Today is the first day of Isaiah's last year of school. He's a senior and hopes to graduate this spring.

It's been a rough road for him for a number of reasons. An incredibly smart and verbal kid (he started talking at 8 months), he's never enjoyed school. I made the mistake, perhaps, of slapping a "Question Authority" bumpersticker on the back of his tricycle at age 2, and as such he's always balked at orders and assignments (read: homework and "busy work") that he's seen as unnecessary.

We had our first run-in with the public school system when he was in 3rd grade. Isaiah was a good reader, but his penmanship and spelling were abysmal. When I questioned his teacher why she'd decided to move him into a remedial reading group (rather than address the specific issues with his writing skills), she told me -- I swear -- "Well, some kids just never learn to read and write. Isaiah might be one of them."

I pulled him from school the next day, determined to homeschool him and save him from some of the unnecessary bullshit and trauma from being designated, at age 8 or so, as "forever illiterate."

Isaiah returned to a different school for 4th and 5th grade. He had great teachers. He did well and was identified to participate the Talented and Gifted Program in math.

A week before he started middle school in 6th grade, his father was diagnosed with liver cancer. I remember junior high as being one of the worst times of my life. Any of my memories of social awkwardness, fallings out with friends, humiliating PE experiences -- they all pale in comparison to the hell that Isaiah experienced in middle school. A week before Isaiah started 7th grade, his father died.

The public school system since then has been grossly unsupportive to the point of negligence (although, of course, as the parent, the pushback is always that I'm the negligent one. And I do accept my part in all of it). Isaiah's emotional and mental health needs were never really recognized. He missed a lot of school. His grades plummeted. He got in fights with students who used his dad's death to taunt him. I had one teacher -- again, I swear -- tell Isaiah during a parent-teacher conference that he'd had a rough childhood -- an alcoholic father -- and still managed to excel in school, so Isaiah really just needed to "pull it together." When Isaiah entered high school, the principal said that what Isaiah really needed was to go out for the basketball team. That would make things better. I had the truancy officer called on me for his excessive absences.

Midway through his sophomore year, Isaiah was facing dropping out of school. He'd failed almost every class in high school. His grief and depression had reached a level where he was almost unable to get out of bed. We had mental health help with that, sure, but none of that really translated to the school that seemed unwilling to budge or work with us.

He came to me one day and said that he would like to attend North Eugene Alternative. The school is geared towards at-risk students, and its mission is to help kids graduate who wouldn't otherwise make it through high school. The classes are small. The school day starts at noon. There are only 30 students in the program, so the teacher-to-student ratio is very different from the other classes here in Oregon, where you can have upwards of 40 kids in a class. And the classes appeal to Isaiah's interests: they're practical, hands-on, community-oriented. The classes recognize that not all students are destined for 4-year-college programs (He's taking a class this term on how to build his resume and apply for jobs.) The school has little tolerance for skipping school: miss more than two classes, and you fail. And while I can't really say Isaiah has excelled, he's pulled a solid B average since being there. And he'll get a high school diploma, something that seemed out-of-reach a couple of years ago.

And perhaps I should wait to thank the teachers there til the day we see that diploma in his hand, I do know that right now, they have made a huge difference in my kid's life. And I am incredibly grateful.

Isaiah has never fit "the mold" of what the public school system expected of him -- in aptitude, in attitude, in life experiences. But honestly, how many kids really do?

Audrey Watters


Hack Education

The History of the Future of Education Technology

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