Why Choose a Special School?
Colonel Myron C. Harrington, USMC ret, B.A., M.S.
Providing the right educational environment
for the learning disabled student to succeed
Have you ever received a report card with either of the following teacher remarks? Johnny has such potential, he’s just lazy. Suzie is so bright; she just needs to try harder. The truth of the matter is that both Johnny and Suzie are trying as hard as they can. You know the level of frustration your child receives when faced with hours of homework each day. You know that your child is bright, but you see the learning light being extinguished with each passing assignment. Children who are intelligent but learn in a different manner than “the norm” are often educationally abused in traditional classroom settings. Their educational needs are not being met and they are facing a dismal future. Fortunately for both Johnny and Suzie, there is hope.
Background of learning disabilities
Learning disabilities affect approximately 10% of our population. Many individuals are able to compensate for their weaknesses without any special help. Others need quite a bit of help. Typically students will struggle for several years before a diagnosis is established and by this point they are far behind their peer group. Specific remediation is needed so that the student can catch up with his classmates. Sometimes the student is so far behind that catching up becomes seemingly insurmountable. There is hope for these students; however, there is no quick fix. Finding the right program to meet the needs of these students is essential. Added to the academic difficulties is the fact that many students with learning disabilities also have difficulties socially with self esteem and confidence, and according to the National Institute on Learning Disabilities, there is a greater incidence of drug abuse among this population as well.
Benefits of attending a specialized school
There are a number of quality schools in this country that are highly qualified to teach children with specific learning disabilities. Teachers are extensively trained to meet the needs of students with diversity of learning styles and difficulties. Each school has tailored/adopted an approach that has proven successful with their students. The Orton/Gillingham multisensory approach, Wilson Reading, Spalding, Lexia and others are proven approaches and are used by many schools and tutors to help remediate language arts/reading difficulties. According to the Coordinated Campaign for Learning Disabilities, 80% of learning disabilities are language based. Many schools train their entire faculties to include the high school math and science teachers in these specialized approaches. Multisensory instruction, for example, is a proven method for teaching students with learning deficits. There is much research to support the idea that the more senses used in the learning process, the more readily information “sticks” in the brain.
Other factors that enhance instruction and academic success are low faculty/student ratios, small class size, and the ability to individualize instruction. Progressive schools have also incorporated technology into their programs to the extent that in some schools there is at least one computer per classroom, a bank of lap tops are available for check out by classes, wireless campuses, and multiple labs available for use throughout the day. Software designed to enhance the learning process is used as it relates to the individual program offered at each school. Specialized guidance and counseling are offered to help students make decisions regarding their future college choices. Specialized schools for children with learning disabilities offer much more individualized attention to students as they prepare for college and, in deed, for life.
It is imperative that faculty members fully understand and appreciate the unique needs of students in these programs. Students with learning differences can be very fragile and in need of keen insightful care from faculty. Faculty must be able to balance this sensitivity with just the right amount of push needed to motivate the students to successful experiences. Faculty are able to reshape and restore students to an academic level of success by helping students gain the confidence to achieve academic success. This takes an enormous amount of patience on the part of teacher, parent and student, but it can and does happen.
Success in the classroom translates to success in other areas of a child’s life. Many times students come to special schools when they have reached a critical point in their academic career. Perhaps they are being asked to leave a school they love or they have hopped around to many schools in search of the right fit. Many times students feel like complete and hopeless failures and have begun to act out behaviorally. Parents are at their wits end not knowing who to turn to or who to believe. Specialized schools offer hope to these parents and students. Students are usually able to show progress and experience success often within days of entering such a program. Everyone, student, parent and family members breathe a collective sigh of relief and begin to feel “normal” again. However, there is a danger associated with this newfound family freedom. The student’s learning disability has not disappeared. Programs for students with specific learning disabilities are great at helping students learn strategies that are useful and helpful. BUT the disability is not curable. Specialized programs merely teach ways to live with it. It is imperative that students and families alike remember that learning disabilities are not curable, but are manageable. Students can learn to manage their strengths and weaknesses so that they can be successful.
Communication skills of faculty
Communication between faculty and parents is essential to the success of students with learning difficulties. Technology has allowed schools to integrate web pages for each teacher to post information, homework assignments, upcoming events, etc. so that parents and students alike may access this information readily. Some schools offer the opportunity to come in for frequent conferences, and teachers are typically available at any time for parent conferences. Teachers are also adept at listening to students needs as well. Teachers come to know their students and can “read” their moods almost as soon as they walk into the classroom. Teachers can sense if a student is having academic or social difficulty and can address it with the student and alleviate the difficulty before it becomes a major issue.
