Craig and I don’t really fight much. Now we bicker and squabble with the best of them, and friends have sat patiently watching us threaten to burn our kitchen down while trying to clean for Passover, but for any choices or decisions we’ve had to make in life we’ve always been on the same page. Which is why I was taken aback completely when we got into a huge fight about this upcoming move. For years we’ve been talking about moving to the suburbs, particularly Skokie. Because of our history we knew it would have to be a rental, so then it was just a matter of figuring out schools and districts. In January I began the extensive research, spoke with a bunch of professionals, reached out to educators and specialists and identified a few districts that could be a good fit for us. But then I overheard Craig explaining to someone why we were moving and nothing he said aligned with our previous conversations. I mean, I knew I sounded hesitant and reluctant when telling others, someone even accused me of trying to sell myself on the idea, but Craig’s explanations were so far out there it was clear we needed to get our stories straight.
So the next time we were alone in the car I brought it up, I asked him why he thought we were moving and he sighted the new CPS loophole where they wouldn’t put in for an aide for Aleck in the IEP, but instead it was now up to the schools to evaluate and decide what kind of aide Aleck needed. And that could take weeks after the start of school, he can’t be without any help. But that’s fixable, I argued. If we work with the school ahead of time I’m sure we can get him evaluated and set up before school starts, that’s not the reason we are moving. We are moving for all of those items I wrote about last month; the stairs, not wanting to fight to get him services, needing a bigger space with room to grow, needing a change of environment. “But what if”, Craig asked, “what if the best case scenario happens?” “What are you talking about,” I asked. “What if he tests off the charts?”
We’ve been planning and preparing and stalking CPS selective enrollment (gifted) testing since Aleck was 2. After he taught himself to read (seriously, we didn’t teach him at all) I reached out to directors of gifted centers explaining Aleck and what was going on. It was then that I learned the term, “twice exceptional”. It refers to a gifted child who has some form of disability. “These children are considered exceptional both because of their intellectual gifts and because of their special needs” (Wikipedia). For parents of these children you now have to advocate on two fronts; the physical services they need and the challenging curriculum to keep them interested. Aleck has been bored at preschool since he first began. You know something is up when you are leaving drop-off and hear one of the teachers say, “OK, who wants to hear Aleck read a story to everyone.” He was only 2.
If we moved out to the suburbs getting the services we need would be so much easier. They have money, for one thing. The classrooms are smaller, the great state of Illinois hasn’t cut most of their funding, and they’ve been putting a lot of effort into developing special needs programs within their districts. If Aleck’s physical restrictions were our only challenge then Skokie would be an excellent place for us.
And as I’m talking all of this through with my mom she says, “but what are you going to do to keep him challenged”, explaining to me how the Glencoe district, where she once taught, would bus kids to New Trier High School for certain classes and subjects. My answer has always been, “one thing at a time”. Let us get moved, get him set up with all the services he needs and then start the fight to get him the education he needs. So maybe it’s a good thing we’d be renting, and maybe we’d have to move again, but it’s too much to tackle all at once. To Skokie we will go.
But on April 3rd everything changed. Not even a week after I dropped the news that were ending our city life, we found out Aleck got into one of the top 5 elementary schools in the state of Illinois. It felt like the bottom had dropped out from under us. What does this mean? What is this place? Why did we even prioritize this? I mean, you should have seen us applying to CPS. We didn’t have the results of Aleck’s selective enrollment (gifted testing) because he got it done two days before the applications were due, since it took so long to get his IEP (Individualized Education Program) meeting scheduled (only two days before testing) so they could make any necessary accommodations for testing so he had the best chance at succeeding. We hadn’t gone to see any schools because we had spent all our time and energy trying to get everything in place at his current school. From our other Chicago parents we knew the list of the best elementary schools in the city but barely knew the difference between a charter, a magnet, and a neighborhood school. The one piece of advice we took to heart was to choose a school that you’d be OK driving to every day. On the eve of 12/9, the due date of applications, we went online and looked at all the gifted centers. Craig had been calling schools all week trying to figure out which had elevators, which schools were actually ADA compliant so that Aleck would be able to get around, since there isn’t a handy list anywhere on CPS websites. Trying to get them to get back to us was nearly impossible and most schools he reached said they didn’t have an elevator. So we guessed. We chose our favorite gifted center based on it’s website, it’s motto, pictures that looked like it had an elevator, the number of students in the school, and it’s location. It was like covering your eyes with your right hand and shooting darts with your left, as a righty I’d be lucky to even hit the friggin’ board.
But we hit. Hell, we won the CPS lottery. The next day we called the school to find out when we could come and see it and they already had an open house set up for the day after. They put us in touch with the guidance counselor immediately and by the time we walked into the school, on April 5, she’d already read Aleck’s IEP. She set up a meeting for us to follow the open house and when we went in to meet with her she said, “Do you mind if the principal joins us?”. Do I mind?!? I was doing a happy dance. The school was incredible. It had a lot of the feelings we love from the school Aleck’s in right now, but entirely geared towards kids who’s minds work differently from most of their peers. What we heard a lot was, “We meet the child where they are.” An idea that he wouldn’t be held up to any specific standards, but instead an education plan will be designed based on where he excels and where he might need extra help. It’s also a school that puts a lot of emphasis on creative projects, and on playing as they get two recess sessions a day. One of Aleck’s preschool teachers had pleaded with us when we spoke to him about tapping into gifted schools to be sure Aleck gets enough silly time, since he loves to be silly. Well, if you know his parents you know that being silly and having fun is just as important as keeping him challenged.The principal and guidance counselor sat down with us and assured us they’d be able to get all the services he needs at their school. They’ve worked with plenty of kids who needed much more (we know Aleck’s needs are quite mild relatively speaking), and that they would advocate for us and our family. Tears of relief were streaming down my face.
For months we’ve been going back and forth, what’s more important, services or education? We don’t have the unlimited funds to pay for a gifted private school and an aide. And in the suburbs most gifted programs don’t start until 3rd grade and include pulling the child out of classes regularly to keep them challenged, separating them from the rest of the class. He’s already separated by his limited mobility, why would we want to put him in an environment that would continue to isolate him from the rest of the class? Plus, he can’t wait another three years to be challenged academically. His favorite area of study right now? The periodic tables; he loves to talk about the three phases of matter. For his birthday he wants an electron microscope so he can look at atoms and cells. I swear, we simply hand him the materials his intellect demands and he does the rest. Trying to keep up with him is exhausting and I don’t know what I’d do without Google.
Once we made the decision to take advantage of this opportunity that’s dropped in our lap a huge weight was lifted. We no longer have a timeline driving all of this. Even if it takes months to sell our condo, hopefully it won’t, Aleck’s education is locked and loaded for the next 9 years (god willing, fingers crossed, no kenahoras!). Now we have professionals trained in working with gifted children to help us “feed the beast” as I call it, since he devours knowledge. He has access to an entire school that can help him push himself as far as he wants to go and in any direction he wants to go. A school that is sensitive to his physical needs, has experience working and squeezing what they need out of CPS, and best of all, it’s free, absolutely free.