Oak Park School, Sarasota: The Retard (Part Two)

I sent some of the work Akim had done home to his Dad, notably his Tolstoy test, then called to discuss it. We thought his son's IQ might just be a tad higher than 70. We agreed he needed to be in a regular high school, backed by fresh diagnostic tests and an authentic IQ. I dodged the question, "How come his IQ's so low?" and said good things about Akim, all of them true. We shared the hope that his behaviors wouldn’t regress once he was freed of his retard shackles. "Any problems, you call me, I'll tighten him up," said dad. I believed him. Akim's signed reeval permission form came back the next day. 

Akim’s demon child reputation had preceded him. Carol, Oak Park School’s part-time educational psychologist, met with  him for her pretesting chat.

“Promise you’ll to take this seriously,” she said. She had the wary but intact idealism of someone with dedication only a few years out of college, someone already bloodied by the system. She was about to earn more battle scars.

“Yeah, I promise,” Akim said, looking her in the eye. They shook on it.

“A verbal test will help exclude learning disabilities that might cause a false IQ score,” she later told me.

As good as his word, Akim focused on working with Carol. The IQ testing placed him solidly in the normal intelligence range. Carol and I were delighted. Akim accepted a congratulatory McDonald’s meal, devouring it with grim satisfaction. I added “vindicate” to his weekly vocabulary.

Carol said Akim might have some language processing issues that could have lowered his score a bit, to which the rest of the testing battery would provide clues. If so, they could be treated at any school in the district. She’d be working elsewhere for the next few days, but would finish up with Akim when she returned. 

The happy news was informally shared with some Oak Park staff and quickly made its way to the Empress’s ears. The report of her displeasure quickly spread. “Some teacher decided to reevaluate him?!” “Oak Park was supposed to do it last year, but didn’t. He’s out of compliance.”

Under Federal law, any teacher may at any time request a student be reevaluated, but at Oak Park it was rarely done, and it better not be for the wrong student. Teachers can be reassigned at the pleasure of the principal. Those who offend their betters have found themselves changing the diapers of Oak Park School’s profoundly disabled young adults, a tacit threat that always hung in the air. 

As required with a reeval, Akim’s Individual Education Plan (IEP) was to be rewritten and obviously without his Intellectually Disabled stigma. We could then begin planning for his transition to Riverview High School. Or so I foolishly assumed.

Sarasota’s ESE Empire: The Good Times Roll On

IEPs bring about of $15,000 annually per student into Sarasota’s Special Education coffers, approximately the national average.  In 2014, 14% of Sarasota’s 41,398 students, or 5,796, were disabled.  That’s about $86 million for Sarasota’s Pupil Support Department, which administers the county’s ESE programs. After central and school administrative needs are met, there's a trickledown into the classrooms.

Sarasota ESE central office and school administrators pulling in six figure salaries isn't uncommon: Both Oak Park School’s Principal and Assistant Principal (AP) earn in the $100k to $135k range, with the current AP making more than the principal due to her longevity. Sitting on the Sarasota Superintendent’s Cabinet—yes, such an august body exists—with its rarefied pay grade, entitles the holder of the Empress’s chair to a mid $100k salary.

Sarasota’s ESE Trickledown

Down on the trireme of ESE’s rowing benches, teachers and ESE aides often have to supplement their meager earnings with part time work. You’ll see them in Walmart, conveniently close to Oak Park School, wearing the coveted blue smock. (You don’t see school administrators in Walmart. They patronize Publix.)  

