazy. You are going to feel a lot of different emotions when you bring your baby home from the hospital. Some of these feelings may even come as a surprise to you because you have a positive relationship with your stepchildren. You may feel like you walked into the hospital to give birth feeling one way about them and walked out hours (or days!!) later feeling a completely different way toward them.

You may not feel like sharing your baby. That’s okay. You may also be mourning the life you thought you would have – you know, the one where you get married and experience parenthood for the first time with your partner. It’s okay to be sad that he’s already done this before.

But mama, it will get easier. Your hormones will gradually level out. Your baby will become sturdier, and when you’re ready, you’ll let others hold him so that you can do things like brush your teeth and wash your hair. Now that’s a benefit most new mamas don’t have! Oh, and remember how you were sad that your husband has done this before? Now you are thankful that you have a partner who already knows what to do and is comfortable with a teensy tiny baby.

Not only will you start to find a groove, but you’ll also find sweet moments of joy. When your stepson makes your baby giggle like no one else can. When you find your 11-year-old stepdaughter is more nurturing than you ever knew. When your 14-year-old stepdaughter steps up and shows leadership. When they fight over whose turn it is to change the baby’s diaper or help with his bath. When you’re all on the floor, cheering him on as he takes his first steps. When they come home from their bio-mom’s house and can’t wait to see their baby brother.

I won’t lie to you. Blended families are no joke. It can be a lot to juggle, especially when bringing a tiny human into the mix. But I am finding that in between the moments of chaos, they can also be wonderful. The bond between siblings transcends DNA and in our case, a several year age gap, and it really is something special to witness.

So hang in there, Mama Bear. You’ve got this.

 

There’s No Use Crying Over Spilt Milk…

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… Or in this case, disappearing ink.  That’s right, dear readers.  RM and the kids GOT me.  They got me good.

Allow me to set the scene for you…

Friday was a long day for me.  I was required to be at work early Friday morning and stay late.  After several busy evenings that week, I was craving a little time not only to unwind but also to get the house straightened up before RM and the kiddies arrived for the weekend.  RM, thankfully, obliged and took the kids to eat dinner to give me some time.  He jokingly told me on the phone that he and the kids would call when they were on their way, and they wouldn’t take this as an opportunity to scare me while I was home alone.  I said, “Well, good, because I just can’t take any scares tonight.  It would just be too much.”  Apparently, RM thought that only applied to scaring me, and being the practical joker he is, he never misses an opportunity.

Fast forward to a few hours later, RM had found ways to entertain the kids in downtown Bellevue, and I was happily enjoying some time on the couch watching Grey’s Anatomy on Hulu.  After I finished the episode, I prepped RM’s and the kids’ beds for their arrival.  I was just about to crawl into bed to read a bit before I zonked out early when RM called to say they would be there any minute.

I rallied to greet the kiddies and hear about their week at school.  All was well until I came back to the living room from my bedroom, and RM was telling Hannah she needed to come out of the bathroom immediately.  I didn’t understand why he was rushing her—she was just going to the bathroom for goodness sake.  Give a girl her privacy!

Then RM pointed me to the GIANT ink stain on the carpet and said, “I want to find out who did this.”  I immediately had flashbacks to my move-in inspection when my stern German landlord pointed out each and every carpet stain that was already here.  There’s no way this one is getting past Helga*, I thought to myself.  Don’t act angry with the kids, Christina.  Accidents happen.  They clearly didn’t mean to spill ink all over your WHITE carpet.  Play it cool.  Get the Resolve; let’s handle this one step at a time.  You’ll scrub all night to get it out if you have to.

I stood there, Resolve in hand, as RM questioned each of the kids, all of them refusing to take responsibility.  I thought back to an hour earlier when #1 had bumped up against that table.  Could it have been her?  I wouldn’t dare call her out on it because even if it was her, I was sure it was an accident.  I didn’t want to risk the recent strides I had made in my relationship with her.  It would be our secret.  #2 and #3 started to giggle, and RM rolled with it.

