I panicked. Absolutely sick-with-worry panicked.
Before we had kids, nine years ago now, we purchased a home in an excellent suburban school district. We often refer to it as Mayberry, and its small-town-next-door-to-a-fantastic-city feel is ideal for our family. We can easily walk to shops and festivals in our quaint little town then arrive in downtown Cincy in 20 minutes or less. We love it.
After our world was rocked by Joel’s rare diagnosis, I worried we needed to move. There are plenty of districts that score fabulously where “typical”/”advanced” students are concerned and fail miserably at serving those whose needs are different than most. I began to research school districts’ state report cards and seek out families all over the city receiving multiple interventions for their children.
My neighbor told me we’d be fine. My friend with an older child assured me there was a place for Joel at our neighborhood school. I still doubted. I found myself chatting at our park with another mom, who asked me more about Joel than acquaintances usually do. It turned out she has a sister with Down syndrome. It also turns out that her mom is our preschool director and intervention specialist, Miss Mary Ann. What are the chances? Pretty good in our small town I suppose, but I began to think we might just be precisely where we are supposed to be.
Nearly nine months before Joel would turn three (the magical age when the county turns the bulk of DD services over to the school district, at least in Ohio), I contacted Mary Ann, introduced myself and Joel, and explained that I was desperate to know if our local preschool would work for him. She invited me to come in and visit that spring. After that visit I never doubted again.
For that day I witnessed the physical therapist, Miss Melissa, work/play outside with the entire class, adapting requests as necessary for developmentally delayed and medically fragile children. It was beautiful. And pretty much every day of the 2 1/2 school years that Joel attended preschool there were just that beautiful.
We started with two mornings a week because he was already enrolled in intensive integrated therapy at Children’s twice a week. The next fall we moved to three mornings a week and quickly added a fourth day to ensure enough time for therapy. In addition to the classroom teacher, intervention specialist, and two assistants/aides, he sees the school’s physical therapist and her assistant, the occupational therapist, a speech language pathologist, and a vision teacher who visits from the county. If you add those to all the specialists and therapists that work with Joel at Children’s, it comes close to two dozen professionals following Joel at any given time. It’s a truly spectacular village.
But there is so much more to our school than a phenomenal staff. I didn’t expect to fall so head-over-heels in love with the other families and kiddos in Joel’s class. Some of our friends see most of the same therapists Joel does, some see one or two, some require that little “extra” help, and some are typical learners.The multi-age classroom means that Joel even started out with a few kids in Luke’s grade and the next. We are lucky enough to take some of our precious friends with us to Kindergarten, and we will leave some to finish up another year or two of preschool. Even the kids from the other preschool classes greet Joel when we’re out and about. He also enjoys visiting (read: escaping to) various classrooms and the office, so most of the elementary staff and students know him. Luke often says, “Joel’s famous!”
What I cannot quite describe is how much Joel adores his classmates and how much they love him. For many years, he was the tag-along little brother of Luke, and now he has his own posse. He simply belongs. Isn’t that what we all want?
We will forever be grateful for Joel’s preschool experience and to Miss Mary Ann, Miss Jackie, Miss Bridget, Miss Lisa, and Miss Barb (and the rest of the village Joel will continue to work with) for making it so special!