There were never enough school supplies for my Oak Park students, and their parents had to pay for their field trips, which were styled Community Based Instruction and given a grade. The Oak Park School meals were meager compared to the county’s non-Title I schools, such as Pineview School or Venice High. No pizza stand, no deli. It was especially scroogian my final year there, as the cafeteria’s supervising food Nazi was put on a new incentive plan that rewarded her for cutting costs. Her hard eyed stare as she weighed small Styrofoam cups of watery chili, hungry kids watching expectantly, lives in memory. Several of us dubbed shorting the county's poorest kids the No Feeding Initiative, after Sarasota’s much reviled attempt to criminalize the feeding of its homeless

On such meager rations, my students, especially those on psychotropics, would doze off mid-afternoon without some snacks, which Oak Park School parents traditionally rely on their kids’ teachers to provide. (The year of Akim, I spent $500 on classroom food and about the same on supplies. Fortunately, I was independently wealthy.)

For the upper echelon of Sarasota County’s ESE staff, the good times roll on. (Enough of them favor Nokomis’s tony Sorrento Woods for it to be known as the Admin Cluster.) School administration’s always paid more than teaching. Only in Sarasota though have upper echelon school administrators been been granted untouchable godhood.

Though as you’ll read in a subsequent posting, Sarasota school administrators who begin their careers with scruples may be required to sacrifice them to continue the good life. 

Sarasota Schools' Munchausen’s-by-IEP

IEPs are intended to guide teachers in individualizing instruction for special needs students, but under Sarasota’s Empress of ESE, they’d swollen into a hodgepodge of unusable Edspeak. Here in Upstate New York, an IEP runs about six pages and is a useful teaching aid. In Sarasota, the typical IEP is scores of pages, the pasty, mandated wording of which changes depending not upon a student’s need, but upon whatever caprice was then driving the Empress and her staff. Their displeasure over the minutiae of any IEP, which they could monitor online, would send Oak Park’s Pupil Support staff scrambling for their Xanax as the Empress satiated her Munchausen’s-by-IEP complex.

After I’d made the mandated, infinite nonsensical revisions, most of my IEPs were as useful a guide as The Jabberwocky.

Akim Unretarded

Believing he was no longer a retard and soon to escape Oak Park School, Akim was coming to school every day in great spirits, doing well with me, holding 80’s and 90’s in most subjects.  (I later heard I’d done the work for him. Not that any of my accusers came forward or anyone ever looked at his work.)  He served as our de facto classroom aide and would sometimes help out with the school’s younger kids, a gentle and reliable shepherd. (“You have little kids in your family, Akim?” “Oh, yeah.”)

Akim was a quick study. He enjoyed learning and was quick to master new material. His math  and vocab were understandably deficient, Sarasota and Juvie having deprived him of an education. But he had superb critical thinking skills, as I'd learned to my loss when I played him at chess that first day. He especially loved reading, burning through the lit book I’d salvaged for him and devouring quality young adult novels. It was obvious he belonged in a regular school with resources and multiple teachers, not confined to a room one teacher all the school day.

Akim's progress was impeded by his restricted hours. It had been ordained by the Empress that he attend school only four hours a day because of the danger he posed to staff and students. And so read his IEP. Akim had a standard-sized school bus all to himself, with his own driver and aide, a big yellow taxi that roared into Oak Park School’s busy south bus loop every morning and fetched him every day after lunch, usually in the middle of Earth Science.

I wrote Akim’s new IEP—something teachers do during their copious planning period. I wasn’t allowed to delete his Intellectually Disabled label or truncated school day, but foolishly accepted the wisdom that this would happen at his IEP conference, when the final draft was agreed upon by student, staff and family, and we began planning for his transition to Riverview High School. I wrote it at home, finishing late, the same night an intruder burst into Akim’s living room and shot his dad dead in front of him.

Oak Park School, Sarasota: Passing the Trash

This is the first of a few writings about my time as a Special Needs teacher in Sarasota, Florida. After eight years, I’ve a wealth of material to draw on, much of it only believable as fiction.   

I’ve retired from my brief teaching career. Well, actually, more fled a fatwa than retired. Surprised I made it that long, given the pathological culture of the school where I taught.  But then, needs will as needs must—I had a child to put through college and someone else’s kid to protect.

