By Alexandra McCray
As the parent of a child who is neurodivergent, you may choose to embark on the private special education path for many reasons. You might feel your child requires more support than a conventional school can provide or that, despite the best efforts of all parties involved, their academic progress is stalling. No matter your reason for seeking one, there are numerous special needs schools to choose from in metro Atlanta. Here’s how your child can benefit from one, as well as some advice to help you with the selection process.
Tailored for Success
By prioritizing the unique strengths and weaknesses of children with ADHD, dyslexia, autism spectrum disorder or other diagnoses, special needs schools craft an education experience designed for these students to excel. One of the most impactful ways they create this environment is through reduced class sizes. Small student-to-teacher ratios, such as 5:1 or 10:1, ensure problem areas aren’t missed and enable children to receive the attention needed for remediation and advancement. In addition, Debbi Scarborough, who co-founded Cumberland Academy of Georgia in Atlanta with her husband in 2007 after struggling to find the right fit for their son with Asperger’s syndrome, notes that the background and experience of these specialized instructors also give them greater patience and understanding.
What’s more, there may be more opportunity to customize curriculum in a special needs classroom based not only on parent and specialist involvement, but also on child input. “We have the student help create their individualized education plan (IEP) in my school because we’re focusing not just on academics, but also on the social and emotional pieces too,” says Dr. Steven Palmer, Head of School for The Cottage School, a Roswell-based school that serves middle and high school students with special needs. “My number one goal is that our students learn to advocate for themselves.”
Enrolling in a special needs school can provide access to specialists such as counselors, occupational therapists and others, explains Emily Koehl, Director of Marketing and Communications at Mill Springs Academy in Alpharetta, which serves LD and ADHD students in kindergarten through 12th grade. Additionally, outside of the classroom and interaction with staff, Susan Spruill, Director of Marketing & Communications at GRACEPOINT School, a school for the dyslexic learner located in Marietta, notes that your child’s confidence may be boosted from them being in a setting with similar peers.
Starting the Search
The fact that there are numerous special needs schools in the Atlanta area can make the thought of finding the ideal one for your child seem daunting. However, there are multiple ways you can whittle down your search.
First, it is essential to consider what your child needs, such as a setting suitable for co-morbid conditions, for example. Once you connect with a local pediatrician, psychologist or psychiatrist, they can offer guidance and recommend specific schools you might want to put at the top of your list, as can an educational consultant or counselor, explain Koehl and Palmer.
Reflecting on the kind of environment and activities you desire your child to be in and have access to can be beneficial as well. For instance, you may prefer that the school is faith-based or have sports programs. You also might want to consider how long your child will need to attend the school and what you want it to provide academically and socially. Will your child’s attendance be temporary or potentially necessary until they graduate high school? Figuring out the length of time your child will spend at a private special needs school allows you to account for the financial commitment too.
“Don’t let the cost of a specialized education scare you away,” Spruill says. “Yes, it’s most definitely an investment, but it’s an investment that pays off.” Plus, the Georgia Special Needs Scholarship (GSNS) Program, the Georgia GOAL Scholarship Program and other forms of financial assistance could offset the cost.
Making a Decision
In addition to gathering suggestions from specialists, experts agree that advocacy groups can provide helpful information. They add that your online research into a school in general, including its accreditations and teaching methods, along with any other word-of-mouth referrals you can get, is advantageous as well.
Of course, don’t rely on word of mouth to simply find a potential school; Scarborough encourages parents to use this kind of input to assess the schools they are exploring, and she recommends talking to the parents of children currently enrolled to learn more about a school’s reputation. On a similar note, Spruill recommends finding out what the next steps are for students once they leave the school. She says, “What are the alumni success stories? Success for our students might be a student attending a four-year university or it could be a student going to a trade school—because that’s what it’s all about, that individual child and their God-given talents and gifts.”
Once you have a list of potential schools, be sure to visit each one to see if you and your child have a connection with the faculty, students and overall atmosphere. Before your visit, Spruill notes that it may help to prepare a list of important questions you want to ask while on your tour, such as “What is the student-to-teacher ratio?” and “How much individual attention is the child going to get?”
Beyond making sure the community is one you can see your child prospering in, Palmer says it’s critical to note if you feel a partnership with the school because you should both have the same goal—to do what’s best for your child. And at the end of the day, the environment that you and your child think will provide that opportunity is the right one for your family.
Did You KNOW?
Atlanta Speech School
Atlanta is home to the nation’s most comprehensive center for language and literacy: Atlanta Speech School
Atlanta Speech School, located in Buckhead, features:
• Three independent preschools, including the Katherine Hamm Center for children who are deaf and hard of hearing, Stepping Stones for children with early-detected speech and language delays and the Anne & Jim Kenan Preschool for children exceptionally prepared for academic settings
• The Wardlaw School for children in K-6th grade with dyslexia
• Four clinical programs that work with each of Atlanta Speech’s schools and independently in the areas of audiology, speech and language pathology and occupational therapy
Beyond the walls of the campus, the Atlanta Speech School shares its research-based practices, innovation, advocacy and partnerships with other organizations through the Rollins Center for Language and Literacy and its online presence, Cox Campus. The goal of the school is to help Georgia’s children acquire the language and literacy abilities they need to empower them to take control of their own future.
The Howard School
Students with language-based learning disabilities and learning differences have an excellent educational option in Atlanta: The Howard School
Offering alternative approaches to learning, The Howard School serves students in grades Kindergarten through 12 who have difficulties with age-appropriate understanding, speaking, reading, spelling or writing. The school is home to teachers who have extensive experience in teaching students who learn differently and work diligently to help every child develop their strengths and stretch their thinking, all while encouraging them to discover their unique potential. Additionally, to address the complexity of the underlying skills of communication, certified Speech Language Pathologists collaborate with teachers on the language instruction in each classroom. Teachers also use the Orton-Gillingham method to help students who need time, repetition and direct instruction to learn to read.