Special Schools for Special Students
Finding A Fit for Children With Learning Difficulties
by Mary Welch
Moving to a new city and finding a new school for your child is a difficult process. But it can be even more difficult if your child is what some educators call “nontypical,” meaning he or she struggles with learning disabilities or doesn’t perform well in a conventional school setting. 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, atMtention deficit disorder (ADD) or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), while some more traditional schools offer help for children wrestling with learning issues in addition to their general curriculum.
The problem, of course, is deciding which school best suits the child’s educational needs. “There really are a large variety of schools that service the needs of students with special learning issues,” says Jacque Digieso, co-founder of the Cottage School.
Identifying Your Child’s Issues
But how do you select the right school? The first step is to identify your child’s 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 student exhibits more intelligence than his or her schoolwork demonstrates, it’s critical to have the child tested 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 and outlines what teachers and other professionals can do in order to ensure that the student learns more successfully.
Knowing Which Questions to Ask
Armed with this 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. Stefanie Smith, executive director of Alexsander Academy, suggests that parents “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.”
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 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 to 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 setting.
“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? Does the school serve a specific age range, or work with students on all grade levels? The transition from middle school to a new high school can be a challenging one for many students with learning difficulties.
After parents sort through the schools and come up with a short list of candidates, it’s time to make some calls. “Ask professionals, like your doctor, what schools they recommend,” Digieso advises. “They may be aware of schools that specifically cater to your child’s profile.”
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 own child.
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 student are a good match. In addition to the results of a psychological exam or an IEP, bring a sample of the child’s schoolwork. “That way we see where the child is academically,” says Debbi Scarborough, co-founder of the Cumberland Academy of Georgia.
“Go With Your Gut”
There are also schools that accommodate students with learning disabilities within a more traditional setting. Brandon Hall, for example, caters to average and gifted students, but accommodates certain types of learning disabled students as well. “In some cases, the local public or independent schools do not have the quality academic programs that will challenge a student’s potential or address a learning difference or a specific learning style,” says Dr. John Singleton, the school’s headmaster. “So many times students with learning differences don’t get the college-prep curriculum. We are proud that those with learning differences get the same curriculum as the other students.”
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 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.”