“I remember wailing and squirming around until I got out of energy,” Caleb said.
The boy now stands nearly six feet tall, with the frame of a high-school cornerback. But back then, he said, “I was a chubby little kid.”
At the time, Brent recalled with pride, Caleb was a “phenomenal reader, way above grade level.” But he struggled with math, and, less so, with science and English. By third grade, he had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. At the start of the school year, the family went to the program’s annual Individualized Education Program meeting (or IEP, the cornerstone of special-education planning, designed for families and schools to set goals together). They were determined to get Caleb back in the local public school, with a paraprofessional to help manage his behavior.
But the county and GNETS officials said Caleb wasn’t ready and needed to stay at Alpine—a refrain the family would hear over and over in the coming years. “There was only so hard we could fight,” Jennifer recalled. “We didn’t want to jeopardize our jobs.”
By sixth grade, Caleb was at another GNETS center, in the same building where Jennifer attended middle school. By the time Caleb arrived, it was devoid of displays of student achievement in the hallways, or names of teachers on the doors, or visual reminders of teaching and learning. Classrooms were off a hallway with locked doors at both ends.
There, Caleb started using the e2020 computer program most of the day. Developed by a company now called Edgenuity, the platform is available for all K-12 subjects. “It looked amazing on paper,” Brent recalled. “You work at your own pace, get your credits—but there was no one there to help.”
Caleb’s classroom, like most in the GNETS program, had fewer than 10 students; it had a teacher trained in special education, and one or two paraprofessionals, but no teachers licensed in any academic content areas. Although Caleb took care to point out that he felt most of his teachers “cared” about him, he said none had really helped him academically. “Most of the time, they were putting out fires,” he said.
“Half the time he would just sit down and listen to music all day, watch movies on Netflix, and sleep,” Brent said. They had a new principal nearly every year.
Throughout middle school, he was “still great in reading,” said Jennifer, but behind in all other subjects. Jennifer had started a three-ring binder notebook when Caleb was in elementary school to keep track of his IEP meetings. Then, she said, when she saw that the GNETS program would not even follow such simple procedures listed in Caleb’s IEP as allowing him to use a calculator during a math test to reduce his anxiety, she started to give up. “We just stopped keeping up with it,” she said.
Caleb’s high school was a two-hour bus ride away, to the Futures Program, another GNETS center located in a building where black students once studied during de jure segregation. (Some studies have suggested that Georgia and other states’ disproportionate numbers of black, male students in their special-education and emotional- and behavioral-disorder programs have resulted in a new form of racial segregation; according to a GNETS official, in 2014-15, when 37 percent of Georgia’s K-12 population was black, 51 percent of GNETS students were black and 80 percent were male.)