Questions to Ask About Private Schools for Students with Learning Disabilities or ADD

Questions to Ask About Private Schools for Students with Learning Disabilities or ADD

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When parents are frustrated by their child’s seeming lack of academic progress, some consider paying for private tutoring or schooling. All parents want to provide their students with the best help available, and it is admirable that many are willing to invest their own money to go beyond what their school system provides in order to get their student appropriate help.   As in any market for any good or service, paying a high price doesn’t always guarantee you the best or most appropriate assistance.  If you feel it is necessary to spend your own money for help for your student, you can do some research to make sure that, if you want to pay for private school, your student will receive the special education for which you have paid.

Over the past several decades, private schools have been founded that specialize in teaching students with learning disabilities.  They typically offer smaller class sizes and may provide “brand name” instruction- such as Orton-Gillingham or Wilson Reading Program- to help remediate students’ specific area of disability.  These schools are sometimes housed in beautiful old homes on lovely grounds and may have a charismatic head of school to whom parents are devoted.  Many of these schools emphasize the positive by referring to students’ academic issues as “learning differences” rather than “learning disabilities.”  And, by the very nature of their mission, they provide a school environment where all students are there because they have learning disabilities, so students may find a sense of camaraderie.  All of these can be great things for students.  But make sure that the education being provided behind this surface is what you expect.

It is important to ask questions when looking into these schools.  If you are looking at a high school for your older student, ask whether it is accredited by the state.  If it is not, your student may not be able to earn a state-approved diploma from that school, meaning s/he may have to complete some classes at the local high school in order to receive a high school degree.  Try calling your school district or state education department to ask questions about whether this is the case with a school you are considering.  You may still choose to send your student to that school; just know what your student will have to do in order to receive a diploma.  You should also consider calling some local college admissions offices to see whether they accept diplomas from the schools you are researching without your student having to take any additional credits before admission.

Another important question to ask is how many of the teachers have state certification in special education and/or formal training in the teaching methods being used (such as Lindamood- Bell).  Rules vary state-to-state, but your state may not require such private schools to employ only teachers who are certified in special education (even though public schools do not have this freedom).  If the school you’re considering for your student does not have many teachers certified in special education, ask yourself what your purpose is in moving your student to a different school.  If your goal is to get her/him more appropriate, specialized instruction, you should consider whether s/he will get it at a school where teachers don’t have a background in special education.  In that case, your student may be better off at the public school, where all of the teachers will be certified for their teaching area.  If your goal is simply to put her/him in a place that is more comfortable and has small class sizes (something that can be very helpful for students’ emotional well-being), then the training of the teachers may not be as important to you.

When you ask about teacher certification, ask for specifics, such as whether the math teacher has a degree in math.  This may sound strange, but because these private schools are not regulated the same way public schools are in some states, there may be no rules regarding who can teach what subject.  Some of these schools may allow teachers to teach in areas where they don’t have a degree.  For instance, the English teacher may also be the art teacher.  While you might not be bothered by this, you need to consider the reverse- how would you feel if the teacher certified in Art also taught the English classes? Since most of these schools are very small, it should not be a big deal for the school head to provide you with this information.  If the school you’re considering balks at doing this for all of the faculty members, then at least ask them to provide the information for the teachers who would be working with your student in the first year.

You might wish to compare your public school’s curriculum for your student’s grade (ask the district’s curriculum office for a copy) to the curriculum that the private school follows.   If the private school says it does not have a printed curriculum, you have to decide what this means to you.  Does this mean that each teacher does his/her own thing? Is consistency important to you?  Do you want to make sure that your student’s school covers the same topics as the public schools as part of the preparation for college (if that is a goal for your student)?

If the school offers data regarding how their interventions lead to increased test scores, take a look at the tests being used to measure progress.  Some schools develop their own tests or use the tests that accompany the training program they use (which typically measure the skills on which their instruction focuses).  If this is the case, keep in mind that such tests typically show gains because they measure directly the very skills on which the instruction focuses.  If they report improvements on normed, standardized measures (such as the Wechsler Individual Achievement Tests or the Woodcock-Johnson Tests of Achievement), this is good, but they should report them in standard scores, rather than in grade levels, which tend to be very imprecise and are not accurate measures of improvement.  Again, you need not ask a school to provide more data than they have on hand or to provide it in a different format (unless this is important to you); just make sure you understand what it means (and what it doesn’t).

