Finding a Special Needs School
Selecting the Right Fit for Children with Learning Difficulties
By 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 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.
If parents and teachers are worried about a smart child who is struggling to learn or gain skills, a psycho-educational evaluation, which can provide a path to discovering what his or her learning disability is, may be needed. However, “the first thing parents need to do, and surprisingly often don’t do, is have a conversation with their child’s teacher, a very specific conversation to gauge what the teacher is seeing in the classroom,” says Amy Zaring, director of Woodward Academy’s Transition Learning Support Program, which works with grades 2-8 students with complex learning profiles and diagnosed learning differences. “It’s also important to pay attention to their child’s state and standardized test results.”
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.
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 measurable goals and outlines what teachers and other professionals can do to help the student learn 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, or is it more for students with learning disabilities who learn in different ways?” asks Betsy Box, admissions director and director emeritus of The Bedford School.
For instance, some schools are tailored to a specific disability. The Schenck School serves students with dyslexia, while Piedmont 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 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, 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.
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 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.
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. “I believe it’s important for a child to experience the culture of the school while also creating some enthusiasm in the child for the co-curriculars the school offers.”
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.”
For additional information on learning disabilities and special needs resources, including financial assistance options and a list of schools, please see our Special Needs section on page 14, and a list of special needs advertisers in this issue on page 90.