Personnel File 5: The Case of James

This case study is offered as a discussion starter. The incident happened. The names are changed, but the facts are straight from the principal’s mouth. How did it end? I’m holding that, for now. How should it end? What reasons would you offer for that decision? Discuss this case with colleagues in leadership.

Mr. Matters, the principal, hated to admit his growing resentment toward the Andersons. The family was getting too pushy, in his judgment. They were demanding Christian education for their child James, who had Down syndrome. It was a demand his school—which was geared toward college prep and was small and barely scraping by financially—could not provide. Mr. Matters had talked to the Andersons at least a half-dozen times over the past two years; he knew they had also been calling board members to start a program for kids like James. And now the board had asked Mr. Matters to contact other Christian schools that worked with students with special learning needs, do some research, and estimate the cost of a program.

The Andersons’ plea had been strong and consistent from the beginning: “We are Christian parents who have supported this school, as did our parents before us. This school has helped our other children. We take our promise to educate our children in ‘the fear of the Lord’ as seriously with James as we do with our other children who learn easily.”

They spoke about the frustration of watching their child be educated in a government-run school, “He learns some skills there and we like the teachers, but he is not learning that this world belongs to God and that he is gifted to serve God in it. Besides, he needs to associate with Christian children in school as well as church because he already feels his ‘differentness,’ which makes him feel lonely. And we have learned that James teaches us with his childlike trust in God; that is an important gift for James to teach your students here.”

Mr. Matters could repeat all of this from memory. He knew that many of the board members could as well after taking phone calls from the Andersons. And he had heard generally favorable comments from principals, teachers, and parents (both of kids with learning disabilities and those without) in Christian schools that had programs for students like James. His school already had a tutoring program that helped students with dyslexia, but providing education for kids with severe autism and Down’s seemed almost too much to add.

His school was relatively small, with only 140 students in the elementary school. James would need one-on-one teaching for particular skills. The cost to the school for such a teacher, even if that special ed teacher was shared with another Christian school, would be three times the normal tuition. Who would pay? The school’s parents would certainly balk at an increase in the regular tuition; the Andersons claimed that the whole school community should bear the extra cost because James was part of that community, and they could pay no more themselves.

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Mr. Matters knew the Andersons wanted James in “regular” classes as well so that he could learn socially appropriate behavior through the help of both students and teachers. He had already heard complaints from teachers who heard about the Andersons’ campaign. Some teachers thought that the school should say, “We can’t meet the needs of all children; classroom teachers would end up spending a disproportionate amount of time with James at the expense of the education of the other students.” Mr. Matters had found that some Christian schooling professionals believed that students with Down’s could learn best and most with close one-on-one training in almost clinical settings.

All of these reflections made the decision no easier. He knew the board was also on the fence, caring about the arguments and the needs of the Andersons and James, but also worried about asking the whole community to pick up this high cost when many parents were already complaining about their own tuition. Mr. Matters was unsure on a recommendation. Next week, though, the board expected one.

If you were the principal in this real event, what would you do? Reply to this blog to expand the discussion among your colleagues who read the case. In my next blog, I will write what the principal did.

The Case of Linda: Here’s how Linda’s case was decided (see my previous blog: The Case of Linda):

Linda sent an email, calling all the teachers together in the five-minute break before the last period of the day. At the meeting she told the teachers the news, and told them of her plan to tell the high school students of the death over the intercom halfway through the last hour. She asked the teachers to say only that Joe had taken own life, without more details, and then sent them back to their classrooms. After she made the announcement, she asked the teachers to lead the kids in a short prayer time and then let kids talk with each other if they wished. She ended the day 20 minutes before the regular time in order for kids to talk in the halls with friends.

– Dan Vander Ark

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