Choosing a School for Special Needs
By Larry Anderson
Transitioning to a new school can be challenging, and the change canbe even more difficult if a family moving to Atlanta has a child with special needs or learning differences. But it doesn’t have to be. Public and independent schools in Atlanta and surrounding areas are well-equipped to address the needs of every child, even those with special needs. Local school experts say parents should consider their choices carefully and evaluate thoroughly. And they should visit schools in person to witness the education process first-hand.
Making a Smooth Transition
Newcomers to the Atlanta area who have a special needs child should obtain a complete copy of their child’s school records from the previous school they attended. Then they should contact their local school district’s Director of Special Education to set up a meeting to review the records and find out how the district can meet the child’s needs.
“You know what your child needs, so talk to your local school district,” says Debbie Gay, director, Special Education Services and Supports, Georgia Department of Education. “Ask to observe classes that provide services to the child. An inquisitive process should be based on the things you know your child needs.”
Public schools in Georgia have a specific system to address special needs in the education system. Local school systems conduct a comprehensive evaluation of each child, followed by an eligibility determination and a meeting with parents and other stakeholders to design an individual education plan (IEP). The process is used to accommodate any child that falls into the 11 areas of disability recognized by the state, ranging from autism spectrum disorder to speech-language impairment to orthopedic impairment.
Children that don’t qualify for an IEP may be eligible for a plan under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination based on disabilities. A 504 plan specifies how a child’s needs are met with accommodation, modification and other services, thus removing barriers to learning. Examples might include preferential seating, verbal testing or modified textbooks.
‘Least Restrictive Environment’
Often, a child’s needs can be served by the local neighborhood public school; alternatively, the child may be assigned to a different public school if needs are significant, says Gay. Independent schools also provide abundant choices when parents are looking to meet the educational needs of their child.
Federal law requires that public schools address children’s special needs in the least restrictive environment possible. Gay says that about 67 percent of the state’s children with special needs spend more than 80 percent of their day in a general education classroom.
As required, a child’s needs may also be addressed in a “co-taught” environment, with a general education and a special education teacher working together; or in a special education environment, including one-on-one instruction if needed. “There are a lot of nuances in the continuum of service,” says Gay.
For example, the autism spectrum covers a wide range of children—some need one-on-one instruction and others function well in a general education classroom.
“Every child with a special need is unique, and accommodations are unique for each child,” says Gay. “It’s about understanding your child.”
Ensuring parents have choice in educating their children, a share of federal funding is provided to independent schools, based on a formula, says Gay.
Each local school district is required annually to invite independent schools to communicate what services and support these schools can offer; the local school district then decides how the federal money is allocated. When the annual budget is spent, there are no additional funds available until the following year.
The state Department of Education offers a Special Needs Scholarship to approved independent schools, available to a child who was previously served in a public school setting for a year and has an IEP. Funds are awarded based on a formula, and may not cover the entire tuition for some schools. Information is available at gadoe.org.
The state Division of Special Education Services and Supports includes programs and services that support local school districts in their efforts to provide special education and related services to students with disabilities. Targeted areas for services and support include accessible instructional materials, assistive technology, curriculum access and alignment, family engagement, least restrictive environment, positive behavior supports and transition.
Visit Independent Schools Before Choosing
Independent schools are not subject to state and federal processes, and may take a variety of approaches to educating a special needs child. In fact, the greater flexibility in an independent school environment opens new possibilities and options that may be a perfect fit for the education of a special needs child.
Dr. Betsy Box, Founder and Director, The Bedford School, emphasizes the need for parents to get good testing on their child so that they can better match his/her needs to what the school can provide. “Identify the schools that may be appropriate for your child and visit as many of them as possible, even if they are too far away or out of your realm of possibility,” she says. “This will give you a frame of reference.” Another step is to talk to parents and/or students who attend the schools being considered.
After parents carefully evaluate the options, Box’s best advice is to “go on your own gut feeling; you know your child better than anyone else.”
Founded in 1985, The Bedford School is an accredited independent school in Fairburn, Ga. (south of Atlanta) for children with specific learning disabilities and ADD/ADHD (attention deficit disorder/attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.) Bedford incorporates multi-sensory learning, technology, intensive specialized reading intervention programs such as S.P.I.R.E. (Specialized Program Individualizing Reading Excellence) and a structured physical education and art program.
‘Go Deeper and Consider Lifelong Goals’
Catherine Trapani, Ph.D., head of The Piedmont School of Atlanta, says parents looking for a school for their special needs child should go beyond typical criteria for evaluating a school, such as accreditation, teacher credentials, teacher-child ratio and after-school programming.
“Go deeper and consider the lifelong goals of the family,” she says. “What do you want for your child in adulthood and what do they need to achieve that long-term goal? Does the school have a warm, rich environment? Does it set high expectations for all children, and does it provide the level of individual assistance to achieve success? As importantly, is the child happy and at ease when visiting the school?”
The Piedmont School of Atlanta serves typical and bright children with autism, learning disabilities, and attention deficits. The school concentrates on the needs of children so they may attain successful inclusion in the community over time. The Social Express program provides a pragmatic language-based approach to develop social-emotional skills.
Questions to Ask:
Dr. Betsy Box of The Bedford School suggests that parents should ask lots of questions when looking for a school for a special needs child, including:
- Can you describe your typical student?
- Is the school accredited? If so, by what organization?
- What is the class size?
- What is the typical homework load?
- How many years do most students stay?
- Where do your students go after they leave?
- What is the tuition? What additional fees are there? Do you accept the Georgia Special Needs Scholarship? Is there financial help available?
- Are there extracurricular activities? Clubs? Sports? Homework help time? After school care?