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  1. As Chicago parents, we have many, many questions about our children’s education. These questions start before our little ones are even born: Should I send my child to CPS, look at private schools, or move to the suburbs? What is my local school? Is it “good”? Parents of diverse learners face many more questions as their children grow: How will my child get her needs met once she is in school? Is CPS up to the challenge? How do I start the process of enlisting school support? More questions arise once your child is in school. You may start to hear teacher concerns or have your own concerns about reading, behavioral difficulties, attention, etc. Some of these questions may be: Can my child’s needs be met in her current classroom? Will he have to leave his friends and teacher? Will she be labeled or seen as “different”? Will he qualify for special-education support? In my years as a school social worker and a diverse-learner clinical staff member, I have seen how daunting these questions can be for parents. Here are some key points to help you through the process of engaging support for your diverse learner: IEP (Individual Education Plans) and 504 plans are different. An IEP is a plan based upon an educational diagnosis that is determined due to a school-based educational need. A 504 is a medical plan based upon a student’s medical diagnosis. An IEP carries with it support from a special education teacher or speech pathologist; a 504 does not. But they do look a lot alike. Students on a 504 can receive educational accommodations and modifications, such as extended time on tests. Conversely, students can have medical accommodations provided through an IEP. CPS schools are not inherently “bad” places for special education. As in suburban schools, CPS schools have uninspired, bitter teachers who are waiting to retire, and they also have knowledgeable, passionate, miracle-worker teachers who make significant gains with diverse learners. Teachers and members of clinical staff do what they do for the kids. Don’t be afraid to raise your voice. I am a social worker, not a speech therapist or school psychologist. After more than a decade on the job, I am not ashamed to say that I do not fully understand every clinical assessment of every child. As clinicians present their evaluations, please feel free to stop us to ask questions. If you disagree with our findings, let us know. Determining eligibility for support is a collaborative process. We want to make sure that we have all of the facts before making this important decision. Know where to park your squeaky wheel. Are you having an issue with your child’s special education placement? Were you told that your child would require a paraprofessional, yet this position has not been approved at your school? Ask school staff (typically the school counselor) for the name of the person who is in charge of these decisions. If that person does not call you back, contact their supervisor. Some overarching decisions do not come from your local school. You will increase your odds of getting action when you reach out to those in charge rather than rely upon school staff. Parents wield much more power than they know. Your child is your child, not anyone else’s. If you tell other parents, family members, neighbors, etc., about your child and her needs, you will find that everyone has a story about a diverse learner and the school support that the child has or has not received. Please know that this experience is not your experience or that of your child. Try to start from a place of trust, believing that your child’s school support team will do all that they can for your child. Please remember that you are not in this alone. You are your child’s life-long advocate, but you are also a member of his or her school support team. Your questions, thoughts, feelings and hopes for your child are important for the school team to know and take into account.
  2. Article
    It’s your kids who are starting school, but for many parents searching for schools feels like being in the classroom all over again! You’re taking notes on various schools, coming across brand-new terms you’ve never seen before and—gasp!—maybe even compiling a spreadsheet to keep everything straight. It’s overwhelming, and the urge to play hooky to escape all this is tempting. But we at NPN are here to ease some of the anxiety that comes with finding the right school for your child with our Preschool & Elementary School Fair, CPS 101 classes and more. Let’s drill down on the basics: a lesson on elementary school terms. Charter (adj.): a school that gets both private and public funding but is not subject to the same regulations and school-board policies as traditional public schools. Students must apply, and the schedule and curriculum may be different from other public schools. Used in a sentence: I have one child in a CPS school and another in a charter school, and even though their days off don’t always align, it’s still the best option for our family. Lottery (n.): a computerized student-selection process that is, on its face, random, but is actually influenced by a few factors. If your child has a sibling in the school; if you live within 1.5 miles from the school; and/or if you live in an area that, according to U.S. census data, is considered to be in a low socioeconomic tier, your child moves up on the list. Used in a sentence: I am praying to the lottery gods that our proximity to the school will grant my son a spot. Magnet (adj.): a school that specializes in certain subjects, such as math and science, or teaching and learning styles, such as Montessori. Students are selected via lottery (see: lottery). Used in a sentence: The school right across the street from me is a magnet, so I can’t count on my daughter getting in. Magnet cluster (adj.): a neighborhood school (see: neighborhood school) that specializes in certain subjects or teaching styles and accepts students based on attendance boundaries. Students who live outside the boundary may apply, and they’re selected through a lottery (see: lottery). Used in a sentence: Affordable real estate surrounding Lakeview’s Blaine Elementary, a highly rated CPS magnet cluster school that focuses on the fine arts, is hard to come by. Neighborhood school (n.): the CPS school your child is automatically accepted into, based on your address. Used in a sentence: The CPS School Locator tells you what your neighborhood school is. Selective enrollment (adj.): schools for academically advanced students; testing is required for acceptance. Used in a sentence: Bob and Judy have been using math flashcards with their daughter since she was 6 months old in hopes she’d test into a selective enrollment school.