“This isn’t funny,” he told them.  “I want to know who did this and NOW.”  RM then took something out of his pocket and started to squeeze blue drops all over the carpet.  “It was ME!  I did it!  I did it!”

Then there was laughter.  And jumping up and down.  I was so confused.  RM informed me that it was disappearing ink.  Who even knew that EXISTED?  I did not see the humor, especially because it hadn’t DISAPPEARED YET.  Then all of the strength I had spent reining in how angry I was that there was an ink stain on my carpet was released in the form of, “How-dare-you-play-a-prank-on-me-when-I-told-you-how-long-my-day-was-and-asked-you-not-to-scare-me?”

While I’m still working to see the humor in the above scenario, I will say, they did an excellent job on the execution.  If I weren’t so unappreciative of practical jokes—especially when I’m on the receiving end of them—I would find tiny Oscars for all four of them and cover RM’s with some sort of sticky substance.  He hates having sticky fingers.

Oh, and the spot has officially disappeared.  Phew!

*My landlord’s name is not actually Helga, but it worked, right?

T. Swiftly Changing My Perspective

Two years ago, I embraced my inner-tween and went to see Taylor Swift with two of my gal friends on the Washington, D.C. stop of T. Swift’s Speak Now Tour.  My friend P was nursing a broken heart at the time, and I was single but longing to meet my Mr. Right.  As I watched the tears stream down P’s face during T. Swift’s heart-wrenching rendition of “Back to December,” I remember thinking,

That’s it.  The next time I see Taylor Swift, I want to be in the arms of my soulmate.

Naturally, when T. Swift tickets went on sale last December for her Seattle stop on her Red Tour, I was more than a little excited.  It had been over a year since I went to the last Taylor Swift concert, and not only was I ready to see her in concert again, but I was lucky enough to have met “the one” during that timeframe.  Perfect!, I thought to myself as thoughts of RM and me smooching during “Love Story” swirled about in my head.

That fairytale came crashing down when RM decided to purchase not two tickets but three.  His reasoning?  “Well, I thought we could just sell the third ticket… or maybe, we could take #1?”  (#1 is what I’ll call RM’s oldest.)  Since we were relatively early on in our relationship, I didn’t quite feel comfortable enough to tell RM that I would actually prefer it just be the two of us.   (It’s been a challenge and delicate balance for me to learn when to speak up for my needs and when to put the kids/family time first.  A continuous learning process as a future stepmom!)

After nine months of many moments of RM’s youngest (#3), belting out many a Taylor Swift song, RM and I had a talk and thought that perhaps it made more sense for me to take both girls to the concert.  After all, #3 seemed even more excited than #1.

Wait a minute, I thought to myself.  This was supposed to be a romantic night of smooching my sweetie during the sweet melodies of T. Swift and screaming tweens.  I mean, I saw the logic—#3 was excited, and was it really a good idea to take #1 with RM and me when she seemed to be the one who was most competitive with me for RM’s attention?  Needless to say, despite the logic, I was having some difficulty reining in my Green Monster.

Then it came.  Saturday, 31 August 2013.  Concert day.  I sucked it up, told my Green Monster that she wasn’t invited—there were only three tickets afterall—and put on a happy face, ready to take the girls to their first concert.  My attitude quickly changed when we arrived at one of our favorite restaurants in Tacoma, called BJ’s, and looked around to see the restaurant filled with moms and their pint-sized daughters in cowboy boots.  There was no denying it—most of the patrons of BJ’s that night were headed to the same place we were.

When T. Swift took the stage, #1 looked at me with a big smile and gave me a thumbs up.  #3 stood on the seat next to me with her arm around me, singing “22” as loud as she could, and then spent most of the remainder of the night sleeping on my shoulder as I held her and swayed to the music.  The mom to the right of me, also holding her sleeping 7-year-old, nodded to me in the way that I can only imagine moms nod to each other.  I felt solidarity with her, as if I had gained admittance into the “mom club.”  Even though I’m not technically the girls’ mom, or even their stepmom yet, that night I sure felt like I was.  And it felt good.

