Almost 2 decades ago, I had the privilege of earning my Master’s degree in Special Education from Loyola University, in Chicago. It wasn’t until July 2021 that I realized how interconnected my career in special education would be with my new journey as the parent of a gifted child.
Previously, I spent fifteen years as a developmental and behavioral therapist and consultant overseeing private programming for children who were diagnosed with Autism, Down Syndrome, and Seizure Disorders, and had been internationally adopted. I spent time in their homes, collaborating with private preschools and working with their other therapists to provide whole-child care. I facilitated programming for their young children, replacing school days in self-contained classrooms with mainstream inclusive school settings. I understood their needs. I collected data. I curbed behaviors. I supported the parents and siblings as they navigated the new structure provided in their homes.This eased tensions and allowed families to function in a more productive manner. And most importantly, it was my job to fiercely advocate for their children’s needs with school personnel.
The children I worked with were often those who didn’t have any verbal skills at six years old, who craved constant sensory input, who up until my time with them, didn’t relate to others… and who were consistently offered nothing more than 30 minutes of speech and 15 minutes of Occupational Therapy per week, services that fell immeasurably short of meeting their needs. And that is where I learned how critical advocacy was for these children, and any children in an educational system that pledged “not to leave anyone behind.”
My clients were outliers; traditional education wasn’t designed for them. They each had unique profiles. Some had great eye contact, others were apraxic. There were children who banged their heads against the wall when frustrated and those that chewed inedible objects to satisfy their oral fixations. There were also kids who could read at 3 ½ with no formal training, those who had unnoticed seizures, and even some who were indistinguishable from their peers until they reached kindergarten.
Over time, my job evolved from creating and managing in-home programs to advocating to get “my kids,” (no matter how far they strayed from the norm), into inclusive classroom settings where they had their best chance of learning and adopting appropriate behaviors and language with their neurotypical peers. While I still supported my clients at home and collaborated with their private therapy providers, my focus became proving how critically necessary inclusive education was for each child. Luckily, for the kids and families I worked with, my data, programming support, and school observations provided strong cases for each of them to be mainstreamed, and 10-15 years later, I am proud to say they are graduating from high schools, getting their drivers’ licenses, and are much more well-adjusted and successful than their peers who stayed in self-contained classrooms receiving minimal support from schools.
Now, almost twenty years later, I am a mother of two. My son, 9, was identified as gifted through a private evaluation a year ago, and it became apparent that school wasn’t meeting his needs. Armed with my years of advocacy skills and the awareness that our educational system isn’t designed with outliers in mind, I contacted our local public school in late August after my efforts at his private independent school failed. This time though, I was not willing to hear “no”. Our public schools, by state law, have an obligation to educate gifted learners, and I came to the table prepared - with the evaluation results, my experience as a mom, and my decades of experience as a special educator. I plead our case.
The school and school district, (a new one for the 3rd time in 5 years), reviewed my son’s private evaluation and was now willing to talk. They wanted to complete the IOWA Scale of Acceleration and complete a few more supplemental tests. He was an excellent candidate for acceleration, and, with very little hesitation on anyone’s part, we agreed on a full grade acceleration, with a double acceleration in math. His 31 year veteran teacher, a true gift to education, found ways to keep my son engaged, celebrating his gifts and talents with her students and championing his successes. He finished his first year at the new school with a smile on his face and a hope for continued recognition of his diverse skill set and unique needs.
Summer was spent playing instruments with the district’s middle and high school music groups and absorbing as much math as possible. This fall a simple transition was expected - fifth grade with one of his best buddies, a van to take him and a few peers to the middle school each day for sixth grade math, the promise of Jazz Band. Our son, at nine years old, was finally afforded the opportunities to flex his musical prowess and passion for mathematics in our neighborhood school district. This was how a fairy tale should end…
But here we are, one week into school. The mathematics acceleration might not be enough. The accelerated, extra curricular musical opportunities don’t follow policy and are denied. So, once again I put my advocacy hat on, email the appropriate parties and start the process for a Performing Arts Gifted & Talented Evaluation, and (im)patiently await the results of the Fall STAR Math test and a plan to ensure that my son’s 90 minutes daily in sixth grade math is meeting his needs.
And so this fall, my former career and my current life collide once again. My son isn’t easy to educate. His brain, like those of my special education students in Chicagoland, works differently. He craves a pace of education that most cannot provide. His motivation is driven by challenge. He strays as far from the norm as some of my youngest clients did when they started their educational journeys. He needs a school and district willing to set aside their policies and think outside of the box to meet his unique needs. And as his mother and forever special education advocate, I will not stand idly by. I will be the squeaky wheel that gets the grease - for students such as my son who need customized and appropriate educational plans. My next mission will be to advocate for his friends who are twice-exceptional; the need for advocacy never ends.
Mary Pape, Board Member
WI Association for Talented and Gifted