Public or Private? Weigh the Options for Special Education Students
Which type of school will work best for your special needs child?
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For parents of children who learn differently, school choice can be a very personal decision. Since there are varying degrees of disabilities, there are also varying degrees of special education. Not all schools, public or private, are equipped to accommodate all levels of disabilities. Some students might need fewer resources while others require intense interventions. How do you know what your child needs?
Programs that serve at-risk behavioral, intellectual or physically disabled students are located in various public schools throughout the Triangle. Many of these schools offer self-contained classrooms that focus on a diverse population with varying academic levels, but are not available in every public school and typically have few students with similar physical and intellectual challenges. Educators focus on life skills and fundamental academic abilities.
“For regional programs, there are a variety of resources to meet the students’ needs,” says Sandy Chambers, principal of Brier Creek Elementary in Raleigh.
Students identified with an individual education plan gain access to these programs based on eligibility and program availability. Regarding placement, parents should speak with their child’s case manager.
The inclusion model facilitates a variety of instructional techniques for special education students who are mainstreamed into a regular education classroom. These might include, but are not limited to, small group instruction, modified assignments, structured objectives, assistive technology and a designated resource teacher. From a socialization standpoint, students are also able to participate with their grade-level peers during electives and events such as field trips and assemblies.
“Public schools do a great job of serving all students with special needs,” Chambers says. She recommends parents check out the programs to be sure they are a good fit for a particular type of student or learning disability.
First, parents should know there are many private schools — each with their own mission and philosophy. Equally important, parents should understand that private schools are not required to teach the same lessons as public schools.
“Each nonpublic school determines their own curriculum,” says Chris Mears, public information officer at the North Carolina Department of Administration.
If a parent is interested in a private school, they can check the grade-level curriculum and standardized testing requirements at that particular facility. Because the classrooms typically have fewer students, private school teachers can focus on individual student needs and incorporate a variety of teaching methods to reach all children.
“The lessons are a good fit for academic ability, as well as social and emotional levels,” says Tiffany Gregory, dean of admissions at The Fletcher Academy. “They are tailored to the child and are student-centered.”
The Hill Center in Durham offers the best of both worlds. Mornings are dedicated to the students’ academic challenges. In the afternoon, students transfer back to their regular school (public or private) for additional afternoon instruction. The school also provides access to assistive technology.
“We serve as an intervention arm and the organization of the class is built to address the learning differences,” says Bryan Brander, head of the school.
Since the classes have just a few students, the goals and accommodations are personalized to each student’s specific needs.
“Private schools have some of the same accommodations as public schools,” says Augusta C. of Raleigh, who has had children in both public and private schools. “But they might be administered differently because of the smaller classroom size.”
Fewer students in a class enables teachers to address challenges throughout the school day.
“We educate our students using one-on-one and small group direct instruction teaching, as well as addressing skill acquisition in the natural teaching environment,” says Jill Lerner, director of Learn with the Best School in Cary.
While private schools do offer much lower student-to-teacher ratios, there is a price to pay for that benefit. Tuition and transportation may be a concern for many families. Some schools charge upwards of $20,000 per student per year, although many do offer payment plans, financial aid, disability grant funding and scholarships. Working parents concerned about transportation should check with the school before determining this to be a limiting factor.
Private schools may or may not have multidisciplinary teams available, but many understand the need for interventions and incorporate these disciplines into the regular school day.
For students who qualify, public schools provide related services and therapies for exceptional children to maximize growth during the learning process.
Parents of exceptional students should consider visiting both public and private schools in their area to learn about the resources available to them. The Fletcher Academy invites parents to observe classes in session to get an understanding of classroom expectations. Learn with the Best School offers a “trial” day for students who might be interested in attending.
Parents can also meet with administrators first to see if the school is the right fit. After all, parents know their child better than anyone and should trust their instincts, since the goal should be to find the school that best meets their student’s educational needs.
“Having a kid with a learning disability is really scary,” says Augusta C. says. “Concentrate on the school that can help your child now."
Visit these websites for more information on public or nonpublic school curriculum and policies pertaining to exceptional children.
Division of Non-Public Education: ncdnpe.org
North Carolina Department of Public Instruction: dpi.state.nc.us
C.C. Malloy is a writer and disability advocate. She lives in Greensboro with her family. Please visit her website, Bizigal's Exceptional Blooms.