Sometimes we have our heart set on something we think we want, and if we’re not willing to adapt and rein in that ugly Green Monster, we might miss out on something that is so much better.  I’ve gotten to listen to the girls’ gush over how much fun their first concert was over the past two days, and I imagine this is something that we’ll all remember for the rest of our lives.

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The very fancy souvenir bag we picked up off the ground.  We heart free stuff–even when it’s a bag!

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The view from our seats.  Not bad!  Even better when she took the smaller stage at the back of the floor.  We were only 22 rows up!

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The line at the merch table.  Hideous!  Can anyone say “online shopping?”  My thoughts exactly.

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

Well, life sans lice was nice, while it lasted.  On Friday, the morning after RM delivered my adorable, red Vespa, he checked my head—just for old time’s sake, of course.  It has been 48 hours since he last checked it, but I had been lice-free for several days prior to that.  Not expecting to see anything notable, we were shocked when he found new eggs.  Apparently, the time spent treating EW at her house caused a RE-infestation.

*Cue the tears.*

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Here I am riding along to the WA state licensing office to buy new tags for the Vespa.  It was about to close, so I had no choice but to go there with the lice serum on my head.  No, that’s not sweat glistening on my neck.  Great look for me, right?

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Wearing a helmet while Vespa-riding with lice?  No problemo.  I’ll just use this handy dandy shower cap.

Lice Happens: Part Trois

We didn’t make it home from the lake until nearly 2:00 in the morning, following the infamous bat incident of 2013.  We were exhausted.  We were cranky.  We felt defeated.  Thus began a week-long event of daily 6-8 hour head checks/shampoos/mousses/nit combs and round-the-clock laundry.  The only saving grace during all of this chaos was when RM’s youngest randomly blurted out, “I love you” as I was treating her hair.  It wasn’t the first time she had said it to me, but it might have been the sweetest.  Here I was, stressed beyond belief, just praying to make it through the week, and she looked up at me with her big innocent blue eyes and said “I love you.”  That made it all worth it.

During the next several days, I continued to conduct several, and by several I mean at least 200, internet searches about lice shampoos, lice life cycles, natural remedies, cleaning your home, etc.  Obsess much, Christina?  You betcha.  When we started spotting newly-hatched lice nearly a week later, even after the second round of lice shampoo, we were at a loss.  Why couldn’t we kick this??

That’s when I found www.girlsgonechild.net’s post on her family’s experience fighting lice and finding Ladibugs Elimination Kit.  One word:  miraculous.  We haven’t seen any eggs or lice since treating.  We’ve done several more rounds of the mousse just to be sure we’re in the clear, but we’ve basically declared victory at this point.

While we’ve been in the clear for almost a whole week now (that is cause for celebration!), I’ve left out the culmination of the story.  There’s more?, you ask.  Oh yes, my friend.  You will be glad you’ve made it this far in my lengthy blog posts.  After our week from H-E-double hockey sticks, it was time to take the kids back to their mom (who from here on out I will refer to as EW for “Ex-Wife”) and her boyfriend.  Our biggest fear?  That EW would have lice and pass it back to the kiddies, therefore making all of our countless hours and hundreds of dollars spent for naught.  For this reason, I offered to check her head while we were there.  She said she had done three lice shampoos “just in case,” but that no one had actually checked her head.

