A View from Above the Current Landscape of Special Education
With the alarming increase in the incidence rates of autism and other disabilities in school-aged children in the United States, along with evolving curricula that focus more and more on differentiated learning, parents are looking at private specialized schools as viable options to provide students with behavioral issues and learning challenges with the kind of individualized education and targeted, early interventions that are required to effect meaningful change in these students’ lives.
In an alternative environment to the public school setting, students with a wide array of eligibilities and exceptionalities benefit immensely from what this nontraditional environment can afford—like small class sizes, 1:1 instruction, classroom modifications and academic accommodations, adaptive software, and extremely focused attention on the deficits that are impeding progress. When public school officials recommend particular children for such specialized schooling, it is their hope that these students can be placed on a path where they can graduate high school and perhaps even proceed to productive postsecondary options beyond that.
The decision to “send out” students is not taken lightly, however; and for a variety of reasons, most school districts consider it only when there is no other option. Still, it’s important to note that the demographic I’m talking about here is tiny—of the roughly 6.4 million students with a special education designation, just a little more than 1% of them (<100,000 students) face learning, language, and social-emotional challenges intense enough to warrant specialized education by out-of-district providers. Tuition and transportation costs can be expensive for these placements, and there remains a stigma attached to students who have been “sent out” by their peers.
But just as public schools continue to evolve, so do specialized schools.
The Schools Division of Catapult Learning, SESI (Specialized Education Services, Inc.), currently operates ~60 schools in 13 states and the District of Columbia, the large majority of which are partnership programs with school districts—neither apart from school districts nor competitors to school districts. There’s a common misperception that privatized providers of education services take students away from their public schools and then try to keep them away, in separate schools, for as long as possible.
Actually, the situation is the complete opposite. The focus of specialized schooling should be to work as closely and collaboratively as possible with the public school system, encouraging students to interact and spend as much as much time as they can with their general education peers—participating in after-school clubs, playing on sport teams, and the like.
Recognizing the importance of peer socialization on healthy childhood development and respecting the preference of school districts to keep students in-district, SESI was prompted to devise a new program option a few years back that brings the special education to the students rather than vice versa. Through this “school-within-a-school” model, special education students and special education teachers are placed right on the premises of public schools, respectively receiving and delivering specialized services in designated classrooms in the host school. About 25% of the programs SESI operates now follow this in-district model, whereby students’ IEP and core curriculum goals (particularly in the areas of language arts and math) are fulfilled in either full-day or partial-day sessions, but they mingle with their friends for lunch, recess, P.E., assemblies, and many other aspects of the school day. The arrangement is proving to be a win-win for all: Tuitions costs are considerably lower, students stay much closer to home, and they consequently have a much easier time transitioning back to the regular school cycle when appropriate.
And that’s really the ultimate goal here—returning students to the mainstream population and school system as quickly and smoothly as possible. Often, we are working with students who are up to seven years behind their grade level. Through intensive instructional interventions, however, we can accomplish in a few weeks or months what it would take a general population classroom months or even years to achieve. We have the advantage of very concentrated spans of time with students to zero in on the real issues hindering their academic and behavioral growth; we also incorporate supportive services (like speech-language therapy, counseling) and related service providers (therapists, social workers, reading specialists) to jointly create a truly customized curriculum for individual students and a holistic approach to teaching them and reaching them. Rather than elongating the special education process, therefore, organizations like SESI are actually able to expedite measurable and meaningful performance benchmarks that allow eligible students to return to their sending schools—hopefully within a year or two.
To accomplish this lofty goal, all parties invested in the best interests of each student—parents/guardians, special education teachers, counselors, agency representatives, school district personnel—come together to devise wraparound services and workable solutions that genuinely work for these kids. That means involving families to a great degree. It means innovatively and strategically optimizing learning environments to maximize learning capacities for students who learn differently. It means having viable transition plans in place for them. And it also means community immersion—getting young people interested and engaged in their own communities, feeling responsible to and for the places they live. Accordingly, we look to open schools in the same neighborhoods as students’ sending schools, in the hearts of densely populated cities like Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Sacramento, and Baltimore, to ensure that they remain enmeshed in the community fabric, another key to easing their transition back into the public schools.
All of this amounts to a mission-driven approach to education—one that gets students with special needs from point A to point B by whatever means are most suited to their aptitudes and abilities, not necessarily by the shortest, the easiest, or the most convenient route. The pathway that will lead these students to advance and to progress like never before is the solid bridge that must be built between public schools and specialized schools, a bridge that has thankfully begun to be erected and is creating a true public-private partnership across the U.S.
In this partnership, special educators in the privatized sector work hand-in-hand with general educators and administrators in the public school system, sharing best practices, leveraging resources, and joining forces to enhance the students’ overall educational experience. When educators stay focused on fortifying the bridge that connects them more so than on what facts and figures lie at the end of it, they can shepherd the individual student to his or her highest potential, which breeds self-confidence and competence. That, to me, is the real mission of the education model I espouse, for when kids feel confident and capable, they feel empowered to lift limitations off themselves. I’ve seen it happen time and time again, so I know it’s possible.
There’s a lot of lip service out there saying that “every student, regardless of disability, can make a real contribution to society.” This can become the actualized universal language of education when students are unquestionably and unwaveringly the topmost priority. No need for finger pointing or assigning blame for perceived past failures. No place for “handing off” challenging kids as someone else’s problem. With dedicated professionals on all sides who truly relish working with special needs students and collaborating with fellow educators and support providers, each child really can achieve success . . . one little taste of it inspiring them to crave more and more.
We must feed that need, nurture that longing, nourish that aspiration. By staying focused on the mission—one student and one step at a time—we can ensure that at-risk kids become at-promise kids both in and out of the classroom, living and thriving within mainstream society to the very best of their ability because we, as the committed and caring adults in their lives, have patiently and passionately led them to that ability.
 The current estimate is 1 out of 68 children—a figure widely accepted and cited by numerous sources, such as: http://www.autism-society.org/what-is/facts-and-statistics/.
 With the national average of students with IEPs hovering around 13% at last count (http://eddataexpress.ed.gov/data-element-explorer.cfm/tab/data/deid/5/).