Aug 032012

I recently applied to the University of California Irvine, and was accepted to the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Science as a major in Computer Science.  After years of hard work and dedication I had achieved one of my life’s goals!  I nearly had this robbed from me, because of something bad from years ago in my past, from when I was too young to even control it.  I was a student in the California Non-Public School system.

The Story

For the purposes of this story names and places will be changed to protect myself from possible litigation by the involved parties.  If you are a member of government or academia and wish to know exact details, They are available upon request.  Here are the parties involved.

My School — This is the school I actually attended.  It no longer exists.

State  — My state’s Department of education.  This is california.

City District — This is my city’s local High School district.

County District — This is the unified district for the greater county.

City School — This is the school that I would have gone to, were I a normal student.

UCI — This is, of course UCI.

It begins

When I was in high-school, I was a bit of a target for bullies.  It’s plainly and simply a result of the fact that I’m autistic.  However, not so simple was the question posed to my various schools and districts of “what to do with me”.  I wasn’t violent or malicious, so I didn’t belong at the schools for violent or troubled youths.  I wasn’t unintelligent, so I didn’t belong at the schools for slow learners.  Those are the two most popular types of non-public schools, however.

Non-public schools, for the uninitiated, are NOT private schools.  They are small facilities, usually about the size of an elementary school, dedicated (I use the term loosely) to teaching a subset of “edge case” children.  The violent or unintelligent students.  They usually focus on providing some combination of positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement to encourage children to either behave in a manner conducive to living in society, or to performing at a remedial level academically, or both.

These facilities are only lightly regulated at any level.  The counties in which they exist, and the city districts with which they contract provide some rough outline of graduation requirements, usually negotiated on a case-by-case basis, and students are more or less filed away and forgotten, as far as the Districts are concerned.  From a student’s perspective, these places are usually some combination of highly depressing and extremely dangerous.  They are much like prisons with the worst of the miscreants, often fresh out of juvenile hall, filed away together with some of the dumbest of the dumb students.  I do not use the term lightly.  At one facility I attended, there was a student who couldn’t say his own name, and would incessantly repeat a short phrase exclusively for weeks at a time.  “White cat” was something he’d say over and over.  There were 16 and 17 year olds lined up to graduate that had difficulty with even simple addition.  I don’t blame the facilities for the students though.  These children have to go somewhere.

The real problem is that with these children, the violent ones, and the under-performing ones, the schools are in a difficult position.  There’s not much they can do as far as teaching goes, they have to structure curriculum to the lowest denominator, and they spend a large portion of their manpower resources just ensuring the safety of their students.

This was where I ended up.  I could read and write at a level above most of my classmates, and was ahead of them all in math. I never had difficulty with subject matter in class, I just found myself bored by it.  These facilities had nothing to offer me academically, and I was stuck in a hazardous environment to boot.  Obviously I got in some trouble.  All my violent altercations were either a case of self-defense or preëmptive strike (Against people whom I’d had to defend myself previously, of course), and being as bored as I was, and autistic to boot, I was a disruption to the class.  If I could do it over again, I might have done better.  Unfortunately, the circumstances and my own maturity conspired against me.  I was in the system until I graduated.

I graduated from the school listed above, My School.  It was a smaller campus, devoted to students like myself, who weren’t drastically under-performing, and who weren’t overly violent, but who got picked on a lot for various reasons.  In some ways it was the perfect place for me.  The academics still weren’t up to snuff, but I was at least being taught on a regular basis.  The graduating class was small; a grand total of one student: yours truly.  It’s my understanding that they had two graduates the next year.  Beyond that, I don’t know.  They didn’t last much longer before My School closed due in large part to low attendance.

When a non-public school closes, a couple of things are supposed to happen.  It is the duty of the Custodian Of Records, listed on file with the State (and stored in an excel spreadsheet), to ensure that each student’s transcripts are sent back to the city district which placed the student at that Non-public school.  The State delete some entries from its spreadsheet, and a small amount of paperwork is submitted to various agencies.  The school in question simply ceases to exist.

My school closed.  According to My School’s Custodian of Records, my transcripts were sent back to my City District, in accordance with standard practices.

Cut to now.  As you know, I’m applying to UCI and attempting to get ahold of my high school transcripts.  My first thought is to contact My School.  Since it no longer exists, I’m forced into a stalemate.  After some research, I learn that when a Non-public school closes, the records are sent away as described above, and so I attempt to contact my City District.  They have a Custodian of Records as well.  A Wonderfully pleasant lady who seems absolutely thrilled whenever she’s forced to do her job.  I laid out my situation before her, bore my soul unto her, and asked her kindly to help me.  I gave her my name, and my information, and asked her to kindly check if the transcripts existed.  She refused.  She insisted that in order to request them, I had to send her a fax message, or walk into her office.  I live in Sacramento.  The City District office was a long way away, and fax machines are expensive to buy or use, and I’m a poor student between financial aid semesters.

I contacted a few other agencies in the mean time.  I called my County District, and my City School directly, a well as my State.  The answer was pretty much the same.  “Your records should be stored at your City District”.  Despite what should be and in an attempt to help me, most of these places did a simple search in their database to ensure that my records weren’t accidentally on file at their facility.  For that, I was very grateful.  Ultimately, I had to fax my City District.  I managed to scrape together all my pennies, and create a document with my transcript request to fax to my City District Custodian of Records with my all-important request.  After spending my last penny to get this fax to the Custodian of Records, I get a phone call.  “I’m sorry, we don’t have your record here.”, and an accompanying explanation that my records should be stored at My County District because I never attended a high school in My City District.  I spent weeks calling back and forth to the two districts, and even made calls to the other city districts in the area in the hopes that my records had been miss-filed.  What ensued was a shit-storm of everyone telling me “We don’t have it, it’s supposed to be somewhere else”, but nobody was willing to talk to anybody but me to try to resolve this.

