JOHN BALSAMO: “School choice provided doors and the means necessary to open those doors. It literally was life-changing for our family.”
By John’s mom, Cristin
How has school choice helped me and my family? Let me tell you. I am a wife and mother. I spend my days and nights caring for those whom I love — my husband and my children. I have two sons, John, who is ten years old, and Sam, who is six. They’re energetic, smart, and, sometimes, challenging. They are the center of my world.
As parents, what we want for our kids is probably no different than other families. We want our children to be happy, loved, to grow and learn, to flourish in all areas, and to have opportunities and choices available to them that open the doors to pathways for success.
Right now, I have choice. My sons have choice. There was life before school choice, and there was life after school choice. Why do I look at it that way? Because school choice was life-changing for our family and for my son, John, in particular.
My oldest son, John, is ten years old. He’s talented, he’s brilliant, he’s loving, and he’s autistic. We recognized very early on that John was not like all of the other kids. By the time he was three, he had taught himself to read. He was already displaying photographic memory abilities. He could tell you, for hours and hours, all you ever wanted to know about space, weather phenomena, and dinosaurs. And he could play a mean game of chess!
When John reached the age to enter the school system, five years old for kindergarten, my husband and I both understood that it would be no small undertaking. We have an atypical child going into a system built, the most part, for typical children. You can understand when I say we were already filled with concern and worry for our son and for his future.
John entered kindergarten with an IEP in place; we had the tools needed to allow us access to the resources and programs available for special needs children. However, we discovered quickly and much to our dismay, that it was going to be extremely challenging, if not virtually impossible, to find a suitable environment and learning program to meet his own, individual needs.
By first grade, the class sizes alone were enough to trigger his sensory processing disorder and send him into panic attacks and terror. In addition, we found that there were not many teachers with the education or training to understand and work with John’s challenges as a high-functioning, exceptionally bright autistic child. Instead of flourishing and loving school, he struggled to make it through the day.
Over those first few years, it quickly became apparent to teachers, staff, and administrators that, while John was exceptionally bright, he was extremely challenged, particularly socially. We had frequent meetings and communicated daily with his teachers. Some schools were cooperative and some were definitely not.
Somewhere along the way, as parents, you realize you have to fight for your child every step of the way just to get the same opportunities and choices afforded to others, often those who fit a certain mold. Otherwise, for kids like John, needs are not met and they do not thrive. Many times these are the ones who are overlooked or marginalized, in large part because schools just don’t know how to meet their needs.
The question we faced time and time again, from school to school (five different schools by third grade), where does John belong? Where is the school, teachers, and programs that will better meet his needs? My husband and I, never willing to give up on our son’s potential and happiness, were left despairing and heartbroken. Not to mention frustrated! We knew we couldn’t be the only parents facing this same scenario. And what was at stake here? Our son’s education, his happiness, his opportunities and his entire future.
About halfway through John’s third grade year, we made the decision to take on homeschooling. We had to find a way to feed his growing mind, to help him remember what it was like to love learning, and to just feel good about himself. My brilliant little boy, who once loved to learn and read all day, had given up. He had, at seven years-old, accepted this fate. It was utterly gut wrenching. The traumas of bad experience after experience, school after school, had left him without an ounce of self confidence. Of course, this spilled into every area of our family and home life. Every single day was a mountain to climb.
What will become of him? What will his future look like? As parents, our hearts were broken. We had no other alternatives, until we learned about the school choice coalition. By then, as parents, we thought we’d opened every door available to us, none successful. But, by utilizing scholarship funds available to children and families just like us, school choice provided not only more doors, but the keys to open those doors. To us, school choice said, “Here’s another door. Try this. Don’t give up. Your son matters as much as any other child. His needs deserve to be met like any other child’s. Maybe this will help.”
By word of mouth, we heard about a faith-based private school, almost an hour’s drive from where we lived at the time. Honestly, we were so afraid of trying another school. The last thing we wanted to do was put John through another traumatizing experience. With hope and a prayer, we decided to enroll John for the fourth grade year at Far West. We also applied for several scholarships available to families suffering financial hardships and for families of children with special needs.
We were successful in obtaining scholarship funds made available through the school choice initiative and John began fourth grade at Far West Academy. We hoped. We prayed. We were terrified and afraid to get our hopes up.
But we found a school that was different. We found a school that could work with John on a smaller scale, accommodating his own individual needs. Smaller classes, less transitioning and unstructured periods, more one-on-one time. We found a school willing and able to teach children in various ways- both traditional and nontraditional: more hands-on and visual, both inside the classroom and out. They encourage patience, kindness, and that every child is important. And better yet? He was happy again. He loved school again. He believed in himself again. Everything went from being “I can’t” to “I can.”
I was no longer terrified to send my son to school. We had found hope as a family. We found life and learning, growth and progression. Possibilities became endless and our future was once again bright.
We packed up our lives, John and his kindergarten-aged brother Sam, and moved to the other end of the city to be close to the school. There was no question about it. Once we knew we had found a school that could successfully meet and exceed my children’s needs, we didn’t hesitate.
School choice provided doors and the means necessary to open those doors. It literally was life-changing for our family. Were it not for the scholarship funding made available through school choice, none of this would have been possible.