By Patrick B. McGuigan
OKLAHOMA CITY – In public school, Dylan Pennington’s days were marked by large classes in which he felt lost and alone. His parents (mom Jennifer is an educator herself) became convinced his teachers had inadequate training to work effectively with special-needs children like their son.
Verbally bullied, he didn’t want to go to school after getting called “cracker,” “fat,” “weird,” or “crybaby.”
From the age of three until nine, Dylan’s days in school were, in theory, guided by an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). It was gloriously specific (on paper) and completely dysfunctional (in practice). He was one of 25 to 30 kids in his class, and not the only youngster on an IEP.
There was supposed to be $10,000 a year in tax money for Dylan’s special-needs education, but it was not available to pay for therapists, an aide to help his regular teacher, or someone to help him organize and/or to give his teacher a clue on how to work with autistic kids.
His mother believes that was a misuse of resources.
When you cover American education, stories like these are the rule, not the exception.
Thanks to the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship program (http://watchdog.org/98789/milton-friedman-honored-as-oks-special-needs-children-are-free-to-choose/) — established by the Legislature in 2010 for the worthy public purpose of better education for children just like this — Dylan now attends Trinity School, a private institution tucked away in a wooded area near Interstate 235 in Oklahoma City.
Today, Jennifer told The City Sentinel, “He’s learning life skills, as part of a group of 12 kids. He is happy and progressing academically, although much of what he learns is not in textbooks.” His disabilities are not limited to autism, but include dyslexia and dysgraphia.
Jennifer says, “The school is structured but not rigid. He’s gone from frustrated adults who, he believed, wanted him to go away, and kids who didn’t really want to see him or play with him, to adults who text me regularly with updates on how his day is going, and kids who enjoy his company. There is back and forth with his teacher every day; and his teacher understands the special challenges he faces.”
That’s not all: “Dylan is held accountable for his behavior, so his behavior has gotten better. In the public school, he liked being in the office more than doing class work. Now, he enjoys class work and activities with the other children. His life is so much better, now. He is safe, loved, and able to play when it is time to play. Even on what is a ‘bad’ day, now our world doesn’t come to an end.”
She continues, her voice catching: “We were done with public schools after those six years, regardless. He will never go back to that setting. It’s a blessing to have some of the financial burden of our choice taken away, to have some help to get him a good education in an appropriate and effective setting.”
The Penningtons wrote a long letter responding to the newest lawsuit aiming to destroy Oklahoma’s historic program for special-needs children (http://watchdog.org/110712/lawsuit-by-public-school-educators-attacks-ok-scholarship-program-for-special-needs-children/). Here is some of that:
“We love our son beyond words, and we will never place him back into public school. We say this not as a threat but to make a point. The money that his public school was receiving for Dylan, it only received because he was enrolled there. When we withdrew him, his public school no longer received funds for him. Our child’s Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship is not taking away from another disabled student’s opportunities in the public school system, and we are tired of that being used as a justification for the lawsuit against this scholarship program. …
“Parents are seeking out new ways to educate their children, whether it is to put them in a specialized private school or to provide home schooling or nontraditional online public schooling. Parents are finally being heard, and it seems that there are some who don’t like that we now have a choice.”
She truly says it better than I can:
“The lawsuit against the … Scholarship Program is more about maintaining power and control and has very little to do with the disabled children whose lives are forever changed for the better by this scholarship program. We are taxpayers too, and we feel honored that some of our tax dollars are being used to pay for other children in Oklahoma who have qualified for this scholarship to get a good education. These children are our future, and we must make sure we enable them to thrive and learn as we did.”
Jennifer’s message to fellow taxpayers is this: “Why should [parents] and their children suffer because change is needed in public education but some are not willing to pull up their bootstraps and make it happen? The tax money these public schools were receiving is gone because parents are leaving those schools for better options. Taking away this scholarship isn’t going to change that fact, but it could detrimentally affect the most vulnerable children in Oklahoma.”
Dylan deserves … a chance.
“Man Overboard,” a soft rock band, has an album called “The Human Highlight Reel.” It features a nice, mysterious little tune called “Dylan’s Song.” The lyrics include these: “I took a beating on the way of looking for you. … I’m trying to earn my real life back.”
Real life has enough challenges without artificial, in some cases nonsensical, barriers placed by government. For Dylan and kids like him, real life should include opportunities for growth, time for development, relationships with other kids who are accepting, and empowerment to loving parents.
Dylan seems willing to do his part. Are we willing to do ours?
NOTE: This essay is adapted from McGuigan’s commentary in the February 2014 edition of Perspective Magazine (http://ocpathink.org/articles/2625#sthash.BRfiNTKI.dpuf), the monthly publication of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.