  3. Whether you’re attending the NPN School Fair or you’re going on a school tour, asking the right questions of a school representative is one of the most important ways of determining whether a school is right for your child. But what should you ask? Below are some of the most common questions parents ask when chatting with school reps, along with why their answers are so important. 1. What is the education philosophy? You’ll want to know whether it lines up with what you believe and how you want your child to learn. 2. What is the average class size, and what is the teacher-to-child ratio? An obvious question, but an important one: The smaller the class size and teacher-to-child ratio, the more attention each student receives. 3. What specials does the school have? Specials are classes in areas such as music, art, gym, drama, band and foreign language. Not every school offers them, so if any of these subject areas are important to you, make sure they’re also important to the school. 4. Is there recess? Recess is not a given, and if a school does have it, it may not be as frequent or as long as you or your child would like. Better to set your expectations now, or use this factor as a tipping point in choosing a school with a longer recess if that’s a priority for you. 5. Does the school have before- and after-school care? If you’re a working parent, this question is crucial. Find out if the hours of the before- and after-school care work for your schedule, and if the cost works for your budget. Some schools offer care on-site, but others contract it out, which will likely have your child walking or being bused to another location. 6. What is the approach to standardized testing, and how have test scores grown over the years? This answer to this question will reveal the school’s academic priorities and how the school handles students’ stress when it comes to testing. How a school’s test scores are improving shows you its potential. If the scores are improving every year, that’s obviously a good sign. Even if the school’s test scores are not where you want them to be right now, they might be there by the time your child is in school. 7. How do teachers support students who are working above or below grade level? If students are excelling or struggling, some schools give individual work suited to their level, but other schools expect all children to move at the same pace as the rest of the class. Parents should ask this question so they can be prepared to supplement their advanced child’s learning at home with enrichment activities or, for struggling students, spending extra time on homework or hiring a tutor. 8. What is the discipline policy? Many schools use a strategy called “restorative justice,” which eschews punishment for mediation and agreement to solve problems. Others go the traditional detention and suspension route. How a school handles discipline reflects its culture and, with a few more questions (e.g., How many detentions and suspensions were handed out last year? At what point would the teacher or principal call a parent?), you can get a sense for how nurturing the administration is and how safe the environment is. 9. What opportunities are there for parents to get involved in the school? In many ways, a school’s success depends on parent involvement, from fundraising to helping their kids with homework to advocating for improvements. It also gives you a feel for “extra” activities a school might provide, such as movie nights, dances and winter celebrations, which often are organized by parents.
  4. Right now my Facebook feed is filled with pictures of smiling (and I’m not going to lie, some frowning) photos of kids standing with signs that declare their first day of school. They are absolutely adorable in their best “first day of school” outfits, filled with nervous anticipation of what is to come for the upcoming school year. But I always wonder what these pictures would look like if there was a parent standing with an adorable personalized “back to school” sign. I mean, would anyone be brave enough to publicize their true feelings? I most definitely am, and will be rocking my own version of a “back to school” board in a few weeks—be sure to follow me on Instagram to check out the finished product. Until then, here are 10 thoughts that will go through a parent’s head on the first day of the school year: FREEDOM. Sweet, sweet freedom. My baby! How is my baby so grown up? I can remember bringing him/her home from the hospital like it was yesterday…where has the time gone?!? Where does everyone keep getting all of those cute “back to school” chalkboard signs? I’m lucky enough if I find a black marker and a blank piece of paper that doesn’t have toddler scribbles all over it. Look at that, we are actually on time for the first day of school. I’m totally going to be on time every morning. I mean, it’s really easy. I’ll just have to stay up until midnight getting everything ready the night before. No big deal, right? Speaking of prep work, that lunch I slaved over last night better get eaten. I mean, I cut the sandwich into a fish for crying out loud. I should have taken a picture of it to put on Instagram. Think I have enough time to take a quick picture before the bell rings? I’m officially old. Old enough to have a child in school. I used to be young, hip and totally cool. THIS. IS. DEPRESSING. Pictures! I have to take a picture. Wait, what? Storage full?!?! NOOOOOOOOOO. I really hope my child gets the teacher who doesn’t believe in giving homework. No, I’m not crying. It’s allergies. Haven’t you heard of fall allergies? Does anyone have any tissues? Ok, you officially managed school drop off without completely freaking out and making a fool of yourself. Now just don’t forget to get to school pick up on time!

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