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Children with Special Needs Attend Special Schools

Private schools supply services to students with special needs the public schools cannot provide.

August 21, 2002

<bt>Kathleen Padian was a high-school English teacher when she decided to spend a summer working at St. Coletta School. Padian ended up working with children with autism, most of whom had little or no communication skills.

"I loved it and went and got my special-education certification," said Padian, who not only became a teacher at St. Coletta, but went on to become the director of development for the Alexandria school.

It is one of a number private day schools in the area that serve children with special needs. In most cases, the children are referred to the private schools by the local public-school system. The student's home county also pays the tuition through the state-mandated Comprehensive Services Act fund and provides transportation to and from the school if it is determined the public-school system can no longer provide the appropriate education. Fairfax County contracts with about 15 to 20 private day schools and nearly as many residential programs, primarily located within the county. The cost varies depending on the needs of the child.

"WE TRY TO MAKE IT as normal as possible," said Sue Horstman, owner of The Dominion School in Springfield. "These kids have been labeled by their local public-school system as emotionally disabled, educationally emotionally disabled. Some may be aggressive, bi-polar, depressed. They're kids that for some reason school has not been successful for them in the public sector."

Marty Humbertson, contract services coordinator for the Fairfax County Public Schools, said the decision to enroll a child into a private school is made by the child's Individual Education Program (IEP) team, made up of the child's parents and school officials. He said there are approximately 22,000 children being served by the county's special education program.

"The IEP team discusses the appropriate placement for the child depending on the child's handicapping condition," Humbertson said. "Fairfax County has an array of programs, but at some point, the IEP team may determine there are no public-school programs that are appropriate."

Typically, the referrals are for children with disabilities that are better served a more restrictive environment, such as smaller classrooms — by law the ratio of students to teachers is 8-1 — or need further attention such as counseling from a social worker.

The Dominion School, for example, serves students that are emotionally disabled as well as learning disabled. The seventh- to 12th-graders attend academic classes as well as a social learning development class led by a social worker. The school is staffed for 40 students, who follow the Fairfax County Public Schools calendar and curriculum. The average stay at The Dominion School is two school years.

THE 20 OR SO ninth- to 12th-graders that attend Different Drum in Chantilly also follow a Fairfax County Public Schools calendar but tend to have a curriculum based on the home school. The school also caters to children that are emotionally or learning disabled.

"In some cases, the students go back to their base school and continue to take classes or to graduate with their school," said Carol Rowland, administrative assistant.

St. Coletta, on the other hand, serves a population of students from age 4-22, with moderate to severe mental retardation or autism and with secondary disabilities such as deafness or vision impairment, behavior difficulties or physical impairments. The average enrollment is around 155 students who attend classes in one of three buildings — one for children 4-14, one specializing in vocational training for students 14-22, and a third for the adult day-support program. The school year is from September to July with a year-round adult program.

"FOR MANY CHILDREN with moderate disabilities, public schools do a great job," Padian said. "Here kids get what they need to move ahead."

The staff at the special-needs private schools also include full-time counselors or social workers besides teachers and teachers aides.

"The teachers have to be licensed in specific academic subjects or special education," said Rowland.

While working with children who have disabilities can present a challenge, since each child requires a personalized lesson plan, it also provides the educators a chance to see the results of their efforts.

"When you see a child with no means of communicating come here and learn to communicate using cards, pictures, computers or what have you, it is so rewarding," Padian said.