Martha Tobin's 9-year-old son, Ian Trout, has Williams syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that mixes musical gifts and a "cocktail-party personality" with heart problems, autistic tendencies and patches of encyclopedic brilliance. "Ian wanders, he's friendly, he has a short attention span," explains Tobin. "He's smart enough to know he's different, and he doesn't like it. I've been working all year to get him included (at Bristol School, in the Webster Groves district)."
This year, for second grade, Ian was supposed to start and end his day in his general-ed homeroom, plus share their music and gym classes. But Tobin couldn't get the full-time aide necessary to keep Ian from wandering into somebody else's schedule. "SSD told me, 'There is none available, the positions are hard to fill, they're not paid very much,'" she recites. "So his days have been disconnected; he gets booted back and forth. He's been written up for behavior problems, because when he's frustrated, he gets angry. And his frustration level is high, because he doesn't know where he fits in."
His mom's pretty frustrated, too. "If you go to the school district, the administration there has no real culpability," she points out. "And SSD has nobody on site with any authority to help you." Even if they did, the answer might be equivocal. Parents and principals say a full-time aide makes all the difference, easing the extra burden for the regular teacher, directing the child's attention and forestalling behavior problems that would alienate him. But Melodie Friedebach, coordinator for the state's Division of Special Education, says, "You have to question, are we creating more dependence? I don't think there are that many kids who truly need a one-on-one aide. Probably some have aides that don't really need them." Judy Wollberg, director of curriculum and staff development for SSD, says, "Their peers can actually start to serve some of those roles (helping students get into the routine of the day and deal with changes). Whatever support you put in, you put in with a goal of pulling that support back."
Ah, but are there enough aides to start off right? "Never," Wollberg admits frankly. Are they paid enough? "No. And good ones are worth a pot of gold." In the city, aides make about $13,000 a year; in the county, about $18,000. Usually they're in school or they have other jobs. The state requires only 10 hours of training in special education, with a smidgin about autism thrown into the mix.
A few days in classrooms, and you realize it's potluck. Some aides are passive, lumpish presences. Some sit there sweetly, primed to do half the work for the child or whisk him off to a time-out room if a nervous giggle escalates. Others give attention so intense it spins a thread, tying the child's distractable mind to the work at hand. They are as unobtrusively vigilant as guardian angels, ready with a hug or a whispered prompt but able to help the entire class in the interim.
That's the ideal. And right now, it's the exception.
-- Jeannette Batz