Finding a Special Needs School

Selecting the Right Fit for Children with Learning Difficulties

By Mary Welch and Donna Neale

Choosing a school for your child can be a complex process for any family, but it’s especially true if your son or daughter has a learning disability or struggles to learn effectively in a conventional school setting. Identifying the nature of your child’s difficulties and sorting through available educational options can be very daunting tasks.

Fortunately, the Atlanta area boasts a large number of public and independent schools equipped to address the challenges that these students can face, from specific disabilities such as autism, dyslexia, and speech and hearing difficulties to emotional and behavior disorders.

Identifying the Issue

The first step to securing the best education for your struggling child is to pinpoint his or her issues. If your student exhibits average or above-average intelligence but doesn’t perform well in a traditional classroom setting, there may be a diagnosable reason such as dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Asperger’s Syndrome, or vision or hearing difficulties. Don’t be afraid to request a professional evaluation.

“When parents and teachers are concerned about a bright student struggling to learn and gain skills, a comprehensive psycho-educational evaluation is often recommended,” advises Amy Zaring, director of Woodward Academy’s Transition Learning Support Program, which helps students with learning difficulties develop the skills they need to successfully navigate a collegepreparatory curriculum. “The evaluation report provides a profile of the child’s abilities, weaknesses, processing areas that will support or inhibit learning, as well as social, emotional, or attentional strengths and needs. Comparing these scores to specific areas of academic achievement begins the road map of the child’s learning profile.”

When choosing an evaluator, Catherine Trapani, Ph.D., head of The Piedmont School of Atlanta, advocates thoughtful decision-making. “Take the time to find out about the professional’s credentials, including where the professional received education and training, the kind of childhood disorders they were particularly trained to evaluate, and how long they have been working in the field,” she says. “An important question would be to ask whether the evaluator offers assistance to the parents in determining the next steps to implement the recommendations that arise from the evaluation. If they do not, move on.”

If your child’s testing results in the diagnosis of an eligible special education disability, and your child is currently enrolled in a public school, an Individualized Education Program (IEP) statement will be developed. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires all U.S. public schools to provide an IEP for learning-disabled students who meet special education requirements. Working with the parents, the educational system creates an IEP that details how the child learns, sets measureable goals, and outlines what teachers and other professionals can do to help the student learn much more successfully. 

Searching for the Right School

When interviewing potential schools, ask questions about learning techniques, environment, and focus. “Is the school more geared for students with strong academics and poor social skills,” asks Betsy Box, admissions director and director emeritus of The Bedford School, “or is it more for students with learning disabilities who learn in different ways?”

For instance, some schools are tailored to a specific disability. The Schenck School serves students with dyslexia, while The Piedmont School of Atlanta serves typical and bright children with autism, learning disabilities, and attention deficits. Mill Springs Academy and The Howard School cater to students with learning difficulties who plan to go to college. The Cottage School focuses on overall adult success, providing a comprehensive college preparatory curriculum as well as vocational and special “hands-on” classes for students with mild to moderate learning difficulties.

Other schools don’t specifically target those with learning disabilities, but have programs in place to help those students. Woodward Academy, for example, provides a unique learning environment for students with mild to moderate dyslexia, dysgraphia and dyscalculia (among other diagnoses) within a conventional college preparatory school setting. Its Transition Learning Support Program allows younger students to learn the same curriculum as other Woodward students, but the material is taught in ways that suit their individual needs and learning styles. The program aims to equip these students to merge into the traditional classroom for high school.

Parents will want to take other factors into consideration, as well. Are the teachers certified to instruct special education or special-needs children? Is the school accredited? If so, by which organizations? Does the school offer financial assistance or scholarships? Are there a variety of sports, after-school activities and/or arts programs? Are there summer programs? Does the school serve a specific age range, or work with students on all grade levels?

As you begin compiling your short list of potential schools, don’t be shy about consulting with professionals. Your child’s doctor, counselor, or specialized tutor may have advice about school programs that relate to your child’s needs. Look into foundations or local support groups for your child’s disabilities and make connections with others who have traveled your path. Their experiences can prove invaluable.

“Go deeper and consider the lifelong goals of the family,” says Trapani. “What do you want for your child in adulthood and what do they need to achieve that long-term goal?”

Making a Decision

Visiting the schools you’re interested in is a crucial step, as talking to the staff will give you a sense of how they interact with their students.

Make an appointment, and come prepared. In addition to the results of a psychological exam or an IEP, bring a sample of the child’s schoolwork and a willingness to candidly discuss your child’s needs. “Parents should be prepared to talk about their child’s preferred learning style and environment and what will interest and excite their child outside of the classroom,” Woodward’s Zaring says.

Ask questions. Take notes. See for yourself if the physical setting and overall atmosphere make you and your child feel comfortable. “Parents can tour the school and see the learning taking place,” says Debbi Scarborough, co-founder and headmaster of the Cumberland Academy of Georgia. “They know their child and will get a sense of if the child’s going to fit in.”

Zaring agrees. “Including the student is a wonderful way to hear likes and dislikes, as well as interests and passions,” she says. “A student’s reaction to a school tour or shadow day can be informative and exciting.”

Once parents have done the work and gone through these important steps, the final choice may be easier than they think.

“Parents know their children better than anyone,” says Box of The Bedford School. “There may be more than one school that could be appropriate for your child. Go with the school that you think will work best for your child. Go with your gut.”

More Information

For additional information on learning disabilities and special needs resources, including a list of common terms, please see our Special Needs section on page 16 of our publication.

The Cottage School

Building a sense of self for students with special learning needs through academic and experiential programming, The Cottage School (TCS) prepares individuals for fulfillment of their true potential as confident, productive, and independent adults.

The Cottage School provides an educational environment for students with learning differences in grades 4-12. It prides itself in meeting the student where they need to be met. It also recognizes that all students learn differently, so it teaches differently.

Based on three pillars of success. academic, social and emotional, TCS school offers:

  • Small class sizes (10-student average) for individualized learning.
  • Customized education plans for every student.
  • A work-based, incentive-based model that teaches life skills.
  • A year-round sports program that encourages all students to participate.
  • A required post-secondary plan that insures continued success after graduation.

Come and visit the beautiful 23-acre campus and contact the director of admissions for an appointment today. For more information, call 770-641-8688 or visit cottageschool.org.

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