“Every student can learn, just not on the same day, or in the same way.”
― George Evans
A young student with dyslexia is bullied; her grades start falling. A sixth grader with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is overwhelmed by academic and social challenges in middle school. A child evaluated as gifted is having behavioral issues in the classroom. These and innumerable other examples define the current condition of students with learning differences and emotional or behavioral issues, children who struggle in a typical public school learning environment. For the student and parents, it’s excruciating, so many families explore the option of specialized schools where the educational atmosphere supports and strengthens a child’s unique abilities.
“Parents of a child with a learning difference know that given the right tools and opportunities, their child can learn, grow, and thrive,” said Barbara Leventhal, an Educational Consultant at Score at the Top who counsels families searching for a specialized school to meet their student’s needs. “Public schools offer a wide range of services intended to best meet the needs of the average population. Students above or way below the ‘average’ often don’t get the attention and resources that a smaller, specialized school can offer.”
According to Leventhal, the good news is that there are schools that look past labels so as to nurture a child’s abilities and maximize their academic, behavioral, and social success. Finding the right specialized school for your child takes time and research. Every child is different, like every school, so the search is about finding the match that best fits your child’s needs and brings the family peace of mind.
In this guide, you’ll begin to navigate the world of specialized schools. We’ll provide you with a how-to: how to know if your child needs a specialized school, how to evaluate a specialized school’s program, and how to weigh a school’s benefits. We’ve already delved a little more deeply into some specific types of specialized schools in separate articles that address specialized high schools, schools for dyslexics, schools for autism spectrum disorder, and those for accelerated learning.
What is a Specialized School?
For the purpose of this guide and the related blogs, a specialized school caters to students who may require more individualized attention, more comprehensive services, and a more structured environment. Some specialized schools serve a particular population, such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or dyslexia, while others may have students with a range of learning differences or behavioral challenges. The range is broad, from the Bilgrav School in West Palm Beach, Fla., which provides a curriculum tailored to students with dyslexia, to schools like Atlantis Academy in Coral Springs, Fla., whose students have a wide range of learning differences and/ or emotional/behavioral disabilities, to high-end facilities like Shrub Oak International in New York, a 127-acre boarding school offering state-of-the-art academic and support services for students on the autism spectrum. Keep in mind that children who have been evaluated as gifted and talented also come under the “special education” umbrella; there are specialized schools such as The Greene School in West Palm Beach, Fla., which cater to this population.
Generally, specialized schools are smaller than public schools, have a lower teacher-to-student ratio, and comprise faculty and staff who are trained and certified to work in the special education field. The schools may be physically designed with classroom spaces and décor that take into account their students’ unique aversions, interests, or abilities. Because the student populations are usually smaller, specialized schools may work closely with families and offer coordinated, integrated plans for the child’s academic, behavioral, and social goals.
How Do You Know if Your Child Needs a Specialized School?
According to Leventhal, the choice to send your child to a specialized school is a personal one involving different factors for every family. Often, the need materializes after parents have exhausted all other options at their public school and their student still struggles.
“Many of the families I meet with are overwhelmed and frustrated because they’ve already tried a lot of approaches that haven’t worked,” Leventhal said. “You have to trust your instincts as a parent and know when it’s time to explore other options.”
An important first step is to have your child evaluated and have an Individualized Educational Program, or IEP, created for him or her. You can request your public school to conduct the evaluation or seek an independent evaluation from a reputable professional. The IEP is a valuable tool that outlines educational goals for your student and any special assistance or services he or she needs to meet those goals. For instance, your public school may arrange for your child to be pulled out of class regularly to receive individual instruction in reading or math to keep up with classmates.
While for some students those few extra hours of one-on-one or small group attention can make a difference, other students need more. If your child continues to produce low grades, has behavioral issues in the classroom, or is dealing with anxiety or low self-esteem, he or she might benefit from attending a school that can devote more time and services to helping tap into the student’s full capabilities. If you decide to pursue a specialized school, having the IEP in place will provide critical information to the new school whose goal is to work with you to continue use, or reformulate, that plan which will help your child reach educational goals.
What Are the Benefits of a Specialized School?
A top-notch specialized school should provide an environment, academics, and social opportunities that fit your child’s personality and unique needs. “The right school for your child should draw out his or her strengths and fill in gaps apparent from their previous education,” Leventhal said.
Some of the benefits of a specialized school include:
- More time and attention for your child. Rather than receiving a few hours a week of specialized attention, he or she will be in a full-time program that is designed to support them. In addition, most specialized schools are relatively small and have more teachers available, which adds up to more individualized attention.
- Teachers are trained and knowledgeable. Typically, teachers are trained in special education and may even specialize in areas like autism, ADHD, or dyslexia – professional training that will benefit your child.
- More resources and support on-site. The school may offer many of the services and/or therapies you’ve been getting elsewhere, such as speech-language therapy, physical or occupational therapy, psychological services, or tutoring.
- Academic accommodations. Typically, specialized schools readily provide accommodations, modifications, or other necessary support for knowledge mastery, test-taking and homework assignments.
- Students feel they fit in. Realizing they are not alone and participating in a class of peers who share learning differences can help boost a student’s confidence.
How Do You Begin Your Search for the Right School?
If the task of finding a specialized school seems daunting, you’re not alone. Parents of children with learning differences are already dealing with the pressures of getting their child’s needs met – in addition to the subtle stresses of daily family life. The biggest tip Leventhal has for parents is, seek help and support.
“Once you start this process and begin researching and exploring, you’re going to realize you’re not as alone as you may have thought,” Leventhal said. “Many families have walked this path and many professionals have a broad knowledge base you can tap into. There’s no need to start from scratch.”
She advises talking to teachers, special education professionals, doctors, therapists, tutors, and friends. Networking this way often produces unanticipated, positive results! Of course, there’s also the internet, which can help you compile a list of possible schools. Leventhal, who is always researching specialized schools and their offerings, says she has gathered invaluable information from unlikely sources at times, such as the community librarian or churches and synagogues.
Another important tip, Leventhal says, is to consider what you, your student, and your family are willing to commit to by attending a specialized school. Too often, she says, parents are so focused on finding a specific program that they don’t consider the family sacrifices and costs. For instance, if the school is located 45 minutes or more away from your home, are you willing to make that drive every day? Would spending that much time in your car be challenging for your child, thus setting him or her up for a more difficult time at school? Finances are also a concern as some of these schools can be costly. It’s important to know your budget and to find out what kind of financial assistance might be available.
Finally, Leventhal says, you must visit the school, preferably with your student. “I’ve personally visited so many schools and I’ve developed a keen sense of settings that are nurturing and truly catering to students. Artwork displayed? Engaged students? Those are good signs,” she said.
As a parent, you’ll get a feel for an environment that’s right for your child. Ask lots of questions. Find out about the faculty, their training, how long they’ve been with the school. How are disciplinary issues addressed? How much communication is there between the school and parents? How many hours do they spend on reading and math? What other services or activities are offered? Be blunt; there’s a lot at stake. Oh, and get a list of school parents you can call who will be your best resource for honest feedback.
You Have Options!
It can be heart-wrenching to see your child struggle with learning differences and the low self-esteem that often accompanies them. But learning “differently” does not mean children can’t learn – it means they need academics, teachers, and emotional support tailored to their unique ways of deciphering information. To that end, a specialized school may be the answer that helps your child leverage their innate talents and gifts, succeed academically, and gain more confidence in the long run.