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Special needs programs and schools: a primer

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By Valle Dwight

The dedicated special needs school

But in some cases, an ordinary public school may not be able provide the level of services a child needs. This may be because a child's needs are particularly complex (both highly gifted and highly disabled) or severe, or because the school lacks any staff trained to support even the child with a relatively common disability. If this is the case for your child, it might be time to consider a school that specializes in your child’s particular learning profile.

Children with learning differences and other disabilities have an education team set up by federal law. This team (which includes the child’s parents, teachers, and other specialists) decides the kind of special instruction the child needs and any other accommodations the school needs to make to help the child learn. The teams’ decisions are documented in the student’s Individual Education Plan (IEP).

The law states that children must be educated in the “least restrictive environment,” which is assumed to be in the regular classroom. If the school is unable to provide this, and has tried other interventions to no avail, the team may consider what's known as an out-of-district placement to a specialized school (‘out of district’ only means that the school is not a part of your district's public school system; the school itself might actually be in your town).

If the district agrees to it, they will pay for all or part of the tuition and the transportation to the school. This could be a public specialized school or a private school; it depends on what the child’s team has decided.

Often the child’s team will suggest a particular school, although parents have the right to say yes or no. Other times the parents will request a school, but the school district (often referred to in the law as the Local Education Agency or LEA) also has the right to refuse that choice.

If parents and the district can’t come to terms, which may involve a battle in court, parents have the right to send their child to a private special needs school with their own money.

What is a special needs school?

Special needs schools specialize in teaching students with learning, behavior, mental health, medical, or intellectual disabilities. In most cases, one school will specialize in one type of disability; it is rare to find schools that are a catch-all for every disability. The programs (which can be day schools or residential) are designed to handle the needs of the particular population they are serving. The staff has additional training in supporting the students in and out of the classroom. Usually only students with disabilities go to these schools, so if you want your child to go to school with typical students, this is not the choice for you.

A school for children with dyslexia, for instance, may have an entire teaching staff trained in a research-based reading intervention such as Orton Gillingham, and that kind of teaching will carry over into every aspect of the curriculum (i.e., will not just be taught for one-half hour a day during reading as might happen in public school).

A school for children with autism may include Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), sensory integration therapy, social skills training, and a host of other interventions.

Special education schools run the gamut — they come in all shapes and sizes and have a variety of approaches to teaching. Some may be housed in the basement of a public school, others may have a pristine campus of their own.

What supporters of special needs schools say

Special needs schools often have smaller class sizes, a low student-to-teacher ratio, and a more structured and consistent learning environment. All the staff is trained to understand the particular learning issues. With the right school and staff many children who had been written off can learn and even thrive.

What critics of special needs schools say

Special needs schools are by their very nature segregated, serving only children with some kind of learning difference. Some studies have found that including children with disabilities in the regular classrooms has better outcomes for both students with and without disabilities.

Valle Dwight is a reporter, writer, and mother of two school-aged boys. She has written for many magazines, including FamilyFun, Wondertime, and Working Mother.


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