Today we visited two possible schools for Maya.
All in all though after visiting both schools we do think they can offer a lot to Maya, we are now busy comparing and contrasting brochures. Both Leo and I have a preference for one school over the other, although we had a positive impression of both schools. Both offer a structured environment, small classes and options for therapy. Both seem to take a personal approach to the kids (something that is more business-like in her current school) and both work from a 'treatment plan' which is evaluated and renewed every six months.
I won't kid you though, both are schools where kids with serious issues spend their days. In both schools I saw quite a few kids with Down's syndrome, or where you can see on a child's face that there is a developmental or intellectual impairment (or both). On some level it is a reality check when you see these kids and realize yours needs to walk among them. No matter how used to Maya's situation and no matter how much I accept her problems, I think I will never be able to see that without having to catch my breath and somewhere within me ask, "why my child?"
In reading the brochures and seeing the statistics of both schools, it seems that very few kids who enter this system get out of it, most go on to the high schools in this category at age 12 and go there until age 20. The lucky ones, who develop well can receive training to work and support the to themselves. Those less capable may learn to do work or go to an adult center to spend their days. It's certainly eye opening and a much different dream that I had for my child. At the same time, each kid is assessed anew every 2 years to ensure that they are in the right place for their abilities and those who develop to a level higher than what the school offers go onto other school environments and don't finish their base education (equivalent to elementary and middle school in the US) within this system. The schools don't publish statistics on this as this is very individually based on a child's abilities and other factors. Maya is a little bit of a borderline case, her IQ at this moment as they also deal children with IQs under 35 (in separate groups) but most children in a class Maya might be in are somewhere between 40-55. This puts her with a 61 IQ too low to be able to progress in one of the other special education schools (where 70 is the minimum) but is on the high side at these type of schools. Since Maya has an autistic diagnosis, combined with her IQ score as well as her developmental delays, this does seem the best option for her now. I have my problems with the whole IQ system of course, but it is what we are stuck with here and in the Netherlands they don't work with the non verbal IQ test, so as much as I wish it were different, these are the options there are for right now.
Despite the reality checks, both schools made a positive impression on us. Both offer small class sizes (10 in one school and 13 in the other) both with a teacher and an assistant. Both schools had good facilities (although one school is in the process of building a newer building although moving is a couple of years off). Both schools are clean and the staff seem very friendly (you didn't pass anyone in the hall who did not say hello to us very genuinely). Both schools were very relaxed, the classes did not have chaos in them and the children seemed happy and were also very friendly. Both schools offer some limited extra curriculars and both schools hold a "camp" for a few days each in the late spring, where the kids go and sleep away from home, have fun and learn how to care for themselves under strict supervision but without parents. Both schools offer both speech and physical therapy on site. Both schools offer swimming lessons. Both schools work with an individual treatment plan where they set individual goals for each semester and evaluate each child against their individual milestones. Each school purports that their goal is to help each child develop their potential to its fullest. Neither school seems like a warehouse. Even the children with very limited capabilities were learning. These are all very positive things.
By contrast Maya's current school seems very chaotic compared to these schools. There is always some kind of commotion, kids throwing tantrums, teachers directing kids (yesterday when I brought Maya to school we were a little early and had to wait in the playground for the doors to open. There were other kids there under the supervision of two teachers. The two teachers chatted to each other while the kids played but when two of the older kids had a commotion by the swings, the one teacher walked over to help out and was yelling at them to stop in a not-friendly tone. Granted it was a playground ruckus with older boys so you need to certainly assert authority there but at that moment I was glad that this teacher was not one of Maya's. I saw nothing like this in either school. Of course we just, when we visit see snapshots in time of course, but my feeling is that in both of these schools the environment is more gentle.
Leo and I do have a slight preference for one school over the other although we need to sit and process what we learned and read the literature and reflect a bit. The one school was smaller and the environment seemed a little more integrated. When we walked through the school with the Principal, he knew every kid by name and the atmosphere was kind of like a little village. Even the guy that cleans knows the kids by name and engages sweetly and easily with them. Plus, I just loved the Principal. He was so easy and kind and you could tell that this was a man (early 60's) who gave his life to these kids, and cares about them. It is more than just a job to him. You could see it in the way he talked about the school, how he interacted with the kids and the teachers and in the questions he asked us. I couldn't help but think that Maya would definitely benefit with someone like that in her corner. We were up front about the other school we were looking at and of course they were familiar with each other. He told us the most important thing is to try and visualize whether you see your child in a certain school and that is a very individual choice since both schools offer more or less the same possibilities.
In the other school the groups seemed a little more isolated from each other although there was a group specially for kids with an autistic spectrum disorder and there were other groups so it seemed like there were more possibilities. Plus we were shown an example treatment plan at the second school and I will admit it was very impressive. Other than just being a collection of reports with some vague goals (which is the type of reports we are used to), this was very concrete. The development plan is divided into sections and each section has 3 goals. So an example goal might be to teach a child to dress and undress himself, or to focus on doing their work in 5-10-15 minute increments. The second school also had a bit more modern facilities, each class had digital blackboards (combi whiteboard with beamer) and 2 computers per class and their own swimming pool. The other school so far has only one digital blackboard (although the rest will change over this year) and one computer per class. The kids have to go outside the school for swimming lessons, although it is done during school hours and under their strict supervision.
All in all, we were happy about what we saw today. Now we have to make a choice one way or another and then start a registration process, which of course involves a lot of red tape. At the moment we are waiting for approval from the government for this type of education for Maya, we have been told it is a formality and Maya will surely qualify for this type of education based on her situation, but it is still red tape nonetheless. Both schools have said in principle that they have a place for her although the second school wants to formally look at her file to see if they can offer her something. I guess that is a good thing.
So, while I have a good feeling about both schools, part of me still, in some distant place wishes we didn't need this, that Maya could be like other kids. I don't think I will ever really get rid of that feeling and I draw back on what has helped me to stay positive during this journey. Not to focus on what-ultimately-will-be type of questions, but to try and make the best decision now for her, based on where she is and to focus on her, on helping her to grow and develop, be happy while doing it and to help her to achieve as much as she can, no matter how much (or little) that is.