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When state report cards get released right in the middle of a school campaign, both sides are bound to seize upon them as proof that their cause is the right one. Well, guess what? State report cards were just released and they prove that our cause is the right one.

Most of the measures on the state report cards have remarkably little to do with what goes on inside a school and much more to do with what goes on outside a school. Study after study has shown that scores on standardized tests (what much of our report card’s grades are based on) do not reflect the quality of a teacher’s teaching or a student’s learning, but instead simply reflect the socioeconomic background of the particular children in that particular district. Look closely at a school’s test scores and you can make an educated guess about how many of those children’s parents went to college and how many of those families are living in poverty. Our local test scores reflect that as well.

The state report card’s only real measure of how much a teacher is teaching in the nine months that he or she has a certain student, and the report card’s only real measure of how much a student is learning in the nine months he or she is enrolled in school, is “Value Added.” (Let me say here that there are many, many other measures of how well a teacher is teaching or a student is learning that aren’t easily quantifiable and therefore not considered on our report cards, but that’s a post for another day.) Value Added means pretty much what it says it means: how much academic value was added to that child’s educational life in the course of that one school year? And the measurement is straightforward: assess a child’s abilities and skills in August or September (how well they can read, what their math skills are, and so on) and then assess again in May or June. This shows one of the few things we can measure that’s actually worth measuring: their academic growth.

Here’s how the Ohio Department of Education describes Value Added: “This is your district’s average progress for its students in math and reading, grades 4-8. It looks at how much each student learns in a year. Did the students get a year’s worth of growth? Did they get more? Did they get less?”

There are four categories on which districts are graded: Overall, Gifted Students, Students Achieving in the Lowest 20th Percentile, and Students with Disabilities. And for the second year in a row, the Cleveland Heights-University Heights School District earned A’s in every category of value added: A, A, A, A.

This means one thing: Our teachers are teaching and our students are learning.

But how can this be, one might ask, when many of the other test performance measures are low? Consider this scenario, some version of which our schools face every single day: A 4th grader moves into CH-UH from another district, reading at the first grade level. That child is placed in a small class with a reading specialist to learn the necessary skills to become a reader. Imagine he works extra hard, as does his teacher, and demonstrates one-and-a-half years’ worth of growth in that one school year. That’s awesome! That is better than expected and means he succeeded, with the help of his teachers, in moving from reading at a first grade level to reading at halfway through a second grade level. It also means, unfortunately, that when he takes the 4th grade PARCC test in reading, he will fail (especially because the PARCC uses reading material at one to two grade levels above the grade being tested). And that’s the result that people will point to in the newspaper to say that our district is also failing. And yet, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. The kind of growth that student demonstrated, as evidenced by CH-UH’s four A’s, points out an important truth: Our teachers are teaching and our students are learning.

Now, some of the naysayers (we have naysayers, in case you hadn’t noticed) might assume that this Value Added category must not mean much; maybe it’s easy to earn four A’s. I will show you, through comparison with other districts, that it is not. I don’t mean to put these other districts down (I know and love many people whose children go to school in them and they no doubt outperform us in other categories), but such a side-by-side look is necessary to understand that it is not, in fact, easy to earn all A’s in Value Added.

Our neighbors to the south (Shaker) earned D, A, C, C (see the categories listed above to refresh your memory). Someone may say, “Well, their kids are clearly doing too well to begin with to even show that much growth.” But then I would reply, “Look at Solon, who earned B, A, B, A.” Hudson earned A, A, C, A, which is sort of revealing (maybe they don’t have the same kind of experience we do in CH-UH at reaching the lowest achieving kids and helping them grow). Other districts widely believed to be doing a great job educating their community’s children, are (Beachwood earned A, B, B, A — almost as good as Heights). And this is not one of those cases where starting with low scores benefits you (as in, then you have more room to grow); East Cleveland earned F, F, C, C. Two districts that we’re often compared to (Lakewood and Euclid) earned A, D, A, B and A, D, A, A respectively, which shows that CH-UH is doing a noticeably better job meeting the needs of our highest achievers and helping them grow as well.

I don’t honestly believe that levies should become referendums on the performance of school districts, but they very often do. I have seen, time and again, in the comments of the anti-school folks: Where are the results?

Well, here they are. The results show that our teachers are teaching all our students, from the one with disabilities to the one identified as gifted. The results show that all those students are learning, from the one who started at the bottom to the one who started at the top. Now those are what I call results.

Last Friday afternoon, following our long day of doctors’ appointments, I posted a no-explanations-needed Facebook status that simply said, “Three-and-a-half years.” I know it didn’t need any explanation because I immediately got numerous likes and congratulatory comments.