EW graciously agreed and as she sat down under the light said, “Well, this is humbling.”  I assured her that we had all been in her position over the past two weeks, and therefore understood how she was feeling.  However, I suspected that her embarrassment was less about having lice and more to do with her ex-husband’s girlfriend picking the lice out of her head.  (What is it they say about Karma?)  I soon found that she was INFESTED with eggs, but thankfully, no live lice.  RM and I spent the next two and a half hours picking nits out of her hair, with me taking the lead and spending more QT with EW than I ever thought I would.  Next we were checking her boyfriend’s hair.  Let me just say, finding WHITE eggs on WHITE hair is equivalent to a needle in a haystack.  Thankfully, everyone was a good sport, and we all laughed about the awkward situation in which we found ourselves.  Although I can think of many things I’d rather do than shampoo my boyfriend’s ex-wife’s hair, I honestly think it was probably good for the kids to see all of us laughing together and helping each other.  Sure, the set-up isn’t your average, traditional family, but this will be our normal, and right now it’s working just fine.

Lice Happens: Part Deux

Just when we thought our plight could not worsen, we arrived at the entrance of the state park only to realize that RM’s mom was no longer behind us.  She had a tire blowout on her boat trailer and was waiting for a tow truck.   We opted to head to the boat launch where we would sail to our campsite before someone else snagged it and wait for RM’s mom there.

We treated RM’s oldest when we got to the lake, just for good measure—she was the one who had it a month prior, so we figured chances were high that she either still had it or had it again.  The next 48 hours were spent swimming, boating, relaxing, and pretending we didn’t have lice, to the best of our ability.  (I think this was easier for the kids than it was for me.)  We did countless, useless shampoos with tea tree oil in the lake, at my behest, thinking it might make a difference, only to find out we were probably just washing out the lice shampoo and making it less effective.  Apparently lice prefer clean hair.  Awesome.

We awoke the following day, eager to start fresh.  RM looked at me and said, “We made it.  Yesterday is over!”  There was no way it could get worse, right?  Little did we know…

We enjoyed a day at the beach—swimming, kneeboarding, and cliff jumping.  We went to sleep that night feeling fulfilled and happy, despite those bloodsucking buggers on our heads.  We awoke at 2:00 AM to three continuous hours of 30-40 mph winds, lightning, thunder, and hail.   I consoled the crying kids in the collapsed tent while RM held onto our sailboat for dear life, praying it wouldn’t tip over and break or damage the boats next to it.  We managed to get a few hours of sleep once the storm died down, but we awoke to a war zone, spending the next few hours sweeping sand out of the tent and collecting all of our belongings (and trash) that had scattered during the high winds.

After taking a peek at what that night’s weather report promised, we decided to hit the road.  But first, the kids and I would do one more lice shampoo.  I figured the house was safe by this point, so I didn’t want us bringing any of those suckers back with us.  What came next was a pre-teen breakdown from RM’s oldest, who couldn’t bear stripping down in front of me, followed by my own breakdown of feeling completely inadequate in my quest to take care of her.  Who was I fooling?  I wasn’t her mother.  I was soon comforted by RM’s mom singing James Blunt’s “So You Had a Bad Day.”  Boy, did I!

This brings me to the bat.  I know, I know—you were wondering when I was going to get to that, right?  After the girls were successfully shampooed by moi—we figured out a way to keep towels wrapped around them so no one was embarrassed—it was my turn.  There I stood, in those terrible hiking sandals, stifling back tears.  I was without a watch and alone in the bathroom, so I took a tip from the Friends episode, “The One with Ross’ Tan,” and counted.  One Mississippi.  Two Mississippi.  Three Mississippi.  Let me tell you, 10 minutes feels a lot longer when you’re counting by the second.

After my 10 minutes were up, I began to rinse when RM cracked the ladies’ room door open to ask me how it was going.  That is when he alerted me of the bat.

I slowly bent my knees and looked up cautiously.  Sure enough, I saw a bat, hanging upside down, only inches from my face.  Its furry little head nuzzling in its wings.  I proceeded to run out of the bathroom at full speed, carrying my towel in one hand, all the while crying, screaming, and laughing into RM’s arms.   What else could I do?

I was at the end of my rope.

Check back for the next post in the “Lice Happens” series to find out what we happened when we returned home and the experience in which RM and I never thought we would find ourselves!