My testimony against SB 3: Why an educational savings account would be useless for my son

On March 21, 2017, I went to the Texas capitol to testify against SB 3, the newest salvo in the GOP’s school choice crusade. For those who have never testified at a state hearing and want to know what to expect, I will write elsewhere about the process and my experience. The TL;DR version: I didn’t get to give an oral testimony, but I was able to submit a written testimony. I am sharing my public testimony in the hopes that the issues we face make it to the intended congressional ears.

 

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SB 3 Testimony

My name is Felicia Miyakawa and I represent myself. I live in Round Rock. I am a special education advocate and a mom of two kids, both of whom have qualified for Special Education services under IDEA. Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today in opposition to SB 3.

I would like to share with you how this bill might impact my 10-year-old son. After 2 years of homeschooling, he has chosen to return to a traditional school setting; he will enter middle school this fall. My son has asked to have input into which school he attends, and we have been considering several options. We applied to an excellent charter school in our county. Since it is a public charter school, it would offer my son the protection of IDEA. But the school, which admits students through a lottery system, is overwhelmed with applicants; he’s 104th on the waiting list for next year. He is also on the lengthy waiting list for a private school that has an excellent track record for kids like him, kids who are twice exceptional, who are both gifted and have learning disabilities or developmental disabilities. This private school, however, could reject his application for any reason. If we are able to “choose” this option, we would not only have to pay sizeable tuition, we would also sign away our rights to IDEA protection (and this is a point that I will come back to). As a third option, which currently seems like our only option, we can enroll him in his zoned public school, which offers the protection of IDEA, assures transportation, and is tuition free. But the classes are large, and teachers are poorly trained to deal with kids like him. These are our so-called choices.

So what would this voucher system do for him? At present: nothing. I would like to draw your attention to eligibility requirements for the proposed voucher program. Section 29.354, paragraph 2 includes “attended a public school during the entire preceding academic year” as a requirement for enrolling in this program. Because my son has been homeschooled for 2 years, he would be ineligible for this voucher plan. And he’s not alone. We are what is colloquially called “accidental homeschoolers.” We did not intend to homeschool. We began to homeschool my son when it became clear that the school system was failing him and we had already worked our way through a spectrum of more restrictive placements. What I learned after I began this homeschool journey is that there’s a huge and growing number of “accidental homeschoolers” all over Texas. What do we have in common? Our children need special education services and either did not receive them at all or did not receive sufficient or appropriate services. (For recent evidence, I would point the members of this committee to the Houston Chronicle’s exposé about TEA’s 8.5% cap on special education. Brian Rosenthal’s essays were full of parents who, like me, pulled their kids out of the system when the system failed to deliver adequate—or even basic—services.) Anyone who has had to pull their kids out of school because the schools didn’t deliver appropriate special education services would be shut out of this voucher program.

In 2012, our lieutenant governor said: “If… a family feels they need a better opportunity, they should have that right… And especially, students with disabilities and autism, to be trapped in a school that can’t help you get over a disability, is a sin. And we’re going to stand up for that community.” But this voucher system will not achieve greater protection for disabled kids. Even if children with disabilities are accepted into private schools and can afford to go, they will lose their federal protection under IDEA and Section 504. Section 230.053, paragraph c of this bill specifically instructs private schools to give parents notice that their disabled children will receive no federal or state protection. Without this protection, children and parents would have no recourse, no way to fight for a free and appropriate education, which is their legal right.

I respectfully ask that this committee, and the legislature as a body, turn its attention back to enforcing and funding the laws that already exist, rather than putting our vulnerable children at even more risk.

Thank you again for your time. I would be happy to answer any questions.

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Card “tricks” and self-regulation

I recently came across a website with a bunch of card games that are all about math, and yesterday, I pulled one of those games out to “play math” with my son. I thought it would be fun to teach him a math trick, so we tried this one. (Don’t tell my husband about this, because we want to “trick” him later!) I had him pull a card, guided him through the first several steps, and then correctly guess his card, the Queen of clubs. He was entranced and wanted to try to trick me. So we reversed our roles, I put the instructions in front of him, and then…

  1. Hilarity ensued because I kept messing up the simple operations. Not on purpose. He kept having to correct my math. LOL.
  2. He promptly constructed a formula to describe how the math operations worked. He’s a global thinker like that.
  3. He scolded me for not reading the final step to him when he had been the “trickee” and I had been the “tricker,” and had trouble following the directions for the last step of “tricking” me because I hadn’t initially modeled how that step works. Naturally, since I wanted to “trick” him, I had done the last step in my head. Why I might want to withhold this information didn’t make sense to him. But now it was his turn, and as is often true for him, doing a thing once establishes the pattern for how it should always be done, and adding steps is hard.

