Thursday, October 13, 2011

Last Chance for School of Last Chancers?

Fourth Street School may close next year.

Mostly because many parents with special needs kids, Fourth Street School's specialty, can't afford the annual $13,000 tuition.

Partly because the vast majority of residents here in Arlington, Texas, have no idea that Fourth Street School even exists.

And maybe even because special needs kids have about as much legitimacy in our society as elderly invalids. At least senior citizens can command some attention and respect with the money they've accrued over their lifetime.

This Ain't No Little Red Schoolhouse

I have a friend who has taught at Fourth Street School since, well, it was located on Fourth Street in central Arlington. A short street in an old neighborhood nearly swallowed up by the sprawling University of Texas campus here in town.

As it grew, Fourth Street School moved to a more modern facility with better street exposure in the southwestern part of town, but kept the name, and its mission: to help educate the kids who've been deemed uneducatable.

They're the problem children that both our city's public school district and private schools can't handle in conventional classrooms. Indeed, Fourth Street School is the last chance for some truants and juvenile offenders before they're shipped off to a state institution.

They're the kids who've literally been spoiled rotten by over-indulgent parents, and therefore have been unwittingly trained to be belligerent.

And yes, they're the kids who display all the classic symptoms of legitimate attention-deficit disorder, hyperactivity, autism, and dyslexia. To the extreme. And then some.

For all of the students trapped in their quiet despair caused by various psychosomatic problems, there are others whose uninhibitedness would make the most raunchy public school highschooler blush. My teacher friend has been assaulted by his students almost as many times as they've disappeared from their families, died under questionable circumstances, or been hauled off to reform school. Again.

Yes, my friend and his colleagues are paid a bit more than ordinary teachers in conventional schools, though even that amount doesn't compensate for everything they go through with these kids.

In the Drama Department

Nevertheless, the faculty manages to have some fairly high expectations from their students.

For example, every year the school holds a spring fundraiser, where local merchants donate goods and services for a silent auction, the kids serve a catered dinner, and the evening's entertainment is a blustery, rough, yet endearing mix of talent show and skits.

I used to attend regularly with other friends, and actually, the entertainment - such as it was - usually ended up being the kids themselves, earnestly struggling to approximate some semblance of social normalcy.

Sometimes with hilariously spontaneous moments of juvenile candor that spoke to the problems we all have communicating with each other.

And other times, with poignant failures.

Some of the students were either painfully - and I mean excruciatingly - shy and withdrawn, while others were bowl-you-over frenetic. One year, a girl hyperventilated and literally sank to the floor in complete stage fright during the program. Usually, though, other students of a more gregarious nature appeared ready to actually take over the entire production single-handedly, and often tried.

As an outsider at these fundraisers, you can't help but feel sorry for the kids and their parents. In many of their families, a sobering social dysfunction exists that infects everybody in them - whether it originates in the parents, or their kids. Living in these challenging environments must take a profound toll on everybody exposed to them. Although I wanted to give all of them the benefit of the doubt, I could never get over the creepy feeling attending those fundraisers that I was some sort of voyeur from the Planet Rational conducting a case study of people from the Planet Bonkers.

Is that mean of me? Or just patronizing?

The sensation of being at the verge of bedlam would permeate the auditorium. Many of the kids would charge between people and tables, red-faced and breathless, often with hot food slopping off of lopsided plates.

A few of the parents, obviously exhausted by their non-stop lives, appeared to mentally check-out at these fundraisers, sitting at tables like shell-shocked survivors of a terrorist attack, staring blankly into space while their kids literally bounced off the walls.

These kids weren't just on temporary sugar highs, or wild from lack of sleep or over-stimulation at an amusement park. This was real, everyday, 24-hour life for them and their families. At times, it could get uncomfortable for those of us unfamiliar with that environment.

Other parents, although they weren't physically frenetic, appeared to be just as frazzled, even while wearing designer clothing and expensive business suits. After all, few poor kids attend Fourth Street School, because of the cost.

Which begs the question: where do the rest go?

Some poorer kids end up as wards of the state, or committed to psychiatric hospitals, or shuttled off to a state school over one hundred miles away.

Not that Fourth Street School is the place for all of them to be anyway. At least, not all at the same time. Fourth Street's several dozen students create enough noise and confusion for a conventional public school's entire student population.

And, as my teacher friend would constantly remind us: don't forget, these kids were on their best behavior for us that evening!

Early Dismissal?

The other day, I learned that the Fourth Street School may be forced to shut down after this school year. Rising costs and a stagnant enrollment are the major culprits, so my friend and some other special education cohorts of his are working on an alternative business plan to try and at least salvage the school's mission, if not its actual existence.

But they've got an uphill battle. The vast majority of America's parents have what we'd consider to be normal kids, and funding requirements for problem kids is usually somebody else's problem. Unless these kids get unceremoniously dumped back into your child's regular school classroom.

Is it solely the burden of individual parents to grapple with securing educational resources for their special-needs child? Should society try and help out with that, or simply hope these kids don't end up in a life of crime, government welfare, and/or homelessness?

Because we all know what happens to normal kids who don't get a good education. Imagine what the future holds for special-needs kids who don't.

As it's handled now, the education for students like those at Fourth Street School is an ad-hoc patchwork of private, public, and government programs with families burning candles at both ends. Not ideal, certainly, but better than nothing. And even if Fourth Street School shuts down next fall and its students are shuffled off to other learning environments less suited to their individual needs, maybe the time they've spent among teachers like my friend will be enough to remind them that there are people in this world who do care for them outside of their family.

Obviously, no easy answers exist for funding an optimal education environment for every single child in the United States, let alone those with such unique needs. A lot of political talk has bounced around regarding school vouchers, an idea I support in principle, and for which schools like Fourth Street seem ideally suited.

Meanwhile, special needs kids keep entering school and matriculating through the grades every year, whether Washington or state governments or local districts can get their education financing acts together or not. For families and students who need resources like Fourth Street School, help can't come soon enough.

Still, I have to admit - I really couldn't wait for those fundraising dinners to be over. I would be emotionally and mentally exhausted towards the end of the evening, wondering how those parents live with these kids all the time.

Some days, the only success is having these kids learn that educators genuinely care about them.

Otherwise, Fourth Street School wouldn't even exist.

Too bad that soon, it might not.

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