How Southwest Middle rescued a child from the cruel, incompetent indifference of a choice school

Today we have a guest post. I’ve known the Olson family for a long-time. My son Ian and their son Luke have grown up with each other. We are all dear friends. I had known about the story Sara Olson is about to tell you; and I encouraged her to tell it. I’m grateful that she and Luke and their whole family are willing to share the pain and redemption of their school experience. Sadly, I know from many community discussions that it’s not an unusual story, particularly the part before the happy ending. I hope it will remind everyone that the endlessly stupid and abstract school reform/choice/charter debate involves flesh and blood children.

A Note From a Grateful Mother

My son Luke loves baseball, basketball, hanging out with his friends — and playing more baseball. He is a real likable kid who rarely meets a stranger. Luke also has dyslexia and will always have this learning disability. He struggled to read as a young child; and he has continued to struggle as a teenager with a learning disability. As a phonetic thinker, spelling is not his forte; and reading will probably never be one of his favorite activities. But, he can tell you details about a battle in the Civil War and the latest book he read, which happens to be Call of the Wild. He loves to learn; but he definitely learns differently than most other students.

We were so very fortunate for Luke to attend The Roberts Academy at Florida Southern College for two years. This is a school specifically for children who have dyslexia. He made great strides there and made huge gains in reading. After leaving The Roberts Academy, Luke was accepted into a magnet IB middle school.

We knew that Luke attending this school would be a challenge; but we did not have any idea how this would affect Luke and our family. Those two years were the most stressful years of our lives. I really felt that Luke was mostly home schooled because we spent our evenings doing school work. I had to learn material to teach it to him. We were doing classwork, homework, and projects 3 to 4 hours every night. Most nights did not end very well. He fought me on many nights. I can’t count the nights that he just broke down and cried. He would say “I can’t do this. I’m not smart enough to go to this school.” My heart was broken but I was even more determined to show this school that he did belong there, and he was good enough to be there.

Luke managed to barely make it through two years in one of Lakeland’s most sought-after middle schools; and he was miserable. Quite frankly, as a parent I was miserable. From the beginning, this school really did not know how to handle a student with an IEP. Actually, they had many students with IEPs; but those children were high performers and considered gifted. My son was at the other end of the spectrum. His IQ was fine; but he completed tasks at a much slower pace than his peers. He did not fit in their box.

It was almost a daily struggle to prove that he was good enough to occupy a seat there. Many of the teachers in this school thought Luke was lazy or unmotivated. Granted, he is a normal teenager; and there were days that he probably was lazy and unmotivated. But there were many more days he was reduced to tears just trying to survive there. I constantly exchanged emails and met with teachers and the administration regarding his IEP (Individual Educational Plan). There were many occasions when his IEP was not followed; and we both felt defeated. I even had a teacher tell me that “she had 25 other kids in her class what did I expect her to do.” Well, I expected her to teach and not give up on my son. Giving up was not an option. There were and are good teachers at this school; but it’s my opinion, based on firsthand experience, that this school tries not to accommodate students like my son so that parents get frustrated and withdraw their students from the school.

After two years at this school, we were both exhausted. As a parent, I felt a huge sense of failure as I withdrew him from that school. Little did I know that this was the best thing I could do for him. I sought counsel from parents who have children with learning disabilities and other professionals. The last day of school I was on the phone with the ESE coordinator at Southwest Middle; and we made the decision to request that Luke transfer there for his 8th grade year.

His 8th grade year started with a new school and a new tutor. Both of these made a huge difference to Luke. He arrived at Southwest Middle unsure. So was I. This was a much larger school, and the school uniform was much more lax. It just felt different. The first week I requested a meeting with his teachers. We had that meeting and the teachers were a little confused. They asked me why we were meeting when school had just started. I explained what had happened the previous two school years and explained Luke’s learning disability. It was at this meeting that I met Jim Gallman. He assured me that they were there to help Luke, and it was going to be a great year. I left that meeting feeling a little odd. No one told me that “this school may not be the right fit for my son.” Everyone at that meeting was positive and told me not to worry.

Most of us have had a particular teacher who has made a positive impact on our education and lives. Jay Gallman is that teacher for my son Luke. He knew that Luke would not be an easy task but decided to start small and then grow by taking it a day at a time. Before long, Luke was participating and even leading discussions on how to write argumentative essays. I saw my son’s confidence grow almost weekly. Jay Gallman knew how to motivate Luke and how to get the best out of him. Luke performed for him even when he kept raising the bar. Luke’s success in Mr. Gallman’s class spilled over to his other classes. He was becoming a different student in a good way.

Luke is leaving Southwest Middle with a respectable GPA and is ready to take on high school. More importantly, he is leaving there with more self-esteem and determination. There were many teachers at this school who did great work with Luke, but Mr. Gallman truly has a gift. Thank you Mr. Gallman for not discounting my son and his abilities. Thank you Mr. Gallman for putting as much or even more effort in your lower-performing students as the higher-performing students. (He also teaches gifted students.) Thank you Mr. Gallman for holding special classes on several weekends to get students more prepared to take the Florida Standard Assessments. For all the students who came before my son and for all the students who will come after, thank you Mr. Gallman for being a that teacher. You made a difference in my son’s life! I am a very grateful mother!

Back to Billy now:

I have written often and acidly in this space about the cruelty and dishonesty of the marketing and rhetoric that surrounds many large, “successful” magnet and charter schools. This story illustrates it beautifully. Indeed, how many times have you heard falsely pious, smug traditional school haters say: “We’re not like traditional public schools. We always raise the bar. We believe every child can learn. No excuses.”

This is the mantra of the “choice” community. And it’s hogwash, at least in Florida. Magnet, choice, and charter schools — wealthy schools — give up on children constantly. It’s their business model.

If I taught or served as a principal at this “elite” school, this story would make me ashamed of myself. If you can’t teach a perfectly teachable kid, and that kid then blossoms at a traditional school where they care about him, YOU ARE NOT A GOOD SCHOOL. I don’t care what your carefully curated enrollment’s test scores say. Why are you in this profession at all? At the very least, pipe down about the men and women taking on the difficult job that you won’t.

Just hang out a banner in front of your school that tells the truth: “Don’t come here if you have an IEP; or you might make our lives a little harder; or drop our test scores. After all, we have 25 kids in a class, what do you expect us to do?”

That would be helpful. Because the greatest problem with the choice movement is its dishonesty. Lilly white, wealthy choice schools should simply say, “We do not exist to serve your child; your child exists to serve our school as marketing material through the testing scoreboard.” If they were honest about that, this whole choice thing would be much clearer to people and cause much less damage. It might also stop the endless slander of the children who attend traditional public schools and the teachers who teach them.

The Olsons are a tight family with strong intellectual and social resources from which to draw. And this still wrecked them for a long time. How do you think people and children with fewer resources manage when they’re told every day that they suck and don’t measure up to the “good” kids or the “smart” kids?

Thank goodness for people like Jay Gallman, who is leading a life much better and more productive than mine, at a rate of pay that embarrasses me as a taxpayer. The next time one of the quitters at a big fancy school goes off on the rabble of traditional schools and those that teach them, hear the name Jay Gallman. And think for a second about Luke.