Sunday, March 22, 2015

Letter I wrote to a principal last week

Dear [principal],

Thank you again for your time with us on Friday.  I appreciate your willingness to speak with us, and the considerable effort you’ve made to explain your position, to observe Maybelle in an educational setting, and to respond to my concerns.

After we left on Friday, I had some thoughts and realizations that I wished I’d shared with you during our meeting.  I want to tell them to you now.

It troubles me that [this school] didn’t let my daughter start [the school] this fall.  We were and are so excited about this school, but at this point I’m feeling as though Maybelle isn’t seen as fully human.  When [two teachers] and their team visited Maybelle’s school (ECDC), I wrongly assumed that they were using this visit to learn more about who Maybelle is, and how they can best bring her into [the school].  I thought this was a visit saying, “We’re on board!  Now what are the suggestions?”

I was wrong, and that fact became clear when you explained to me that Maybelle wouldn’t be allowed to be a student at [your school].  The same thing happened at our next meeting:  you were kind, but you rejected a role for her at [your school].  In particular, I was struck by the sense that Maybelle wasn’t seen as “normal” enough.  By being rejected from this setting, this school is telling Maybelle that she’s too much work—not valuable enough to be worth the work.  (To be clear, you and your colleagues have been kind throughout these conversations.  I’m not suggesting that any of you are offering any sort of hostility.)

Your refusal to have Maybelle in your class contradicted your (beautiful!) mission:  Maybelle isn’t going to be included in [your school's] “socially diverse student body in a nurturing family environment.”  Teachers in this school are said to offer a number of crucial gifts:  “Teachers challenge the students to discover their own unique gifts through creative inquiry and critical thinking ….  Our small, loving environment enables students to learn self discipline through responsible decision-making and to develop a sense of compassion for others.”  Maybelle and her fellow students could work on these components of the [the school's] Mission Statement—work together, which is best for all the students (as research has said repeatedly). But, instead, she’s left out.  What are Maybelle’s unique gifts?  How would she and her classmates work together to learn self-discipline and a sense of compassion?  I think it’s possible for us to work together to see how best to discover and support Maybelle’s gifts.

I’m not a Christian.  However, in the world around me—Catholic, Jewish, and undetermined—Maybelle has been welcomed and embraced.  She’s gone to non-religious preschool, K4, and K5 in Charleston—all of them welcoming, willing to learn what this will mean for all of them.  She may be welcome to Nativity School, and I believe she would be welcomed to Addlestone, too.  There are also particular public schools that provide inclusive, challenging settings, so that Maybelle and children like her will be in the same classroom virtually all day (I’ll have to work with the staff sometimes to support this work, but I’m happy to do that).

Schools and other organizations are (or have been) eager to work with Maybelle.  These weren’t organizations that had employees with expertise in intellectual disability.  Instead, these are individuals and organizations whose leaders and members are willing and curious.  They didn’t and don’t have to be experts to change what they would do, and most of them hadn’t worked with a child with Down syndrome.  But we’ve all been trying, working together, and we’ve had great successes.  These are organizations committed to their missions.

With respect, I think this is the moment that [your school] should consider what it means to live a mission.  What does it mean when other organizations are ready to embrace my daughter, but your school has sent her away?  This isn’t simply an issue of your organization being too busy, or your classes already having too many children with autism.  You told us about the two children with autism, but you didn’t explain to us why that’s a reason Maybelle can’t come there.  This is a school that seems frightened of working with a child who is exactly like Maybelle.

My concern is that by saying no to Maybelle, you are saying no to many other children with intellectual disabilities, and to their families.  My fear is that you’ll only accept difference if it’s essentially like what you have now.  And I hope that you recognize what a big deal this is, how sad it makes me.  [Your school] was my top choice for Maybelle’s school.  I hadn’t talked to other schools because I was sure [your school] would happily let Maybelle be part of your community.  I was wrong.

Your words and your deeds in your interactions with me, no matter how respectful, strike me as incompatible with what I expected from a 21st century parochial school, or of any thoughtful expression of Christianity.  From my own, non-Catholic point of view, [this school] shouldn’t have to rely on other Catholic schools to compensate for Maybelle’s differences.

Politically, I don’t have much common ground with Philadelphia’s Archbishop Charles J. Chaput.  In 2012, though, he spoke movingly of “the truth that every child with special needs has a value that matters eternally” and said that “the real choice in accepting or rejecting a child with special needs is between love and unlove; between courage and cowardice; between trust and fear.”  Talking about kids with Down syndrome, he said, “each one of these persons is an icon of God’s face and a vessel of his love.  How we treat these persons—whether we revere them and welcome them, or throw them away in distaste—shows what we really believe about human dignity.”