We tried a couple more times and switched roles back and forth. He was delighted when I “guessed” his card but he couldn’t quite get the hang of “tricking” me and got so frustrated that he headed upstairs for a break. But as he left the room, he said: “it’s interesting that you struggle with the math steps along the way, and I struggle with the solution at the end.” Isn’t this great? He was able to quickly process what had happened and summarize it very succinctly. He noticed that he’s not the only person in the room who is in need of skill building, which is a natural segue into honoring each other’s strengths and helping to complement the strengths of those around us and build an interwoven community of respect. And then he spent some time by himself with his legos, with no pressure to re-engage until he was ready. (And I got time to read. YAY!)

While he was upstairs, I was struck with the realization that if he had been at school, it would have been extremely difficult for him to recover after getting to this point of overwhelm. He needs only time, space, and favorite things–not hard to provide–but the pace and overwhelming sensory input of a school environment meant that he constantly had to try to self-regulate in a very challenging environment (and when he couldn’t, he felt broken). I gain new insights into why homeschooling is such a good choice for him right now with each passing day. After he felt better, he begged to work on Spanish (!), spent some time thinking about physics with one of his favorite game apps, and gave me a run for my money in a Scrabble game. He gravitated to and used the tools he needed for self-regulation, a complicated process for any 9-year-old, but one that is easier when the kiddo has space to be himself.

We’ll keep trying the “trick” when he’s up for it, mostly because it’s a cool way to play with math (and I sure need the practice). And the added “treat” (too obvious for a Halloween blog post?) is that we get to practice expectations in social interactions in what I hope is a non-trhreatening way, and we both get as much time as we need afterwards to process what we just learned.

What’s a Free and “Appropriate” Education for Gifted kids?

One of the key provisions of Special Education law (both IDEA and Section 504) is the idea of FAPE, the right of each child to a Free and Appropriate Education. “Free” has a clear meaning. “Appropriate,” on the other hand, is in the eye of the beholder. As I’m going through my Special Education Advocate training, I’m trying to square what I know about gifted kids with what’s possible under the law, and I’m getting more and more discouraged. Let me show you some of this conflicting information:

