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Zoe’s fourth birthday is coming up in a month. There is nothing that she really needs. But I believe kids should get something for their birthdays. So at various moments I have asked her what she wanted. So far she’s said things like, “I’d like a whole town that’s really tiny.” Hmmm. Not sure what that means. At other times she said she wants a doll that has batteries or a horse that has batteries. I explained to her that we don’t like to buy toys like that with batteries, because you don’t get to use your imagination. If the batteries do all the work for the toy, you don’t get to have as much fun. She totally bought it. “So I guess I won’t ever have any toys with batteries.” I guess not. I said, “You like doing science experiments, what about some science toys?” So far her science experiments, inspired by Sid the Science Kid, involve a lot of melting of ice or freezing of water or putting sunblock on construction paper. She said “Yeah! I love science. Let’s get some science toys!” So we went to Lakeshore Learning, a great teacher store recommended to me by several local moms. She wanted one of everything. I told her we were just there to get ideas, but we definitely got some. Glad to know there are lots of fun things out there that don’t require batteries, just a curious mind.
My daughter points out homonyms frequently in conversation. She uses words like meanwhile, rotate, and stabilize. She can do a forward roll and a plie, hang from her feet and hands from the monkey bars, and climb to the top of anything. She puts her dishes in the dishwasher. She can navigate a website. She listens to instructions, plays well with others, and likes to cook real and pretend food.
Also, she can’t always tell when her bladder is empty or full. The urologist says this is normal and she is among 20% of children her age whose bladder control has not caught up with their physical development. The urologist says this is likely genetic.
But according to the school system, it is her failure to keep from having accidents, or our failure for not teaching her how or working with her closely enough. So they did not want her in their PreK classrooms. After telling us this, they worked with us for exactly two weeks before removing Zoe from school. We tried to work this out with the school system, but they were unresponsive, so we went to the press instead, and opened Pandora’s box.
We thought the story would be buried in the Metro section. Our only goal was to get the attention of the school system to encourage them to change their policy. Instead we became a national news story, more read and emailed that day on the Washington Post website than articles about the revolution in Egypt. The story was picked up by AP and appeared on numerous tv and radio shows, newspapers, and blogs across the country. We received requests for interviews from ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, Fox, MSNBC, and some local radio show from around the country. Good Morning America came to our house three times. The Today Show People came once. I had to draw the blinds and let the phone ring. Our story drew ire and unbelievable venom from people who anonymously judged my daughter and me, without knowing us at all or really understanding the situation. They said my daughter clearly wasn’t ready for school. I was too lazy to potty train my child and was expecting the school to do it for me. I didn’t understand the difference between day care and school. One woman emailed me directly with the subject line “stop whining” and an email message “why don’t you just stay home with your daughter?”
It’s been almost a month since the story ran. My daughter is fine. She’s back at a co-op preschool where they don’t care if she has accidents, but as it happens, she hasn’t had any there. She still has them at home sometimes.
The school system did comply with one of our requests, which was that they make public their previously internal guidelines that they consider children who have 8 accidents per month not to be potty trained. At least parents now know what they’re getting into.
But the school system maintains that children should not have that many accidents because the classes aren’t staffed for them. So because Zoe’s bladder is underdeveloped, she’s not allowed to go to school there. They maintain their policy that has been in place for 40 years is sound, even though it conflicts with the guidance of the medical establishment. It still does not seem quite fair.
I am trying to put it behind me, but it won’t stay there.
Every time I hear from another person that our situation was mentioned on Good Morning America or Dr. Laura or in a magazine they received in the mail, it makes my stomach hurt.
When I hear that the school system is telling everyone that they worked families for several months on potty training and they expect a week at home will allow a child to make progress on an issue they have no biological control over, it makes my stomach hurt.
Every time I see an acquaintance in a parking lot and they said “you’re famous,” it makes me cringe.
We were just trying to stand up for our daughter, and for children who should have the opportunity to go to school even if all their organs aren’t functioning at full capacity. Thankfully, we did get some encouragement. I did get emails from strangers thanking me for what I did, saying it inspired them. I did hear from clients who are advocates for children and families that was I did was brave and that it’s critical for people to stand up to schools and other institutions on behalf of children. I was comforted by waves of support and love from friends and family on Facebook, including several educators who were outraged and sent letters to the school system advocating for change in policy. So I feel like ultimately, we did a good thing. But right now it still makes my stomach hurt.