In my own life, Maybelle has been, as the Archbishop explained, “an invitation to learn how to love deeply and without counting the cost.”  I hope in the future—soon!—that [this school] will accept this same invitation.

I very much hope you’ll rethink how you reacted to me, to Maybelle, and to other kids in the world who deserve inclusion, recognition, academic challenges, and love.

--Alison Piepmeier


  1. Replies
    1. Thank you! I had two very close friends who helped.

  2. Oh, my god. I hope you publish this in the city paper, Allison. I will share it far and wide as well. I'm so frustrated for you, but in a weird way I thank you for waking me up. I've felt jaded and worn-out for so long -- have basically given up on Sophie's education -- at least in the school system. You've sparked me, though.

    1. Sadly, the City Paper didn't want it--they didn't see it as a column (although you're certainly able to email Chris Haire and ask what he thinks about publishing it after all: He's a really, really good guy).

  3. This popped up on my Facebook feed. Check out St. John's Catholic school. They're not overtly religious, and they are incredibly accommodating.

  4. Do you believe same sex marriage is legitimate?

    Why is down syndrome the reason you think your daughter wasn't admitted? You have been very public about your values (eg, abortion is acceptable and gay lifestyles are normative)... is it possible that your daughter wasn't accepted bc you are teaching her beliefs that are directly opposed to the schools?

    1. Wow, over dramatic reply to overreacting initial post. Here's a scenario that I think is most likely what actually happened here, which hasn't been mentioned here or on facebook:

      -Maybelle applies to school.
      -Principal, knowing that he is running just a run-of he mill parochial school but at least wanting to consider the matter, sends teachers to observe Maybelle.
      -(Alison wrongly assumes...)
      -Teachers, after observing, report back to principal that they don't think Maybelle and their academic environment are compatible. This probably says more about the teachers than Maybelle - maybe they don't think they have the skills to handle special needs children (I doubt educators with even a minor in this area would be at a parochial school of this size given the demand for their services in the public school system), maybe they think they would need a specialist on staff that they don't currently have (and may not have budget to hire, or may not be able to find in a small Southern city). In any event, this would seem to be a professional judgement on the educators' part.
      -Principal replies to admission request with a simple "No". He's not obligated (and may not be allowed legally) to go into any greater detail about his teacher's internal deliberations, particularly if they involve human resources issues.

      Or, to cast this in another way, if you're a mother with a PhD from an elite university this seems very easy, but if you're a 1st grade teacher with a BA form a small state university working your first job at a parochial school with limited expertise and resources, there's nothing wrong with saying "this is beyond what I think we can handle"

    2. I'm sorry I'm so late in responding!

      Just some quick responses: Maybelle's challenges as a kid with Down syndrome were expressed. It was pretty clear in that conversation that her disabilities are crucial in the decision-making.

      I offered a specialist that I would pay who could work in Maybelle's class and help Maybelle as well as other kids (NOT a shadow but another help in the class), and they said no.

      The principal is the one who gets to have the right to say no--that's absolutely true. But very often the principal has the right to say, "I know that this is a little scary, but I want you to give it a try." He has this decision-making power, and it's happened to schools nationwide and has ultimately experienced how much intellectual disability can help to transform and benefit the whole class.

      It IS possible that they didn't want my loud, honest self. But the fact that I worked constantly with one of their well-loved parents whose kids have all gone to the school--that made a difference. They know this parent who said, "Yes, do it." And they said no.

      I can't define exactly what they were saying or thinking. But I feel pretty strongly that many of us need some nudging.

      Here's a really cool video made recently for Myrtle Beach high school:

  5. Is this a selective school in that it regularly turns down children for not meeting certain academic standards at a certain grade level? My children's schools did not accept children who were not at grade level. Physical accommodations were made for those children who needed them, but not academic. The academic slate set out was expected to be understood at a certain level. Any prospective students not likely to meet those standards were not accepted to the school.

    1. I haven't tried to have Maybelle entered into one of the intense private schools. The Catholic school where I applied explicitly didn't have that warning for its students.

  6. It is a dramatic reply from the principle and some solid reasons must be put on the notes not just that syndrome but in the end, I think that some schools have their own solid principals and there is possibility, it might help your doctor as well and you did good by writing that lifehack post for the people so they must be attentive in that case.

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