  • This essay, for example. The author, Jonathan Wai, is a researcher and writer for the Duke Talent Identification Program, colloquially known in gifted circles as Duke TIP. Wai wants us to recognize that intellectually gifted kids–like gifted athletes, gifted musicians, gifted artists–should be supported in reaching their full potential: “If we reframe how we think about equity as helping each student learn at the pace at which they are naturally functioning — a free, appropriate education for all, and not just for individuals with disabilities — then this conceptualization of equity, in fact, also promotes excellence.” Wai is right: we celebrate extreme athletic gifts (Olympics and other competitions, which, let’s face it, are over-populated with younger people), and we fetishize musical prodigies (America’s got Talent, etc.). As a general rule, however, zooming ahead in school is not an option. When my son was in a magnet school, where all the kids were working at least a grade ahead and he was still bored, the school district told us that double promotion (being in a magnet school + grade skipping) was not allowed. But this is an opinion piece about the values of acceleration. What about research?
  • I’m making my way through the landmark report “A Nation Deceived: How America Holds Back its Brightest Students” (2004), which you can download here. I’m not a fan of the occasional thread of American Exceptionalism in the report (“we have to recapture the lost greatness of America, etc!!”), but I completely agree with one of the essential tenets: “educational equity does not mean educational sameness.” It seems that as a country we’ve become more accustomed to the idea that kids with learning disabilities need a different approach to education in order to have equal access to learning. (This is good!) We’re ready with math and reading intervention programs and we have more and more dyslexia services, for example. But we’re not yet comfortable with “different approach” meaning “accelerated.” (Here’s the part where I confess that I skipped 1st grade, and while I did struggle a bit with the social demands of being with older kids, I also was still at the head of my class with very little effort until I finally hit rigorous classes in high school. For most of elementary school and middle school, I was still bored. But I wasn’t in a public school system until 10th grade, so that’s a different discussion altogether.)
  • There’s no federal budget money for gifted programs and no oversight when it comes to gifted education. None. And according to the Nation Association for Gifted Children, only 25 states provided funds to school districts for gifted education in the 2013-12014 school year. Provisions for gifted education come downs to states, and sometimes to districts. In Tennessee (and maybe in other states; I don’t know) “giftedness” is considered a disability. I made a lot of jokes about this at first, but now it makes sense to me. Qualifying “gifted” kids as “disabled” kids at least affords them access to special education provisions. My son’s first IEP (once he finally had it in place after a long battle!) included “gifted” as his third learning disability, and allowed for enrichment and curricular compaction. This means more burden placed on teachers, who must master differentiation in the classroom, and teachers dealing with gifted kids are not necessarily required to be trained in gifted education. Heck, even the school psychologists who test kids for giftedness aren’t necessarily well trained. (See, for example, this confession by a former school psychologist. Want more reports about gifted education? Here’s a collection.)
  • Even in school districts where there is solid provision for gifted education, there may be little recognition that gifted kids also might need special education services. These are the twice-exceptional kids like my son, whose numbers are very likely underreported and under-anticipated. See, for example, this report by Karen B. Rogers about a 5-year study of gifted / 2e kids funded by the government. The report is rich, and you should read the whole thing, but here are some important bits for me: (1) 2e kids are under identified because there’s no established best practice for where to find them; (2) whereas current research, this research found an average of 19% of gifted learners also have learning disabilitiesBy contrast, only an estimated 5% of school-age children have learning disabilities. (See “The State of Learning Disabilities,” 2014, put out by the National Center for Learning Disabilities.) I’ve recently started meeting with a handful of other parents who have 2e kids in our district. Before our second meeting, I sent invitations to the head teacher in the gifted area in 2 schools, asking them to share my contact information with parents of 2e kids. They knew no such parents. So in 2 schools, both with solid gifted programs, and together totaling about 1,700 kids, my son was the only 2e kid? I find that hard to believe. My guess is that there are 2e kids walking the halls who haven’t been identified. And our parent group has four members, four parents from a district of over 47,000 students. There are more 2e kids out there, I’m sure of it.

There’s so much more to read and think about. But here’s what I’ve learned this week in my Advocacy training: FAPE tends to be upheld in court cases as a threshold of opportunity, not as a bounty of best-practice options. The hot button conversation right now is about how to measure a child’s progress. Is only “some educational progress” ok as a marker of FAPE? Or should the child make “meaningful significant progress” as a marker of FAPE? Accepting “some educational progress” as a marker of FAPE upholds the idea of FAPE as a threshold of opportunity. So if your gifted kid is getting medium grades because xie isn’t sufficiently challenged, this may not be enough to challenge FAPE: your child’s grades–despite what you know about your child!–show “some educational progress.” (A 4th circuit court just handed down a decision about this, upholding a 1982 Supreme Court decision that FAPE is only a threshold of access. See O.S. by Michael S. and Amy S. v. Fairfax County Sch. Bd., 115 LRP 50343, Oct. 19, 2015.) All of these reports about the needs for gifted education and best-practice documents about how to do it well mean little if our judicial system upholds “appropriate” to mean “meh.” And there’s more: another landmark Supreme Court case (Schaffer v. Weast, 2005) placed the burden of proof on parents to show that their child’s placement was not “free and appropriate.” This is bad news for parents because parents don’t tend to have detailed knowledge about Special Education law. So there has been increased pressure for outside testing and expert witnesses. And wouldn’t you know it, another Supreme Court case the next year (Arlington v Murphy, 2006) held that schools were not responsible for paying for the costs of such experts, even if  / when parents won a case. So the upshot is this: districts won’t tell you your rights and you have to find out about them yourself; if you want to hire an expert to prove that your kid needs special education, you will likely have to bear the brunt of those costs; and if what your kids needs is gifted education, there are few provisions in place to provide this help.

So what’s a free and appropriate education for gifted kids? I don’t know. If you find it, please tell me.

*Note: I am not an attorney. I’m not even a fully-trained advocate. My blogs are not intended as legal advice. If you need help advocating for your child(ren), contact COPAA for an attorney or advocate near you.