This is all wonderful and we are pretty happy with the fact that Austin is indeed three-and-a-half years cancer-free, but of course, there are many many explanations needed. Because nothing in the cancer world is ever that cut and dry.

First of all, his heart, one of several oh-so-complicated organs for my sweet Austin. You may remember that this entire cancer journey started six-plus years ago with a visit to a pediatric cardiologist to look at a small VSD that had been found at his nine-month Well Visit. That VSD (a tiny and common hole in the wall of one of the chambers of the heart) still exists but poses no threat or consequence to his health at all. He has, however, had a history of enlargement of various parts of the heart, most notably his left ventricle. The measurements (as determined by ECHO and EKG) seem to fall in and out of the “normal range” depending on his overall size and age, and have been considered normal for some time now. But this past Friday, the dilation of that ventricle was larger than what doctors call normal. And there was another portion of the heart that was fused together. I know this sounds like a lot of mumbo-jumbo (to me too, especially when the report says things like, “Possible partial fusion of the right non-coronary commissure”), but the most important finding is that his heart is functioning perfectly. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the way it works, despite the fact that there are several things wrong with the way it looks.

The cardiologist wants to see us back in six months instead of the usual 12 as she wonders if the fact that last year’s heart exams were done at Rainbow and these at the Clinic may account for what appears to be growth. She also wants us to see genetics, which we haven’t done since Week One back in August 2007. At that point, in the days immediately following Austin’s diagnosis, he was tested for a particular chromosome that is associated with one (very dangerous) type of Wilms tumor. When that was ruled out, we never saw genetics again. The current cardiologist is confident that we don’t need to treat his heart in any way at this point in time, but is mindful that we may someday have to. She would like as much information as possible at that time, especially since his various abnormalities are not easily explained. Chronic high blood pressure can lead to an enlarged heart, but his blood pressure has been tightly controlled for years now. That coupled with renal failure, the late-effects of chemotherapy, and what others have referred to as “Austin’s unique anatomy” could make for an interesting future indeed.  So, off to genetics we’ll go, in the next month or two.

The other explanations needed regard his kidney (speaking of oh-so-complicated organs). His function is indeed slowly (very slowly) deteriorating. The changes are minor and not unexpected and not causing any one any great alarm. His lab results over the summer led to our adding two new drugs to his current regimen, so he now takes three in the morning and four at bedtime. He also suffers from chronic anemia, although you would certainly never know. Again, as with his heart, these are problems we see on paper that are not at all evident in the child himself. One of the docs on Friday asked if he could keep up with other kids his age. Ha! The real question is, can they keep up with him?

So anyway, his oncologist would like him to repeat labs in a month’s time, just to ensure that his counts remain steady. There is really nothing big to worry about at the moment, any more than we would worry on any regular day. We know his long-term health is going to be anything but straightforward, we know the risks of kidney failure, heart disease, secondary cancers. We know that this journey will never be over. But the news from Friday was ultimately good. Austin’s kidney is still working. His heart is pumping along. And there is no evidence of cancer in his body.

Like Austin himself, who finds joy in the most unlikely places, we take what we can get.

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That’s what it was. Not actually “nothing.” To be exact, “Apparent hypoechoic area described on previous ultrasonography study is likely due to echo spin shadowing from surgical clip along the left psoas muscle.” Or, in our own language, that thing we saw in the ultrasound was caused by ultrasound waves bouncing off the titanium clip that was placed in his kidney as a marker and forming a shadow. It wasn’t a mistake. There really was a shadow on the May 7 ultrasound, some new spot that measured 1.4 centimeters and that warranted further study. That was it.

The same paragraph of the official report says, “No evidence of new left renal mass lesion.” And that says it all: No new left renal mass lesion.  There is nothing new in his left kidney that could possible be a tumor.

This is the report that was handed to me in person when our oncologist pulled into our driveway yesterday evening around 6:30. (The same report Austin later spilled champagne on.) I lost it. Absolutely and completely lost it (not over the spilled champagne). I don’t think I could have possibly cried harder or louder if we’d been told he had three weeks to live.  I have never felt that degree of relief over any piece of news we’ve received in the past five years. Never. Except that poor Mark was upstairs while the boys were showering and heard the doorbell ring and then heard me crying and assumed the worst. As he whisked the boys into their jammies, he was able to discern laughter in our tears and bravely ventured down to hear the news.

Then it was celebration and laughter and more tears, champagne and sprinklers and more tears. And some wonderful spontaneous visits from random people who couldn’t resist giving a hug.