I taught at Oak Park School in Sarasota for eight years. I’m certified to teach a lot of subjects. Before that I designed databases, mostly at the Pentagon and Harvard. I also wrote and continue to write novels. (Slowly.) Try as I might, my daemon won’t let me finish my current writing project until I purge myself of Oak Park. Daemons are funny that way—they can hold your creativity hostage to closure.

Oak Park School is affluent Sarasota’s central Special Needs school, with students ranging in age from five to 22.  Its staff often vacillate between their desire to protect their students and their fear of their bosses’ ire, as the unflattering role of an Oak Park teacher in the murder of one of his students recently illustrated.

One of the dark facets of Oak Park School is its long use as a gulag for Sarasota County’s more disruptive students, recast as Special Needs kids and off-loaded by their regular schools. Teachers can easily provoke grand mal outbursts in emotionally fragile students. It greases the skids to propel the kid out of their class, and with the “Atta boy!” support of their principals, out of their schools, preferably before FCAT time, as such kids tend to lower class and school scores—a threat to job security, promotion and bonuses. Oak Park School with its exuberantly aggressive, bone-breaking Response Team, and its pliant sheriff’s deputies, has long been the place to which the Sarasota District schools pass their trash, in educrat parlance.

This Stalinesque process begins with consistently disruptive students being “diagnosed” as Emotionally and Behaviorally Disturbed (EBD) Special Needs students, often with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) thrown in.  (Interestingly, many of the symptoms of long term child abuse and ADHD are remarkably similar and easily misdiagnosed or willfully misconstrued without much professional risk to the psychologist.)

Effectively acronymed as EBD, the behavior kids are then sent down to Oak Park. It’s clear they need help getting their lives together. Equally clear is that the Sarasota School District’s priority for them is and always has been containment, control and invisibility, a mushroom management pedagogy. Despite a student population from usually poor and often stressed or dysfunctional homes, Oak Park School, at Title I school, has but one social worker for about 400 profoundly challenged kids, the same as Pine View School for the Gifted, Sarasota's quasipublic school for the quasigifted.

In eight ytears of teaching OP’s high school behavior kids, I had perhaps two in-the-flesh observations by an administrator, the last in 2009. Principals—they come and go—would walk past my classroom on their way to the clinic, prized for its early morning coffee. Oak Park School’s administrators are always in synch with the District’s priorities for Sarasota’s behavior students. None of them have ever had any credible experience with Special Ed students.

Oak Park’s high school behavior students are gone—shipped to isolated modules in two high schools in 2011—this after some harrowing bus incidents when the county, to save money, crammed the behavior kids onto the same buses as Oak Park’s genuinely handicapped. (The Sarasota School District lives in fear of lawsuits, and justly so.) The elementary and middle school behavior kids remain at Oak Park.

After their departure, I was assigned to teach the Intellectually Disabled high schoolers who were also Emotionally Handicapped and so unable to master even the watered down curriculum being taught them in the isolated Behavior modules of those two Sarasota’s high schools, Riverview High School and North Porth High School.

I thought little of it at the time. Kids are kids. It was to be my twilight tour, our youngest daughter having graduated college and pretty much on her own. Our eyes turned north and my wife and I looked forward to moving closer to our children and seeing Sarasota and Florida blessedly recede in our rearview mirror, social aberrations seen only again in nightmares.

I’d no inkling that the arrival of an allegedly Intellectually Disabled high schooler in my classroom would eventually end my years of nimbly championing for lost boys while deftly dodging administrator ire. Or that it would end with my being the trash that was passed. Morally, I had no choice but to take the field, so outrageous was the cruel lie used to traduce  a defenseless and emotionally vulnerable kid by Sarasota school central administrators, adults who were supposed to protect and educate him.

[Bear, our Chow Chow, is insisting upon her twilight walk along the Mohawk.]

Next Oak Park School posting: “The Retard (Part One)”