By this point, I had gotten in touch with UCI, and asked for help and options.  Understandably this isn’t a common occurrence, but the series of canned responses I initially received was completely unacceptable.  After having my wife contact HER counselor at UCI, and a number of phone calls, I was finally on the track to getting responses.  The first few were very frightening.  “If you don’t get it to us, your admission may be rescinded”.  My life’s goal snatched from me due to an irreparable clerical error that happened some time in the past decade?  It was a nightmare.  I tried everything the UCI suggested to me.

The final suggestion, which came at the last minute was basically “Get us a statement from your City District that says they don’t have a copy of the records”.  Seems simple enough, so I contacted them, again.  “We won’t issue a statement.  We won’t put it in writing that we don’t have your records, because we don’t have your records.”.  I think someone was afraid of getting in trouble somehow.  I can’t blame them for wanting to cover their asses, but this isn’t my ass on the line, it’s my life.  What they did, to me, was the equivalent of saying “Oh, you’re on fire?  I won’t pour my water on you in case you drown and I get sued”.  It was ridiculous.  I ultimately convince them to issue what record they do have.  A measly paper with my name and address, and an entry and exit date.  On the day that documents are due, I drove from Irvine to Fontana, and back again, at the height of rush hour traffic to get this inadequate document to UCI in time for closing.  I had called ahead to have the document prepared and officially sealed, as UCI requires.  When I get there, it’s just an envelope with my name hand written on it.  I had to argue with the Custodian of Records to get her to understand that “It doesn’t matter if you don’t think it’s an official document, UCI needs it to be sealed as if it were”, to which she finally assented.  I dropped the document off at UCI minutes before the deadline, and left for Sacramento later that night, completely lost and hopeless.

After a few more correspondences with UCI through their message center, I was left waiting for several weeks before I finally got the strangest and best news of my life to date.  Despite not having any official high school transcript, I will not be denied admission.  I will not have my date of high school graduation printed on my UCI Diploma, and I have to take a few extra classes on american history.

What needs to change

The story ultimately turned out okay in the end.  But not for lack of drama and headache and struggle for pretty much everyone involved.  What could have improved the experience?  Communication.

Communication with UCI Admissions

UCI Admissions does all official communications through the message center.  This is a web-based e-mail form that allows you to talk to your admissions counsellor in brief spurts.  This is more than sufficient for handling simple or routine matters.  What’s notably absent is an option to speak with your counselor over the telephone, or to schedule a live chat, or otherwise communicate freely to resolve a complex situation like the one I encountered.  According to UCI it’s for my protection.

Furthermore, their statements that my “Admission may be rescinded” didn’t help matters any.  On more than one occasion, I completely shutdown and couldn’t do anything but cry.  Why not tell me something like “In the worst cases your admission may be rescinded, but based on what you’ve explained, you will probably just have to take a few extra classes to make up for it, once you’ve done everything in your power to try to attain your records, we can make a final decision on this matter.  Don’t worry!”

Direct Communication between agencies

If I could have gotten on the phone, the custodian of records from each of My School, My City District, My County District, UCI, and My State department of education, I could have let them all talk to each other to decide what to best do.  I would be more than willing to make a conference call including each of these people, so they could speak directly, determine where the records are supposed to reside, determine unilaterally that they do in fact not exist, and I could drive around and deliver whatever paperwork formalities are needed, or have them faxed or mailed time permitting.  There could have been a prompt, simple, resolution for everyone involved.  Instead, I was placed under great mental stress, and forced to bear significant financial burden to ultimately accomplish less in more time.

Institutionalized Communication between relevant agencies

Once upon a time, the current system of faxing and mailing student records around made a lot of sense.  Today, however, people live and work sometimes hundreds of miles from where they grew up.  I believe that we, as a state of California, need centralized records keeping for our schools.  I believe that we the people need to task the California Department of Education with creating a central authority for tracking graduation of non-public school students, and warehousing generalized transcripts.  Something as simple as a graduation date and a stated GPA that graduates of these warehouses can call upon to retrieve these records.  Because many of these facilities are funded primarily by state, county, and city funds, I believe the responsibility for this should ultimately fall up to the highest levels possible.  This also means providing the greatest benefit possible for current and future generations.

But that’s not all, I believe that we must expand the idea to include Private and Public schools as well.  Currently there is no uniformity in how a graduate would acquire a copy of their transcript.  Some schools will house records locally for decades, making them available upon request.  Some schools send records to City or County districts for warehousing.  Furthermore, disasters happen.  School data centers can lose data, records halls can be damaged in acts of vandalism or natural disasters.  These records ultimately are not safe where they are.  The solution is a central repository of the most essential data.  Graduation Dates, GPAs, and What I’ll call “Common Core Requirements”.  That would be a simple set of information that indicate whether a student has met and fulfilled a simple criteria, such as math-through-calculus, or american or world history, or English proficiency.

I plan to expand on this idea in a future post, and I hope to find a lawyer, legislator, or even politician in my state who cares enough to help me make this dream a reality for the benefit of all students here, and as a shining example to the rest of my nation.  If you are such a person, or if you know one, please post and let me know.

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