And I’ll say one thing for that Dom Perignon:
it doesn’t taste all that different but you sure don’t wake up with a headache!

So I don’t know how to account for all this craziness. Was it just me overreacting? Was it the power of positive energy, good wishes, prayer?  Was it the healing oil a colleague of Mark’s dropped off, which we rubbed on Austin’s belly Wednesday night? The double rainbows, the wishing stars, an act of God? Good luck … a miracle? Or just plain echo spin shadowing? Call it what you will, my child is two years cancer-free, a fact made extra clear by the extra clear images of the MRI. This milestone, which we’ve been so eagerly awaiting for the past five years, means several things: The chances of Wilms tumor coming back after two years are extremely extremely slim. And if, at any point in the future, his kidney should start to fail, we can set the wheels in motion for transplantation while hopefully avoiding dialysis altogether.

In non-medical terms it means this: We made it. Austin made it. We have done what we hope is our life’s hardest thing. We have done our life’s hardest thing.

Why, what on Earth makes you think I’ve had too much sugar?

First things first, watch Fox News at 6 tonight to see me and Austin down at the hospital today (what is it with me and Fox News? I guess they’ve never checked my voting records!).  Thanks to his role as a St. Baldrick’s Ambassador Kid, he is becoming quite the little celebrity! As soon as I get the video clip, I’ll post it here for those of you who live out of town (or only surf the blogosphere after-hours).

And now, the real first thing first: Today’s results were all good.  Well, not exactly all good (keep reading), but good in the ways that matter most. His kidney function is holding steady, which is fabulous. His CT and ultrasound show no change to his lungs, kidney or liver . . . also fabulous. There is no indication of any cancer anywhere inside his body.  So, in terms of Wilms tumor, Austin is healthy as can be. And in terms of kidney function, he is as healthy as can be expected.

But (ah, the dreaded but), there are some other troubling issues. Only slightly troubling, mind you, especially speaking in relative terms. The radiologist thinks that the liver looks like it’s “coarser” than in the past.  Not anything inside the liver (that old spot has remained unchanged since August 2010), but the make-up of the liver itself.  He just felt like it looked . . . different.  Vague, I know. Dr. Auletta wasn’t sure what to make of this either, especially since Austin’s liver function is and has always been normal.

The other thing is that there seem to be some . . . stuff in his stomach.  It could be calcium build-up from all the Tums he takes to bind out the phosphorous in his diet or adhesions due to all the surgeries he’s had (not a terribly unusual side effect of being cut open and manhandled that many times). They did recommend doing an upper-GI test, just to see if there’s any action we need to take before an actual blockage occurs.  I’ll learn more about all of these things in the next few days after the various doctors on Austin’s team are consulted and a formal report is issued.

All in all, it’s fine. What matters most is that there’s no cancer and a still-working kidney. But, as I said to the news reporter today, two-thirds of the children who survive their cancers live with long-term health problems as a result of their treatments.  The very things that made Austin better are now the very things that can make him sick. We know that his cancer story will never be over, even if the cancer itself is gone. He will never actually be the normal kid he appears to be.

But, hey, we’ll take him, abdominal adhesions and all.

Like I said, we’ve got no time for cancer.  Everything went well yesterday. The ultrasound showed no changes to his kidney or liver. Sigh of relief for that.

We are almost six months out from the end of treatment, if you can believe it. One quarter of the way there. There — that magic date of April 2012, when we can actually use sacred words like “cured” and “survivor,” words we’ve never before allowed ourselves to utter.

His lab results came back great too.  I’d been expecting his hemoglobin to drop since it’s been at least six weeks since his last blood transfusion. Well, it has dropped but only slightly and, at this rate, he won’t require another transfusion until November or December. Not only is it nice not to have to dedicate an entire day to that tediously long procedure, but it means that his kidney is producing more red blood cells, or at least losing them less quickly.  All in all, it’s very good news.

His kidney numbers all look good too, with his creatinine even lower than before.  Seems like every month now, we hit a new low (which is really a new high!). We’ve become increasingly lenient with his diet lately and I’d been worried that his phosphorous might levels might have crept upwards. But no, they’re still in the normal range, which means, of course, that his kidney is processing out all that extra phosphorous (cheese, cheese and more cheese) on its own.

Ah, the little kidney that could. And could and could and could.

We’re still waiting for the official results, but a few hours ago I did get this text from Austin’s oncologist:

“So far, so good.  I’ll call later with the final results.”

So, there you have it. Now you know as much as we know. And you can feel as relieved as we feel.

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