What A Difference A School Makes!

Brian’s school had their first “Back To School Night” yesterday in 3 years! It was surreal to be back in the building last night post- Covid and also a relief to know that we are back to normal, interacting (in person!) once again with staff members and other parents. In a certain way, it was like the pandemic never happened once we were all together again. The normalcy that we craved had finally arrived and it felt so good, along with the hugs and handshakes that had been put on hold for so long…

Last night was a cause for a celebration of many things both great and small. Many School improvements, along with staff promotions, were highlighted and the opportunity to learn about upcoming opportunities for the students was very exciting. I was able to speak with Brian’s teacher and staff for an extended period of time and learned that he is doing more things at school than I realized. He is maturing and more willing to learn and try new things than before. I am so happy that Brian is currently thriving in his school program! Knowing that your child is making progress, albeit slowly, and most importantly is happy, is like winning first prize! Brian’s school experiences have not always been so positive, in fact, some of them were excruciatingly painful! We had a horrific experience in a previous program that ultimately led us to Brian’s current school, New Beginnings, over 7 years ago.

I will never forget that freezing morning in February 2015. I had just gotten out of the shower when my cell phone rang with an incoming call from Trenton, NJ . I immediately thought of state government, then just a coincidence of a wrong number. Since I didn’t recognize the number, I almost didn’t answer, but decided to do so at the last second. Little did I know what I was about to hear on the other end. A gentleman introduced himself and said that he was with the NJ state department of institutional abuse. He mentioned Brian’s name, his school that he attended at that time, and the reason for his call. Apparently a staff member from Brian’s school had called the state to say that Brian and another non-verbal student in his class were allegedly verbally and physically abused at school, but he was OK. I don’t remember very much after hearing those words. I do remember running out the door with wet, uncombed hair and driving to Brian’s school like a maniac, calling my husband, Jim, enroute to meet me there. I had a pounding headache and felt like my heart was going to explode through my chest. I kept thinking to myself how could this happen to my boy?!

Brian was waiting in the front office with a staff member, along with the state investigator. I grabbed my son and wouldn’t let him go-he appeared to be OK. I checked Brian from head to toe: there was no evidence of physical abuse and he seemed like himself. Where was his teacher and the principal? In the meantime, the state investigator privately interviewed Jim and I, along with each one of the staff members in the classroom, and even Brian, who repeatedly told the investigator on his communication device that he wanted juice and a cereal bar, along with Christmas music.

The state investigator’s conclusions revealed that the alleged abuse did not happen, but something DID happen and we were not getting any straight answers… The principal eventually appeared and said that Brian’s teacher was being placed on administrative duty and a staff member involved was being terminated. Still no specific details for Jim and I. Of course this was a done deal once I received that initial phone call from the state investigator- Brian was not going back to that school. The next day we learned what actually happened: a staff member in Brian’s class had called the state to report the classroom teacher because she didn’t like her and they had had a history of disputes/disagreements. She wanted to get the teacher fired- what she didn’t think through was how her actions would effect 2 innocent children who could never defend themselves. We were sickened by the whole mess, and especially disappointed by the reaction of the school administration who did not advocate for Brian or even attempt to redeem the situation. I called Brian’s case manager on the way home: we were done and Brian needed a new program effective immediately.

After looking at 4 private autism programs in just a few weeks, we determined that Brian’s current program, New Beginnings, was the best fit for him. However, I was scared: after what Brian went through at the other school ( I was not impressed with his last teacher anyway, even before the debacle with the state happened), I wasn’t sure if this new school was actually going to work. Brian was starting a new program in the middle of a school year, after being at the previous school for 6 years. Transitions are definitely not Brian’s strong suit, and as predicted, the initial transfer to New Beginnings was extremely difficult. There was lots of resistance, sitting or lying down on the floor at school. Protests of every kind and bathroom accidents. Plus there was a bussing issue that we were blindsided by at the initial IEP meeting by the new transportation company who did not want Brian on their bus because he was too behavioral. It made perfect sense to me: my son’s educational world had literally just been turned upside down. Everything was unfamiliar and scary to him. I felt heartbroken for Brian and doubted my decision for his placement. Deep down I knew that ultimately everything would be OK, it was just going to take time and a very willing and patient staff to understand and support Brian. Like a Doubting Thomas, I needed evidence to see that I made the right decision.

Slowly, but ever surely, Brian started to adjust to his program at New Beginnings. From the very beginning, communication from the school staff was immediate, frequent, and transparent- how refreshing! This was definitely something I was not used to, in fact, I initially doubted it’s validity and needed time as well to trust in school staff once again. In time, this is exactly what happened. Brian’s confidence and comfort level grew and mine did too. There was always a willingness on the part of the school staff to listen to my concerns and to implement suggestions in order to help Brian learn. I can’t say enough how important that is: a school program is only as successful as the willingness of both parents and school staff to work together. Both parties have to also be flexible, creative, and perhaps above all, maintain a sense of humor, for educating special needs students is definitely not for the faint hearted! Conversely, raising a disabled child is very difficult and requires the same understanding, support, and love that our kids require. Our special children will thrive when the village comes together on their behalf!

It was so heartwarming last night to hear about Brian’s successes from his teacher, assistants, therapists, and other staff members. He has come a long way from those early days at New Beginnings of dropping to the floor and refusing to get up. Brian is more willing to learn and continues to make progress in his own time. He is affectionately known as “The Mayor” around New Beginnings, as he loves to greet each staff member and student alike. Like all of our children, Brian has gifts to share at school that leave a lasting impression on those who know and work with him. One staff member shared that he loves being in education specifically because of Brian…❤️❤️ I felt so overwhelmed by how others lives have been impacted for the good by our beloved “Joy Ambassador”, the title that I officially bestowed upon Brian a few years ago. It reminds me that we may not always remember what someone says to us, but we will always remember how they made us feel- how very true this is of our children and those who work with them..❤️❤️❤️❤️

On my way out of the school building last night, Brian’s teacher drew my attention to a picture of Brian that is on the wall in the main office area. He is in the school Bistro about to purchase a snack with his debit card, using his iPad mini to communicate to one of the staff what he wants. It took lots of steps, practice, and a collective effort for this captured moment in time. I am very proud of this achievement that my son worked so hard for. To some, this may be a small or insignificant thing, but to Brian, and to those who know and love him, it is a major milestone and a testimony to what love, patience, and persistent teaching can do. Thank you, New Beginnings, for being Brian’s second home of learning and love. We are so glad that you are at the helm of Team Brian and look forward to even more progress this year! 😊❤️👍🏻 I know Brian would say “thank you “ if he could, but I believe his actions speak louder than any words he could say…❤️❤️❤️❤️

Until next time, thanks for reading! 😊

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