“At school, I feel broken”: Reason #42 why, as of Monday, I will homeschool my son

A few months ago, I wrote about my son’s new school placement, a Special Education program for children with more “behavioral support” needs than a zoned school can supply. (Translation: “your kid is a handful and we’ve exhausted our resources.”) I expressed my hope in that blog that my son would find his tribe, peers with whom he could share the challenges of being a twice-exceptional kiddo in a public school. After 8 weeks in this program, I can safely report that he has not found peers, and he is more stymied than ever by expectations that he behave in a certain way. There are other kids who share his “behavioral” challenges, but there are, as far as I can tell, no other gifted kids in his class, and he has not yet been allowed to return to the gifted classroom.

As is true of lots of kids / people, my son’s brain clicks in before his body follows directions, but he also has the benefit of a surprising vocabulary and impressive cognitive skills. If a teacher directs him to do something, he’s just as more than likely to ask by what authority the teacher dares to ask such a thing as he is to comply. On his first day of school, he responded to continued requests that he raise his hand before speaking and asking questions with “you’re getting in the way of my Freedom of Speech!” This sort of self-advocacy is going to serve him well when he’s an adult, but it’s not well-received now, especially in a system that values / teaches / demands compliance. So here’s the wall he’s up against: learn to mimic behavior you think is more appropriate to sheeple, or fight an oppressive regime; do what the adults tell you to do, or negate your self. (I can hear you thinking “no 9-year-old thinks like that!” Mine does, if in different words. He’s awesome.)

And what about the argument that in order to learn to get along with other people in groups he needs to learn to get along with other kids at school, to “control himself” in this classroom so he can do the same in other environments? To that I say: there’s “getting along” with people and there’s compliance. What is required at school is compliance, following adult directives with no questions, moving with the masses in a predictable rhythm, never causing a stir. Maybe that’s a bit extreme, but the program he’s in right now is all about learning compliance, and I don’t want my kid to learn compliance. I want him to learn to fight for himself and others (although maybe with more tact, strategy, and well-developed talking points). I really love Amy Golden Harrington‘s take on this, especially as it relates to the asynchronous development of 2e kids: “Social conditioning and school indoctrination get into children so early and are reinforced by the adults around them without examination as to its efficacy. Mainstream parenting and schooling work in concert to suppress individuality and promote conformity. So many children are unaware of what life could be like when they are respected for who they truly are not how well they conform, behave and fit into the box.” (See her essay “I Forgot to Socialize My Kids.”)

Compliance is especially fraught with peril in Special Education. What is “expected” (such as behavioral objectives) is ableist for many reasons. The most problematic, ableist issue we’re dealing with right now is this: kids who can’t “behave” should be taught to “behave” before they can be allowed to do brain work. Kids who can’t “behave” and disrupt the learning of other kids need to be removed and segregated from the kids who can “behave” so the kids who can “behave” can learn without interruptions. And we’ve been told (and bought into for a while) that “his behavior is getting in the way of his learning.” Note the logical fallacy at the core of this angle: one can’t learn unless one “behaves” in expected / accepted ways. So how do I reconcile that with him teaching himself *everything* about the presidents at age 5 whilst bouncing off everything solid enough for a good bounce? I call foul. He learns when expectations match his skill set. He doesn’t check the bevavior-meter before deciding what to memorize or investigate next.

So this has been my son’s path: gradual addition of restrictions ultimately ending in a segregated classroom of just a handful of kids who go about their days constantly getting in trouble because expected behavior is not available to them. And they learn new tricks from each other and have conversations about how they ended up in this place. When my son shares these conversations with me, they sound suspiciously close to “what are you in for?” These kids go to school each day to practice behavior. In other words, they go to school all day to practice the thing they struggle with most. And while ableist society might argue that this is a good thing, an environment set up to help kids learn control, we need to recognize that this is a deficit-based education for kids like my son (and probably many others), kids who could do more with their brains if not constantly under fire for behavior. We should all have the right to a strengths-based education, don’t you think?

