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Finding A Special Needs School

Selecting The Right Fit For Children With Learning Disabilities

By Mary Welch

How do you find the school that best meets your child’s needs when you don’t know what options are available, and may not know the exact nature of your child’s difficulties?

Fortunately, the Atlanta area is rich in schools dedicated to helping such children. Many of these schools focus on children with specific disabilities such as autism, dyslexia, attention deficit disorder (ADD) or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), while some more traditional schools offer help for children with learning issues in addition to their general curriculum.

Identify Your Child’s Issues

So how do decide which school best suits your child’s educational needs? The first step is to identify his or her issues. Students who exhibit average or above-average intelligence but don’t perform well in a traditional classroom setting may be struggling with dyslexia, ADHD or Asperger’s Syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism, among many other possible diagnoses. If your child is more intelligent than his or her schoolwork demonstrates, it’s critical to have the child tested by a professional immediately.

“There really needs to be an evaluation, especially a psychology exam, so that the parents and the schools know what they’re dealing with,” says Betsy Box, executive director of the Bedford School.

If a professional diagnoses your child with a specific learning disorder, and your child is currently enrolled in a public school, an Individualized Education Program (IEP) evaluation may be in order. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires all U.S. public schools to develop an IEP for learning-disabled students who meet special education requirements. An IEP details how the child learns, sets measurable goals and outlines what the child’s teachers and other professionals can do to help him or her learn more successfully.

Armed with information, parents can start searching for schools that cater to their child’s specific difficulties. But there’s much more to finding schools than typing a few words into a search engine.

“Think about where you see your child long-term so that you can help them achieve the skills they need in order to get where you want them to go,” says Stefanie Smith, executive director of Alexsander Academy.

Know Which Questions to Ask

It’s important to interview potential schools to determine their suitability. “You need to keep asking questions until you find a school that you are comfortable with that will have learning techniques that will work with your child,” says Ava White, founder of Ava White Academy and Tutorials, a learning center in Gainesville.

For instance, some schools focus on a specific disability: The Schenck School caters to students with dyslexia. Schools such as Mill Springs Academy and the Howard School cater to students with learning difficulties who plan go to college. Some, like Eaton Academy, don’t specifically target those with learning disabilities, but teach students across all levels of learning who have had difficulty in a traditional classroom.

“Is the school more geared for students with strong academics and poor social skills,” asks Box, “or is it more for students with learning disabilities who learn in different ways?”

Other considerations include whether the school offers a variety of sports, after-school activities and arts programs. Are there summer programs? Does it offer financial assistance? Is it accredited? And if so, by which organizations? Are the teachers certified to instruct special education or special-needs children?

The transition from middle school to a new high school can be a challenging one for many students with learning difficulties. Does the school serve a specific age range, or work with students on all grade levels?

After parents sort through the schools and come up with a short list of candidates, it’s time to make some calls. Consult professionals such as your family doctor, who may be aware of schools that specifically cater to your child’s needs.

Then it’s time to visit the schools you’re interested in. This is crucial, as talking to the staff will give parents a sense of how they interact with students. If possible, talk to parents or students who have graduated. Ask for referrals of parents whose children exhibited learning behaviors similar to your child’s.

“Go With Your Gut”

At this stage of the process, it’s important to bring as much information on your child as possible. The more the school knows about your child, the better prepared it is to assess whether it and the child are a good match. In addition to the results of a psychological exam, bring a sample of the child’s schoolwork. “That way we see where the child is academically,” says Debbie Scarborough, co-founder of the Cumberland Academy of Georgia.

Once parents have done all the work and gathered all the information—having their child tested, finding schools in their area, researching and visiting them—the final choice may be easier than they think.

“Parents know their children better than anyone,” says Betsy 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.”

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