Wednesday, June 7, 2023

Mom Crowd Funds the Scholarship Her Son with Autism Lost Because of the Pandemic

I stumbled upon the story of Gabe and he pretty much captured my heart. You’ll soon see why. I reached out to his mom, Rebecca Dies, and she was kind enough to agree to tell us more about Gabe’s story and why she is so committed to raising the funds needed to send him back to the school that he loves and that serves him so well.

This is Gabe!

Q & A with Gabe’s mom, Rebecca

Rebecca and Gabe.

Tell us about Gabe. 

Gabriel, more affectionately known as Gabe, has been a whirlwind from the moment he was born. As an infant he would often cry for hours. I was a young first-time mom living far away from my family due to my husband’s military orders. I chalked up my struggles to get Gabe to settle down to my own shortcomings as a new young mom.

When my husband left the military and we moved back closer to family, they helped us to see that many of the “quirks” we were seeing in Gabe were not the norm for a child his age. By the age of two Gabe was reading street signs, had a strong preference for learning facts, and started to exhibit a lot of sensory sensitivities to smells, sounds, and lights. We decided that it would be best to refrain from sending him to Kindergarten and to homeschool him — we felt that we were best equipped to keep up with his insatiable love for learning and that doing school at home would minimize the sensory issues.

What was school like for Gabe before you were able to get him into the Independent School for Autism?

Homeschooling seemed to work well for Gabe and our family. We soared through curriculum and did fun projects related to topics that he loved. We avoided a lot of the sensory triggers that inevitably came with spending a lot of time around other people and places. We made sure to visit museums and parks, but often on weekday mornings when they were less crowded.

After first grade, we began to notice a strong desire in Gabe to be around more children. We started interviewing our local district school to see if we could find a place for him there. During this time, we had him evaluated by a psychologist to make sure we were covering all his needs. It was at this time that we learned of his multiple exceptionalities. Gabe was officially diagnosed with a Profoundly Gifted IQ, Autism Level 2, ADHD, Obsessive-Compulsive Tendencies, Anxiety, and Dysgraphia. This diagnosis finally explained so much: it helped us to understand why he wanted friends but also had a hard time connecting with other children. It explained why he hated getting messy and going to certain retail stores and why he loathed anything that included writing.

Some may have looked at this long list of diagnoses and felt discouraged. But I was relieved and grateful to finally have answers to why Gabe was the way he was. The diagnoses empowered me to keep learning and researching so that I could help him. Information is power, right?

Our school district looked at all the information from the psychologist and promptly told us to keep homeschooling him. They sat across from us in a meeting and said there was no way they could keep up with him academically while also supporting his exceptionalities. They said there was no place for him there.

I cried. A lot. What do you do when your local school district says that they have nothing to offer your child? That they can’t teach him? That they have ‘no place for him’?

After the district told you they couldn’t help Gabe, what did you do?

As if it was meant to be, I began searching the internet for alternative school options and came across a new school that was in the process of opening that fall. This school was about forty minutes from our home and was designed specifically for children on the Autism Spectrum. Just like my Gabe. With the help of scholarships from the school and donations from family, we were able to enroll him there in the fall of 2019.

Within a month I could see remarkable change in him. He was engaging in back and forth conversations, exploring new interests, and really coming in to his own. His new school allowed him to move around the classroom while the teacher was talking, without getting in trouble. He was free to stim, and take breaks, and use a computer to type his work. The classrooms were designed to be sensory friendly, and that even included the kinds of lighting they used.

The educators at the school took time to encourage conversations between students and help guide the social nuances and intricacies of conversation that can be so hard for kids like Gabe. When Covid-19 hit and they, like everyone else, were suddenly forced into remote learning, they took a week to teach the students how to use their Chromebooks at home. They had practice video meetings to model what would be expected.

During the months of remote learning, they spent every day on Zoom, following a daily schedule of classes. This was so valuable for Gabe and his classmates because routines can be especially important to children with Autism. They needed that sense of stability at a time when the world around them felt so out of control. His teachers mailed him new sensory toys each week and fun projects for building and learning. They worked so hard to keep our children engaged, even when they had their own children at home also doing virtual learning. Despite the interruption to his normal schooling, Gabe still felt connected to his teachers and to his classmates. It’s impossible to overstate the importance of these connections for children like Gabe.

Can you explain a bit about the scholarship program you rely on to send Gabe to this school and why that has now gone away?

Our state of North Carolina offers three scholarship programs but we were denied for all three two years in a row. The Opportunity Scholarship is an income-based program. Then there are two others that are disability based: The Disabilities Grant Program and the Education Savings Account. Due to lack of sufficient funding for these state programs, we were never able to receive one for Gabe.  It doesn’t help that our governor wants to eliminate these scholarship programs—he says he wants the funds redirected to the public school system, the same system that told me they could not help my son.

Fortunately for us, Gabe’s school offers scholarships to families who can’t afford to pay the full tuition of $22,900 per year. These scholarships are funded by private donations but this year, due to Covid-19, those donations have drastically decreased. This diminished fundraising means that Gabe and others will not receive their scholarships as they did last year.

Tell us about the Facebook fundraiser you’ve set up to help keep Gabe at his school.

After hearing from our school that they could not offer Gabe his scholarship for the 2020-2021 year, I started a Facebook Fundraiser to try and raise the $6000 we would have gotten from the scholarship. It obviously will not cover the whole tuition but it will allow us to continue to co-contribute for his education. Without the scholarship money we simply cannot afford to send him back. If that happens, our only option will be to return to homeschooling and that thought saddens me after seeing the incredible progress that Gabe has made this past year.

He is doing Algebra at age eight.

He has a best friend who also loves to talk about Minecraft for hours.

He was able to go on a real field trip with other kids for the first time in his life.

Most importantly, he has a school with staff that allow him to feel safe enough to be himself and learn at his own pace.  

We can’t lose that for him. At least not without doing everything we can to keep him there.

What have you learned about the larger educational landscape and fights over school choice during this experience?

Once we were denied the North Carolina K-12 Scholarships, I started looking more closely into what they are, who they serve, and how they can be improved to help more kids like Gabe. I quickly discovered an entire network of people fighting for kids like Gabe all over the country. I learned that these programs are lifelines for children who do not fit the public-school mold—some are bullied, others need alternative learning option and others simply choose to be educated in a different way. I have that that one day, hopefully soon, ALL children will have the opportunity to attend a school that meets their needs and says, “yes, of course we have a place for you here.” It’s hard to imagine that anyone who knew Gabe’s story or the stories of the countless children like him ——especially someone with the influence of a vote—would actively work to deny them the opportunity of attending a school that meets their different and yes, special needs.

What else would you like to share that I haven’t asked about?

I would like to thank you for giving me the chance to share our story. Gabe is an amazing little boy—he is funny, extremely empathetic and ridiculously great at math (a trait he definitely did not get from me!) He loves video games like so many little boys his age and his dream is to one day go into the field of engineering. I hope (and believe) that with the right support from us and the community that Gabe’s dream will come true.

Erika Sanzi
Erika Sanzi is a former educator and elected school committee member. She is also a senior visiting fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Her blog is Good School Hunting and her Substack is Sanzi Says. She occasionally writes for other outlets including Scary Mommy, The 74, and The Hill. She is the mother of three school aged sons and calls Rhode Island home.


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