While you’re asking questions, inquire about how long the teachers on staff have worked there and what kind of professional development the school offers them.  If much of the staff is new (and the school is not), this may be an indication of a high turnover rate, something which may not dissuade you from choosing that school, but of which you should be aware, as it can be upsetting to students when their favorite teachers leave.  You also want to make sure that, like public school teachers, these teachers are engaged in professional development each year.

You should also ask how much turnover rate there is in the student body.  Some turnover may be due to non-relevant factors- such as parents’ ability to pay the tuition, family relocation, etc.  But you want to get a sense of whether this is a school that students try for a year before deciding that it is not a place at which it is worth spending  another year (and whether such student turnover will be troublesome to your student, who will be making friends at this school).

You should ask for permission to observe classes for a day.  If the school balks at this, then you have to consider their reasons for doing so.  Certainly, none of us wants our children to be educated in a place where visitors are constantly watching.  But if you are going to spend money to send your child to a school, you should get a sense of whether something special is happening in the instructional techniques and atmosphere, and whether it is a place that makes you feel comfortable.  When your student was little, you likely made observations at the pre-school or day care facility that you chose- why would you not do the same for the place you choose to educate her/him?  When you go, pay attention to the materials being used, how well teachers keep all students engaged, and whether you see anything special or different happening in classes (besides the number of students per class) than you see in your student’s current school.

Many private schools will present you with their annual graduating class’s college acceptance rate, as well as a list of schools to which these students are accepted.  If college is the goal for your student, you should ask for this data if it is not offered.  However, remember that college acceptance is not the same as college completion.  Most schools do not track whether their alumni actually graduate from the colleges where they start, if they even track college graduation rates at all.  This is not meant to be a negative statement about private schools- public schools don’t collect this data either- but you should not give such information from the private schools more weight than it warrants.

If you can get this information from your public district, you may wish to ask whether students who return to the public schools from the particular private school you’re considering place back into their expected grade level or have to repeat a year.    Private schools do not usually have to follow state curricula, so your student may have to catch up in certain subjects in order to be on grade level.

When you are researching a private school, read its mission statement and see how well it fits your student’s needs.  Some schools are founded to serve a particular population (e.g. students with emotional difficulties), but some begin accepting students with other kinds of problems in order to maintain their head count.  While there is certainly a lot of comorbidity amongst learning disabilities and other kinds of problems (e.g depression), you want to keep in mind what you hope to achieve by sending your student to a private school.  If your goal is to get him help for a language-based learning disorder, then a school with a psychologically therapeutic mission may not be the best fit (even if the school representative assures you that they handle all sorts of students).  Remind yourself of what kind of help you are trying to get for your student.

One important factor to consider when looking into a private school is your student’s feelings about it.  Some students have a very positive experience at these private schools because they are in a place that feels safe and where others share their struggles. Some make their first friends at these schools.  However, other students feel that attending a school for students with learning disabilities is a comedown- an indicator that they are not as capable as other students who attend their local high school.  Students who feel this way may have their negative self-perceptions reinforced by attending a school outside of their district.  You need to gauge your student’s feelings as an important part of your decision-making process.  This is why it is important to take your child for a day visit to the school you’re considering.

Whatever you decide to do in choosing a school for you student, make sure your student will get what you expect her/him to receive for the tuition you will be paying.  Don’t be afraid to ask questions- it’s your money and, more importantly, your student’s education.

Questions for schools:

  1. How many of your teachers are certified in special education?  What subjects do these people teach?
  2. Is this school accredited by the state?  If not, what do students have to do in order to earn a high school diploma?
  3. May I see a copy of the curriculum for the grade my student would be entering next year?
  4. How many of your teachers were new this year?  Last year?  The year before that?
  5. Which teachers would work with my student next year?  What classes do they teach, and in what subjects are they certified?