A School for Everyone
The Bay Area is full of options for children with learning difficulties.
All children are born curious and want to learn. As parents, we want our children to succeed in school, and we send them off to preschool or kindergarten with the expectation that they will. But for almost 600,000 children in the state of California alone, learning can be difficult due to a learning disability or learning difference. That means approximately one in 10 children in the public school system are receiving special help for challenges like Autism, Dyslexia, ADHD, Auditory Processing, and others.
Some parents initially deny that there may be a learning difficulty, either out of fear of having a child that is different or the seeming enormity of the task of dealing with it. But, as Susan Horning, parent of a child with learning differences and now a Special Education Advocate, says, “the most important thing you can do is to get your child the extra help they need as soon as possible. Early intervention is critical. You might have a gut feeling that something is not clicking for your child. Don’t ignore your gut feeling.”
Other signs may be that your young child is crying over homework or resisting going to school. Your pediatrician might note delays in milestones, or you may get feedback directly from a teacher that your child is not progressing academically. Horning adds, “It is important to realize that many children with learning difficulties have average or above average intelligence; it is just that they can’t learn the material in the way it is being taught. They need to be taught differently. The sooner this is addressed the less chance there is of children falling behind academically.”
Public School Options
Under a Federal law known as IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), school districts must provide testing to any child when a parent requests it in writing. An assessment is then provided, usually by a school psychologist, to determine their eligibility for services. This can be done as early as age three, before your child has even entered the public school system. For babies and toddlers, services are available through local Early Intervention Programs (www.ectacenter.org). All of this is provided free of charge. Some parents opt for independent testing by a neuropsychologist, either in addition or instead of school district testing. But that testing can often be expensive, costing $3000 and up.
For children that are found to have one or more of 13 specific disability categories, IDEA guarantees special education resources be available. Parents will then work with the school to design an Individual Education Plan or IEP for that child. Some children may not qualify under IDEA, but may qualify for a 504 plan, depending on the results of the testing.
Most public schools in the Bay Area have lots of resources like speech therapists, resource teachers, psychologists, etc. who can help kids thrive. Schools may make accommodations for the child in the regular classroom and/or take her out of the class for special help during the school day. In some cases a tutor can be an additional asset, teaching the same material to the child in a different way than the classroom teacher is teaching it. Public schools want to do what is best for the child, and often the IEP is all that is needed. But sometimes the public schools just don’t have the right resources or the IEP is not being met.
When parents make the decision that the public school is not able to meet the needs of a child, the next step may be a non-public school. A nonpublic school, which is funded by the school district, is a California Department of Education certified private, nonsectarian school that enrolls individuals with needs that the school district cannot provide services for. There are many choices in the Bay Area; just a few of the many options are Orion Academy in Moraga for children with Asperger’s or other non-verbal learning disability (NLD), Anova Center for Education (Santa Rosa, Concord, San Rafael) for children on the Autism Spectrum, and Springstone School in Lafayette for children with Executive Function Disorders, Asperger’s, and NLD. Other children may find a good match at Raskob Day School in Oakland for children with language-based learning disabilities or Star Academy in San Rafael for all types of mild to moderate learning disabilities.
Other parents may choose a private school setting because of the school’s specific emphasis, like Charles Armstrong School for children with Dyslexia, or because of their smaller class sizes and more individual attention that can benefit a child who learns differently. In the latter category, the Bay Area has many options, from Montessori schools to high schools that emphasize collaborative learning, project-based learning and/or inclusion of all learning styles and differences.
A third alternative may be an online learning environment, perhaps supplemented by outside experts like tutors, speech therapists and others. California Virtual Academy (www.k12.com/cava) is available to all California children in grades K-12 free of charge and allows kids to work at their own pace, delve into subjects they are especially interested in, and still have the oversight of a credentialed teacher. Many Bay Area school districts also offer an independent study/on-line option like Venture in the San Ramon Valley School District or Vista in the West Contra Costa School District.
The path to finding the right education for your child will take some time and parents must advocate for their children. But there is lots of help available to parents on this journey. There are professionals like Special Education Advocates and Education Consultants, and many on-line resources (see sidebars).
‘Once you get your child in the right learning environment for him, he can thrive,” says Horning. “His self-esteem is restored, he’s successful, and he enjoys learning again.”
Isn’t this what we all want for our children, no matter how they learn?
Special Education Advocates
When the public school is not accommodating the needs of a particular student, parents may want to enlist the aid of someone like Susan Horning who, as a Special Education Advocate, is trained in laws related to education rights. She can attend IEP meetings and help parents work through the system to get the best solution for their child. Sometimes that may lead to finding a placement outside the public school system.
Other professionals that can help parents are Education Consultants like Amanda Mallory. Mallory’s firm can help parents with decisions about whether a change is needed or not, refer parents to tutors or therapists, or help find alternative placements. Theresa Lozach, also a Bay Area Education Consultant, is a former Special Education Teacher. She will start with a review of everything that has been tried so far and a look at the child’s school file. She likes to get involved before a crisis erupts to see if the current school can make adjustments. “Sometimes much can be done in the current school without the disruption of changing schools, but when a change is needed, it takes work to find the best option.” Lozach adds, “In the Bay Area we have lots of people thinking about education options, and we have an extraordinary number of options that parents just don’t have in many other parts of the state.”
Susan Horning, Special Education Advocate www.susanhorningadvocacy.com
Theresa Lozach, Education Consultant www.theresalozach.com
Amanda Mallory, Education Consultant www.mmbredu.com
Center for Parent Information and Resources www.parentcenterhub.org
California Department of Education www.cde.ca.gov
Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund http://dredf.org
Community Alliance for Special Education http://caseadvocacy.org