Wisconsin’s choice program helps former special education student succeed

January 16, 2013

Ben Velderman Ben Velderman

Ben was a communications specialist for EAG from 2010 until August 2014. He is a former member of the Michigan Education Association.
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Editor’s note: This story is the second in a six-part series.

RACINE, Wis. – Three years ago, Mara Quinn faced a very serious and unique problem.

school choice seriesQuinn was beginning her career as a teacher. She spent her days teaching at a daycare center and substituting in special education classrooms. It was the fulfillment of her lifelong ambition to work with young children.

But the joy of helping students learn and grow was being overshadowed by the severe problems Quinn’s own son, Baylee, was having in school.

At that time Baylee was a kindergartener, but he was already attending his third school within the Racine Unified School District. It was obvious that Baylee was a very bright child, but he was also extremely active. He was diagnosed with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) by the time he started school.

“He’s always been a rambunctious child, even in utero,” Quinn says.

Racine school officials couldn’t figure out what to do with him, so they placed him in a series of restrictive environments, separated from more typical children.

They decided that Baylee’s only hindrance to learning was his behavior, so “they re-labeled him as emotionally and behaviorally disturbed and put him in a self-contained classroom with nonverbal and behaviorally-challenged students,” Quinn says.

For three years, she watched as Baylee’s behavior steadily got worse and his learning “came to a complete stop.”

“From 4K to the end of kindergarten, my son went from advanced to complete failure,” she says. “It made me sad, as a teacher, that my child literally hated school.”

Quinn worked with an advocate to get Baylee integrated into a regular classroom, but district officials wouldn’t budge. She knew her son needed a different type of school if he was ever going to realize his potential, but she didn’t have any options.

‘Hoping and praying’

Things came to a head one day after school.

Mara Quinn and her son, Baylee

Mara Quinn and her son, Baylee

Quinn says her mother went to pick Baylee up and witnessed a teacher grabbing and shaking him.

Quinn reported the incident, but says the school principal downplayed it as a case of a good teacher who was simply having a bad day.

That was the deciding moment for Quinn. She knew Baylee needed to attend a private school if he was to have any chance at academic and personal success.

Quinn couldn’t afford private school tuition, but she was so determined to get Baylee out of the Racine school district that she resolved to take an extra job in order to make it happen.

And then the unexpected occurred: Wisconsin lawmakers created the Racine Parental Choice Program, a 2011 initiative that provides qualifying families with an annual $6,442 voucher that can be used at any participating private school.

It was the perfect answer to Baylee’s school woes. Quinn filled out an application and waited anxiously for the results.

“I jumped up and down and held my breath, hoping and praying that he’d qualify,” she remembers.

Baylee was among the 250 students who were accepted into the program for the 2011-12 school year, and was soon enrolled as a first-grader at the Mount Pleasant Renaissance School in Racine.

Baylee is now in his second year at the school, where he is flourishing. Not only is he in a traditional classroom, but he’s reading at grade level and is above grade level in math, science and social studies.

Best of all, he’s excited about going to school.

“He’s excited to learn,” Quinn says. “He talks about friends. At the other schools, the highlight of his day was getting a timeout.”

Baylee is still highly active, but his Mount Pleasant Renaissance teachers have made some simple accommodations for him. He keeps fidget toys in his desk (something that was not allowed at his previous schools) and writes in his journal to help focus his active mind.

Baylee’s behavior has improved, even though he’s taking less ADHD medication than he did during his years at Racine Unified.

“I find that ironic,” Quinn says.

She credits the school’s small size and caring environment for helping Baylee reach his highest learning potential. But she credits the Racine Parental Choice Program for making it all possible.

“I never thought he’d be happy in school,” Quinn says.  “If it weren’t for the school choice program, my son would be lost.”

Next Wednesday: Former public school administrator establishes a private school where children flourish.

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