So tomorrow we will withdraw him from public school. This has been a complicated decision, made difficult because we–his parents–recognize that his current placement is not an oppressive regime in and of itself. The teachers are very, exceedingly patient. Kids get sensory breaks, and lots of them. Kids who need to stim get to stim and are not shamed for it. As I wrote on Facebook a few weeks ago, I went to visit my son in class one day and found a spinning boy just inside the door. He got up several times while I was there to spin some more, and sat down to do his work when he was done. And on another occasion, another visit, I overheard a teacher talking to this same boy about how much she liked to spin when she was young because it felt good. There was no shaming of this child. There’s yoga during the day, and meditation. Kids learn calming techniques (that is, calming techniques in addition to the stims they’ve already developed for themselves). There are games. There’s no ABA. And the teachers encourage self-advocacy; my son has not been denied the opportunity to speak his mind when he has had the presence of mind to ask for the floor in an appropriate way (meaning not yelling out in the middle of class, not interrupting, etc.) These are GOOD THINGS.

But my son feels broken at school, and that is enough for me to seek a different path. I will be the first to admit that my son has things to learn about getting along with people. Don’t we all? But these lessons don’t have to be coupled with behavioral compliance. This timing is especially ironic; tomorrow I begin intensive training as a Special Education Advocate, and I feel like there’s no place for my own son in our education system. But I’ll have to deal with that later. For now we are going to try a freedom-to-brain approach, and we’ll see where it takes us.

Twice-exceptional kiddos and the conundrum of Least Restrictive Environment

My son started 4th grade this week. This year he is at a new school, his third school since starting kindergarten. Between second grade and third grade we moved to another state, so naturally he attended a new school last year. We searched long and hard for a school rich in both Gifted and Special Education resources and deliberately moved to a neighborhood served by that school. But this year we had very little choice about where he would go to school. After working with him for a year, the administrators and teachers at his third grade school decided that his behavioral support needs exceeded what was available at that particular campus and that it was time for a different approach.

Let me put this into language parents of kids like mine will recognize. My son was in trouble for “disruptive behavior” nearly every day last year. (I’m qualifying “disruptive behavior” because I want to problematize it later.) Being pulled out of his general-education classes and going to his special-education teacher for “cool down time” was just as much a part of his schedule as Math and Social studies. He became very close with the Assistant Principal. Notes / emails / calls home were de rigueur. Behavioral charts tracking responsible, safe, and respectful behavior came home every day for most of the year. At some point during the year, the Assistant Principal decided that in-school suspension was no longer appropriate for my son, who actually preferred the contained, quiet space and unrestrained access to a single teacher. Behavioral specialists from the district were called in for observation and help. And by the end of the year, everyone at the school agreed that he needed a change in placement, at least as a temporary measure.

Over the course of last year, his schedule changed from a less restrictive environment to a more restrictive environment. He began the year in a regular third-grade class with an extraordinary teacher who excelled in differentiation. He also had pull-outs for Talented and Gifted (TAG) subjects, and scheduled sensory breaks with his Special Education coordinator. In some classroom spaces (even TAG), he was bored. In others, the sensory input was overwhelming. Boredom and overwhelm often lead him to behavior others find disruptive: verbal stimming, opposition and argument, and sometimes, loss of control of his body. We changed his schedule several times, reducing the number of transitions he had to go through each day. After spring break the principal suggested placement in 5th grade TAG math (a bit beyond his abilities) and 4th grade TAG language arts (still boring). This cut down on the transitions because they were back to back, but ultimately this wasn’t a good solution because it didn’t hit his brain needs just right. Then we put him on furlough from his TAG classes, trusting his amazing teacher to fill in the brain gaps through differentiation. She didn’t disappoint, and he felt less stressed with fewer places to go. But transitions continued to challenge him, and any change in routine (chair in a different place, substitute teacher, change in rule, change in schedule, etc.) made focusing on responsibility, safety, and respect nearly impossible.

(Notice, however, that these goals are all behavioral and have nothing to to with his academic performance; he managed to get fabulous grades even when he wasn’t really paying attention and was really stressed out. So this is not a kid who needs academic intervention. This is not a kid who needs help learning. This is a kid who struggles in a social and sensory environment that is not suited to his needs. His “behavioral problems” are very valid responses to feeling overwhelmed and overstimulated.)

