Saturday, April 24, 2010

Charter Schools and Summer Camps

Came across an op-ed article on charter schools this morning. I don't have much to add at the moment, but I'm sure you'll be able to form your own conclusions.
Straight Talk About Charter Schools (The Answer Sheet; a Washington Post blog).

...okay, so I do have something to add. I was going to just comment, but I'm not registering for yet another site just to drop one comment, so here it is:

Our "public" school systems (public schooling, private religious schooling, and charter schooling) are failing us across the board - charters are only part of the problem. The "experts" can't even agree on what makes a good school, or a good teacher.

They forget the most important part - what makes a good student? And that answer - the parents, the community, the culture, the teacher prep programs, AND the school... that's too much for most candidates pushing educational reform. They'd rather focus on merit-based pay (yes, let's blame the teachers!) than admit that there is something intrinsically wrong with a system in which parents are allowed to verbally abuse their child's teacher, in front of the child, and the teacher has no redress; in which teacher salaries are much lower than other equally-educated professionals and teachers often pay out of their own pocket for classroom supplies because their funding is misspent on football uniforms; in which sports and American Idol are elevated beyond research facilities, community involvement, or responsible living as the summit of American achievement, and in which teacher prep programs spit out graduates from the bottom of the SAT score pool, the ones who often can't spell, let alone read aloud - but they make awfully good bulletin boards!

The schools are failing us because we are failing them.

And now on to the other topic of the day: Summer camp!

I think about summer camp all year. It was my second home for most of my childhood. A lot of important things happened there. I worked there for 3 years after getting too old to attend as a camper, and I loved it so dearly that I still have to wipe away tears after singing the songs I used to lead around the campfire. I miss it in ways that are impossible to describe. You know how, sometimes, you find a place that is so perfect that you feel as though you found something that you never knew you were missing, but now, you can't stand leaving? That feeling describes how I feel about camp. And that, more than anything else, is why I advocate so loudly for children to attend a camp.

Not everyone likes camp, and not all camps are the same, but for many children it's an experience to which nothing else will compare. The friends you make and the lessons you learn stick with you - not just practical things like identifying plants or using sunscreen, but life lessons: friendship, teamwork, an understanding of nature and all its cycles of life, death and rebirth. And for a child with autism, camp can be a place where the lessons from school, especially social lessons, are repeated and built upon, so that come September there hasn't been a backslide. Camp is important, and not just for the child - how many parents tear their hair when school lets out because they don't know what to do with their child?

Camp is a big choice for a lot of families, but it can be a great time if you put a little planning into it. If you are considering sending your autistic child to camp, now is the time to do it. Really, March was a good time to start looking - some fill up fast, but depending on your area, some camps may still have spaces open, and if not, now is a great time to research for next year and work on any skills your child may need for a successful camp session.

To find a camp, you may look online, but I recommend local research first. Many camps are small, and don't have much (if any) web presence; camps also develop reputations which may not be aired on their website and which may influence your decision. My Summer Camps covers the basics in the US and Canada, and you can ask your child's teacher, behavioral therapist or doctor to compile a list of appropriate camps. Brochures may be available at offices or through your child's school. Available camps may range from half-day social programs to full-week sleepover camps with adjustments for the needs of the children they serve. Most here are day camps which run approximately the same hours as a school day and allow the child to continue a school-like schedule as well as allowing families some freedom to retain home services through the summer months.

Keep in mind that your child's functional level will be considered in the camp application. If your child is not potty trained, is a flight risk, or has other concerns that would require one-on-one aid, look for a camp where a nurse aide or behavioral worker would be welcomed. In PA, some camps invite the child's current behavioral therapy staff to work with the child at camp, which helps with continuity of experience for the child as well as easing the burden of camp staff. Other concerns may be:

1.Communication: If your child does not speak, does he or she have an appropriate system in place to communicate needs to camp staff? Can (s)he bring a technological aid such as a dynavox? Are staff familiar with your child's mode of communication?

2. Behavioral concerns: Does your child show aggression (either toward self or others)? Do you know their tantrum triggers, and does the camp environment and/or staff address them? Will your child require restraint during tantrums? Does your child follow directions and have basic social skills like sharing and turn-taking? Will your child pick up any new behaviors from other campers?

3. Medical concerns: What medications will your child need to take at camp? What medical conditions should staff be aware of and able to treat? Autism-related or not, all camps will require a medical checkup and knowledge of allergies, medications and medical conditions. If you plan right, you can use your child's school physical for camp, and vice versa.

4. Sensory needs: If your child is on a "sensory diet" or has known sensory needs (needs to get up and move, needs to be squeezed, needs a fidget toy) you may want to address this with camp staff. Since many special-needs camps focus on children with a wide array of needs, and not just autism, you'll want to ensure that camp staff or the child's care provider at camp have the tools they need, and not assume that they know all about sensory issues. A child whose sensory needs have been met is more likely to learn and enjoy camp!

5. Funding! Some camps are expensive - do they offer funding? If not, can you apply for a grant or 'scholarship', or do you have to raise the money? A woman not too far from me is trying to raise $2300 for her daughter to attend a special-needs camp, by making and selling jewelry. To her, it's entirely worth it. Would it be worth it to you?

Most of all, consider your child's interests, desires and needs! A camp should be a good fit for the child, and if possible, should spend some time with your child before accepting an application. It will help the camp evaluate your child's fit for the program, and help your child get to know their potential camp leaders.

Camp is pretty awesome, and I believe that it can be a great way for both parents and children to enjoy summer. If you can't go to camp, consider keeping your child on a schedule anyway. Get them up at around the same time, put them to bed at around the same time (bedtime is VERY important!), and structure their meals and a few activities. Not only can a schedule decrease summer tantrums and make life manageable, but come September the school will really appreciate you!

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