KIPP Academy embraced my son and his autism

ByErika Sanzi

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I have four children and as with all children, their needs are not the same. They need different things at home and the same is true in school. As a charter mom of a child with autism, it is very upsetting to hear the local media and others repeatedly make the false claim that charter schools don’t take kids with special needs. Each time they say that, they deny and even work to erase the story of my son, Elijah.

The Story

When Elijah was born he was a very happy baby. The toddler years flew by, and before I knew it, he was in Kindergarten. Elijah loved going to school. He made friends very easily. But his Kindergarten teacher worried that he was falling behind and suggested that he be evaluated to see what may be going on.

The evaluation determined that Elijah had Pervasive Development Disorder or PDD, a condition that falls on the Autism Spectrum. They offered to develop an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) for him. I had no idea what they were even talking about since this was all new to me but it sounded like extra help for my son, so I agreed.

By the end of second grade he was still struggling with reading. They suggested at this point that my son be moved into a separate or “self-contained” classroom. I agreed to allow it but I promised Elijah that it would only be for one year. He hated the new classroom, especially because he was in there with kids in grades 3-5; he was younger than most of the kids in room with him all day long. The new classroom assignment also required him to take separate transportation, and he hated that as well; he cried everyday.

When I met with the IEP team at the end of third grade, they wanted to keep him in that same separate classroom; I told them I was keeping my promise to my son, and he would go back to a regular classroom. They were shocked that I was no longer willing to follow their recommendation. He spent his fourth grade year in a “regular” classroom with extra supports both in and out of the classroom.

A New Beginning

The next fall, everything changed.

He started fifth grade at KIPP Academy in Lynn, Massachusetts. KIPP starts the school year before summer is over and also has longer school days than our neighborhood school. I was comforted to know that 15 percent of the students there require special education services so at least Elijah wasn’t alone in his need for extra supports. The very first thing they did at KIPP was to test his reading level. According to the results, my Elijah was at a first grade reading level.

That’s right. My fifth grade son was reading at a first grade level.

Needless to say, this news was shocking and upsetting. I knew he was behind, but I had no idea he was four grade levels behind. How did he make it all the way to 5th grade? I felt like a failure as a mom, and I blamed myself. But where did the fault really lie?

No one at his prior school had ever suggested that he repeat a grade. Instead, they kept pushing him along through the grades even though he wasn’t even close to ready to move on. And how had no one diagnosed this huge reading deficiency? How did I, as his mother, have no idea that he had not progressed beyond a first grader even though he was now in 5th grade.

The teachers at KIPP really embraced Elijah. They made sure that his IEP was followed. His reading specialists called me at least once a week to let me know how my son was doing and to tell me what I could do to help him. 5th grade was a struggle. I had to sit with my son and go over his homework with him for hours every single day. But I wasn’t alone, while I was working with him at home , I could always call his teachers up until 9pm if I needed help. If they didn’t answer right away, they always called back.

There were many days where my son complained about having to go to school for 10 hours and then having to do 3 hours of homework. But the teachers at KIPP rallied around my son, and made sure he got whatever he needed. He had a learning specialist, a math specialist, a reading specialist, and a school adjustment counselor. Everyone was so helpful and no matter how many times Elijah said he hated it or made things difficult, they never gave up on him.

I often received daily emails from his teachers just to let me know what kind of day he had. Even though it may seem like a small thing it made a huge difference because I really felt like we were working together as a team to help Elijah succeed.

Elijah is now in the 7th grade and the struggle continues. but he continues to give it his “all” every day. I am so proud of him. He is not reading at grade level yet, but he is a lot closer to where he should be now that he is at KIPP, and for that I am eternally grateful.

Natasha Megie-Maddrey is the mother of four children and a practicing immigration and family law attorney in the Boston area. She is a district, charter, and private school parent and her experiences, especially as the mom of a child with autism, have inspired her to raise her voice about the importance of school choice.