The remaining possibility for an even more restrictive environment at that campus would have been primary placement in a special education classroom. But because my son is gifted, this is not a good placement for him. He’s very impatient with the other kids in the class who need more time to sort through information. His impulses to shout out answers are even stronger in this environment. So we were stuck with a conundrum I’m confident every parent of 2e kids has to confront: what is the ideal classroom setting for a child who is gifted and needs a quick pace in terms of absorbing new knowledge, but who is also disabled, and needs patience, frequent breaks, iron-clad routine, and allowance for the variances of each day’s (each hour’s!) sensory needs? The answer was not the magnet school he went to for K-2. That school almost met his academic needs, but had painfully few resources for special education. The Special Education teacher was only on campus one day a week, and there was no resource room to retreat to in times of high stress. And the answer was not the school he attended last year, which had adequate TAG and Special-Ed resources, but a busy schedule that was too much for him.

So now he’s in a program called Achieve at another elementary school in town, one of three such Elementary school programs in our school district. Achieve is for kids who are already in Special Education who need more behavioral support. (In case you are tempted to google this, know in advance that there’s little to no information on the internet about this program. Kids are placed in Achieve by referral, not usually by parent request. The teacher-to-student ratio is incredibly low–there are 2 teachers and 4 aides to 14 kids in my son’s program!–and I imagine the district struggles to maintain those ratios. So there’s no advertising for Achieve. Even so, I find the lack of on-line information curious.) There are two classrooms. The first, where he is currently placed, is self-contained. That is, the kids don’t rotate to other classes; they don’t attend “specials” (such as Music and Art); they eat lunch in the classroom together. With fewer transitions and fewer opportunities for sensory overload, the kids are theoretically supposed to be better able to learn coping mechanisms for overwhelming school scenarios. We’ve been promised that a request for a sensory break is never denied. Kids are guided in ability-level academic work. When a kiddo feels ready, xie graduates to the next classroom, and begins to re-integrate into the gen-ed population one class session at a time, always accompanied by an aide (and always with the option of going back to Achieve, with zero judgment). If it takes months for a kid to feel up to attending music class, for example, then it takes months. (This was a particularly challenging class for my son, who is sound-color synesthetic and may have perfect pitch. There was just too much sensory information in music class for him to handle most days!)

The theoretical goal for all children in this program is to eventually re-integrate back into the less-restricted environment of general education, bit by bit, slowly so that the child feels completely in control. There’s no particular goal date, no set schedule for any of the kids. For some kids this process takes weeks. For others, the safety of the Achieve program feels more comfortable and they stay longer. There are equivalent programs in middle school and high school in our district. As my son’s new teachers told us, some kids always need the support of these programs, and that’s just fine.

At issue here is the legal mandate of Least Restrictive Environment (LRE), which is a complicated but crucial part of IDEA, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. I’m not an attorney, so I won’t attempt to explain this part of IDEA in detail. (This page is a good resource. And this page includes the original memorandum about LRE with helpful links inserted after original paragraphs.) What it boils down to for my son is this: he has the right to a free education with “peers”–who are not disabled–to the greatest extent possible. And herein lies the challenge: 2e kiddos are a minority within a minority. No one really knows how many 2e kids are currently in schools. In a 2006 handbook entitled “The Twice-Exceptional Dilemma,” the National Education Association estimated that about 6% of children served by IDEA may also be gifted. A paper by Micaela Bracamonte published in the March, 2010, 2e Newsletter provides a more specific number: 70,000 2e kids in self-reporting school districts across the country. “This number,” she writes, “represents a percentage consistent with estimates that two to five percent of the gifted population have LDs and two to five percent of students with LDs are gifted.” Then there’s this recent article that claims that 14% of gifted kids also have a learning disability. Any way you look at the issue, it’s a relatively small number of kids.

My son has yet to have a classmate who is both gifted and disabled. He knows other 2e kids, but they haven’t been his classmates. So who are his “peers”? When he is with his gifted “peers” in a less-restricted environment, his disabled self seems out of place. When he is placed in a more-restricted special education classroom, his gifted self is not well served. And, of course, he is not two selves. He is one boy, one incredible boy who simply needs a safe place to learn. His true peers, those who are best equipped to understand him, are likely to also be both gifted and disabled.

The jury is still out about whether or not this new program will be a good fit for him. I’m sure I will have more to say in the coming weeks and months. Maybe we’ll need yet another solution, but maybe, just maybe, he’ll find his tribe there.