[a letter of support from an elementary school teacher]
February 3, 2011
Dr. Michelle Picard
Director of Early Childhood and Elementary Education
Arlington Public Schools
Dear Dr. Picard,
I am writing concerning the recent removal of Zoe Rosso from the Montessori preschool class which is housed in an elementary school in your district. I hold a Master of Teaching degree from the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, as well as a PreK – 8 teaching certification, and I have been a public school teacher in Virginia for 14 years. I currently work at an elementary school in Norfolk, Virginia, which houses several preschool classes. I was absolutely shocked when I read the recent Washington Post story about Zoe’s removal from her class as a result of toileting accidents. The primary reason for the existence of the public school system in the United States is to provide a universally free and appropriate public education for every child. This is not an optional feature of our public school system — it is a requirement of federal legislation, which means that there is no valid reason for any child to be excluded from the use of public school facilities. Zoe Rosso’s exclusion from her preschool class as a result of toileting accidents is therefore quite impossible for me to fathom.
The preschool classes at the public school where I teach serve regular, special education, and severely handicapped students. While there is the expectation that students in the regular education preschool classes come to school potty trained, under no circumstances would a student in any of those classes be removed from class for having toileting accidents, regardless of the frequency of the accidents. Preschool teachers in our school change diapers and pull-ups, often without the presence of an assistant; they help with toileting, assist with toileting accidents, and do whatever else is necessary in order to best serve each student, regardless of his or her age. This is what is expected of public school teachers, and it is also what is expected of any group, Montessori or otherwise, which is given permission to use a public school building. Access to public education, and the use of public educational facilities, simply cannot be denied to any child — regardless of the classroom’s adopted philosophy.
It is wholly inappropriate, and a violation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004, to deny access to public education, or the use of public educational facilities, to any child. The IDEA of 2004 does not permit the exclusion of any child based on physical concerns of any kind, and it does not permit the exclusion of a child from a class or school based on the level of inconvenience which may be felt by the teacher or staff members currently serving that child, as appears to be the case in this situation.
I have been greatly puzzled by a number of aspects of Zoe’s story. I struggle to understand why the Arlington Public School District is charging parents almost $900 per month per student, as most other school districts who offer a Montessori preschool do so at no cost whatsoever to students and their families. Collecting this exorbitant monthly fee appears to be completely at odds with the concept of a free education for each child. I also struggle to understand why this class is not held to the same standards of student inclusion and acceptance – namely, being universally available to all — which would be required of any other classroom that was located in a building whose construction was funded by state and federal taxpayers’ money. Further, I struggle to understand why there is a discriminatory and developmentally inappropriate policy in place regarding toileting accidents in a classroom for very young children — particularly since I still have first grade students in my classroom who have toileting accidents! Additionally, I struggle to understand why the Rosso family was treated with such blatant disrespect during this entire process, to the point of being escorted from the school building as if they were criminals when their child was removed from school. Above all, I struggle to understand why the convenience of the teacher involved was placed above the needs of a three year old child in the classroom. I urge you to give careful consideration to each of these troubling issues, as you decide how next to proceed.
To be perfectly honest, I think this story is about more than just Zoe Rosso. I think this story is about a teacher who violated a child’s basic (and federally protected) rights because it was more convenient for her to do so than it was for her to work out a solution that benefited the child in question. I think this story is about a principal who placed a higher value on policy than she did on an individual student’s education and emotional well-being. I think this story is about a school system which has done the wrong thing by allowing developmentally inappropriate policies to be put in place and enforced – and I cannot help but wonder if there may be some kind of financial incentive for the district to have done so, particularly since most public school districts allow students to attend the Montessori classrooms housed in their buildings free of charge.
Hillel writes, “In a situation where there is no righteous person, try to be the righteous person.” Ms. Picard, I urge you to try to be the righteous person in this situation. I urge you to take a stand, to send a clear message that the exclusion of any child from an educational setting is never an acceptable option — except in the case of students who demonstrate extreme violence, which three year old Zoe Rosso of course did not. I urge you to send the message that you expect your employees to place a higher value on what is in the best interests of the children they serve than they do on what is most convenient for themselves as individuals.
I urge you, in the strongest possible terms, to remember precisely how public funds, and the public educational facilities which rely on those funds, are expected to be utilized: for the education and welfare of all of the children, all of the time. All means all.
I urge you to bring about significant reforms in this preschool and its policies. While the principal and the teacher may have technically been following the letter of district policy when they acted, they clearly were not acting in the best interests of Zoe Rosso, or of any other child who may have been ejected from this preschool as a result of similar issues. And this, quite simply, means that they were neither doing their duty nor serving the public interest.
Should Arlington Public Schools decide to maintain a potty training requirement as part of its preschool policy, I would strongly urge you, first, to make public on your website and on your Montessori application the precise details of what constitutes a “potty-trained” child. In addition, I would ask that the district immediately align its definition of “potty trained” with the developmentally and medically appropriate standards which are set forth by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Urology, both of which acknowledge that it is absolutely normal for children who are potty trained to continue to have accidents (even more than eight accidents per month) through the age of five.
Karin Ferebee Roberts