Much has been written about how important self esteem is for our young people. Many schools have adapted elaborate programs for fostering self esteem in their students. At many special needs schools self esteem becomes a natural byproduct of the program. Success breeds self esteem. When students have been unsuccessful in other academic environments their self worth has been damaged. They know that they should be doing better and have tried hard to keep up, but have been beaten down by educational systems not tailored to their specific needs. Many specialized schools offer extensive social skills programs to directly teach their students how to be successful outside of the classroom.
Another very important benefit of attending a specialized school is being able to hone leadership and athletic skills. In traditional schools students must maintain a certain GPA in order to participate in extra-curricular activities. Specialized schools are able to offer leadership opportunities to students who would never be given the chance in a traditional educational setting. Many athletic programs in specialized schools have an “all play” policy so that even those with limited athletic ability have the opportunity to experience team sports. By experiencing success academically, athletically, and socially students come to feel good about themselves, and they have done it without elaborate programs with all the bells and whistles. They feel good about themselves because they have succeeded.
Learning and teaching strategies
But just what is it that special needs schools do that is so different? We directly teach organizational skills. We set up systems in our classrooms that help students learn how they best organize their thoughts, papers, homework, notes and even their lives. Class notebooks may be color coded so that only blue work goes in the blue folder. Teachers may teach several different note taking strategies so that students can use the one that best suits their learning style. Homework counts so students must turn it in. They cannot just take the zero; they will have to stay after school to get it done. If a student completely bombs a test, a retest is given. If a student needs oral testing, it is provided.
Teachers in special needs schools are committed to doing whatever it takes to get the job done. As long as the student is working with the teacher, we will continue to try new strategies. The process is a combined effort. The cooperation of teacher, student and parent is needed for the process to be successful. It takes dedication on the part of all for the successful outcome to be achieved.
What to look for in a specialized school
There are a number of excellent schools for children with varying degrees of learning difficulties. As a concerned parent it is your responsibility to know what your child’s learning difficulty is and be able to convey that information to the admission officer at the school you are interviewing. All special needs schools do not serve the same populations. You must know what you need in order to select an appropriate fit for your child. In addition ask the following questions:
1. What kind of experience/training does the faculty have?
2. Are they experienced and trained in the area they are teaching?
3. What level of training does the school provide its faculty?
4. Is there training available to parents?
5. Is the school accredited by a regional/national accrediting body?
6. To what educational organizations does the school belong?
7. Do faculty members belong to them as well as the school?
8. Do faculty members present papers at regional/national/international conferences?
9. What is the school policy on homework?
10. To what extent is technology incorporated into the classroom instruction?
11. What is the school policy on discipline?
12. Is there a drug problem at the school?
13. Does the school have substance abuse programs?
14. What kinds of sports are offered and what is the policy on student involvement?
15. What kind of community service is required?
16. Where do your students go after leaving the school?
How does a school know when it is successful? The mission/role of most LD schools is to remediate and return the student to a main stream educational environment as soon as feasible. As a result, the long term success of former students who leave after two or three years is, for the most part, unverifiable. So it becomes a moment of great pride and professional satisfaction when we run into a former parent who proudly brings you up to date on their child’s success.
This recently happened to me with chance encounters with three former parents. In each case their child was only at our school for two or three years during their formative elementary years. All of the students were boys, as is usually the case. Two of them were graduating from high school and one from college. All had come to us with severe reading/language skill deficits, fractured self-esteem, and found learning to be a struggle. One young man is graduating from a prominent military prep school and has been accepted at his first choice college. The second is graduating from a local “school of the arts” and has received a significant financial scholarship to study naval architecture at a noted school of naval architecture in the south. The third is graduating from one of the elite private colleges in our state.
In each of these chance encounters the parents were universal in their praise of our school, its faculty, its programs and, most importantly, our dedicated commitment to their child. They are convinced that without the proper remediation, organizational skill development and enhancement of self confidence that our “special needs” school provided, their child would not have succeeded. I am convinced that most specialized schools for children with learning disabilities will have many similar stories to tell.
The dream of both parents of students with learning disabilities and staff and faculty of special needs schools is to provide the right educational environment for the student to succeed.
It can happen for you! If your child has been diagnosed with a learning disability, I strongly encourage you to investigate the opportunities for academic development and success that specialized schools for children with learning disabilities offer.
Trident Academy is one of several schools throughout the United States with a proven track record of success with students with learning disabilities.
Trident Academy is an independent school for students with diagnosed learning disabilities who have average to above average intelligence and are free of emotional disturbance. With an overall teacher/student ratio of 1:4, our students thrive on the individual attention we offer. Trident Academy is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and the South Carolina Independent Schools Association and we hold memberships in the Southern Association of Independent Schools and the National Association of Independent Schools. Our mission is to remediate learning differences in children who have struggled in more traditional settings. Our goal is to help students reach their academic potential.