Goodbye TUSD: Happy New School Year

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I've written some about Tucson Unified School District, but I never thought as a parent of a TUSD student that I'd be one of those families who finally gave up and left, and that's exactly what we decided to do this year. My mom is a graduate of Tucson High, as are her sisters and many cousins, and my great-Uncle E.D. Herreras is in its hall of fame. This was always part of the narrative I'd share with my son and part of the plan on where he'd go to high school and then eventually college.

But my son's first seven years of school haven't been easy. The special education challenges have been tremendous and the stress it caused on our family over the years took its toll, especially the past three years. However, through those challenges, we worked hard, he especially.

Last year, my son attended Utterback Magnet Middle School in TUSD. For the most part he loved it; it ended up being a great supportive environment for him to help him become a better advocate for himself. He left the trappings of a self-contained classroom behind early in the year and realized he could excel academically—honor roll with straight A's at the end of the year. (Yep, I am a damn proud mama.)

The problem, as my son stretched and grew, ended up not being teachers, or special education confinements, but bullying. It started to become physical and it really changed my son's outlook on school—although he remained committed to keeping his grades up. But with resolve he made it clear he didn't want to go back to Utterback the following year. He wanted a change. We did, too.

My ex-husband and son took a couple of days to look at schools, though the final decision was based on a whim—change districts. It seemed like a good idea. Move into the district, give him a chance to start over without the IEP and the history it brings from school to school, and hope to hell this is going to work.

For the first time my son was nervous about the first day of school. He was also happy, unlike other kids, that summer was over and he was eager to return. Despite a history of negative experiences and what has always seemed like an ongoing battle that always ended in defeat, my kid loves school and loves learning. He's gifted and talented, loves to read and discuss new ideas and generally, I tell you, I really enjoy his company. I love hanging out with him, talking, singing, eating a good dinner at home, movies—seriously, my son brings me so much joy even in those other times, so much joy. I've always felt blessed to be his mother and to know him.

So when he got into the car yesterday after I picked him up from school it was a moment I will never forgot—a historic moment in our family, really. My kid was so happy (yeah, sure, the day ended with choir), but it was sincerely a first. A seamless first day. But yes, I recognize privilege and the fact that not everyone is able to just up and switch districts. One of my son's parents had to move, and one of us has to drive more than the other. It didn't matter. We needed to do something different.

But I still feel guilty. That narrative we tell our children, we also tell ourselves and it can be strong. I also feel like I gave up in some way, but damn that was after always feeling defeated as a parent in the special education system. It is crazy making—really it is. There are gems out there—amazing teachers and aides, and great people all around. Utterback, which went from a D to a C in its recent state scores, has a building full of amazing teachers who genuinely care about kids, which is why I think our son did so well and figured out how to become an advocate for himself and how to become a good student. I can't begin this new school year without thanking them and wishing them the best. There are good people there, as there are in many other schools.

It was time, finally, I guess, to say enough and put some hope back into the future. The special education system can feel like a big bully itself, so why actually subject your kid to the real deal? And look, this isn't an anti-bully tirade. I know they will always be around to a certain extent, and sorry, but no amount of money trying to introduce programs to fix it are always going to work. In fact, I think we proved that last year.

But here are some questions: Why does working with special ed kids who want to be inclusive end up being so challenging? Why so impossible? Why can't genuine bullying prevention work?

I don't know, maybe the narrative can continue. Maybe some day my son will stride through Tucson High, and look for the alumni brick with my mom's name on it that she purchased a few years ago, or look for my great-uncle's photo in the hall of fame line-up while he walks to his classes. Maybe by then there will be this new TUSD that we never thought could exist. Maybe.

Really, if any lessons are learned they are: Kids can work their butts off and they can also outgrow their diagnoses; protect yourself and your family from the challenges and often inhumane stresses that come with the system as best you can; remember the narrative always changes and it's good that it does; and do what's best for your kids, with no guilt.

That smile on my son's face yesterday was new; even with that same beautiful dimple, it was new. I can't wait to see it again today. Happy new school year to you no matter what school district your kids are attending. And to all the special education families out there: Stay strong and I wish you lots and lots of love. And to teachers who make a difference, you'll always have my respect and appreciation, and I wish you an amazing, amazing year.

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