Monday, November 8, 2010

Autism diaries XXII: in search of the perfect school, part II

The "Temple Grandin High School," the high school for autistic children and other left-brainers I fantasized about in my previous post, does not exist, at least around here. So what does this 5th largest city in the country have to offer to those who need structure, direct instruction, independent learning opportunities, and rigorous offerings in math, science, and engineering?


There's the Science and Leadership Academy, which provides more leadership than rigorous science, more group work than independent learning environments, and more project based learning than direct, structured instruction. There are the academically minded schools like Masterman, Central, and Bodine, which either focus on something other than math, science, and engineering (Bodine), are nearly impossible to get into at the high school level (Masterman), or have front-page Philadelphia Inquirer articles written about their exciting new, hands-on approach to science--an approach that simply won't work for those who need structure and a rigorous, content-rich foundation (Central).

There are other schools that sound promising in name only, like the now infamous, Microsoft-funded School of the Future. And there are the various Philadelphia charter schools, most of which favor the arts, the social, and the project-based, and nearly all of which have reputations for failing to accommodate special needs children.

Finally--finally!-- there's the High School of Engineering and Science--perhaps the best kept secret out there (it's not even on the radar of most of the ambitious parents I know). But, in this highly competitive environment (in which the local, neighborhood schools are terrible), it's scary to have only one option.

So here's one other idea. Why not continue as we have been, giving J most of his science, math, and content-based instruction outside of school (via ourselves and an academic tutor), and rely on the school primarily for language arts and socialization?  And why not improve upon this model by choosing a school that offers stuff we can't offer him at home--namely, a trade school (or a trade program within a school) that provides useful, hands-on training in areas where his parents are clueless and where hands-on is actually appropriate?

5 comments:

Amy P said...

I read Temple Grandin's memoir "Emergence" recently and watched the HBO biopic. Autism is very diverse, but here are a few points I remember with regard to Temple's school experience:

1. Temple struggled with abstract math, like algebra, because she couldn't picture it. French was also a problem.

2. She did very well in small schools (elementary and high school) and poorly in a big one.

3. Temple did well with hands-on work like carpentry, costume-making and set-building.

4. She was fascinated by a teacher's dare to re-create an optical illusion (a room with a checkered floor that seems to make objects grow and shrink, depending on where they are placed).

5. Faced with losing horse riding privileges for a week at school, Temple was able to learn to control herself and not strike out at teasing classmates.

I'm guessing that group projects would have been a disaster for Temple in K-12. Although I share your ambivalence for "hands-on" activities as commonly done, I think there is probably a distinction to be made between good hands-on activities and bad hands-on activities, but I'm not sure what the difference is.

Anonymous said...

Good hands-on activities build skill. Bad hands-on activities simply repeat the basic skills that were learned at an earlier age. Good hands-on is for the PURPOSE of building that set of skills (think sewing, carpentry, playing a musical instrument). As the skills are built, conceptual understanding is also built. Bad hands-on activities have a goal that is theoretically academic (like learning about history by building dioramas) but arent't the best way, or even a good way, to learn that academic content.

A BCPSS Parent said...

We've got a few years until high school, having just started middle school this fall. In Baltimore we've had good luck with charter schools that do accomodate special needs kids well. They might not have all the services, but having a positive attitude and wanting to figure out a way to make things work is much more important IMHO than having an on-site speech therapist who knows nothing about autism (what we had in our non-charter K & 1st grade school).

So, before you remove all charters from you options, talk to administration and special educators and try to get a feeling for how they might work with your child. I admit we talked to some who said "special needs? yuck!", but most wanted to find a way to make things work.

Amy P said...

"Good hands-on is for the PURPOSE of building that set of skills (think sewing, carpentry, playing a musical instrument). As the skills are built, conceptual understanding is also built. Bad hands-on activities have a goal that is theoretically academic (like learning about history by building dioramas) but arent't the best way, or even a good way, to learn that academic content."

That sounds right.

Hainish said...

Critics of charter schools say that they are not really all that innovative, and that districted public schools could easily do the same things charters do.

Well, maybe they could, but they don't. For all the talk of local control, districted schools are virtually carbon copies of one another.