The Learning Dilemma: Educating your special needs child

Raising a child with special needs, whatever his or her limitations might be, is challenging. Trying to find a program or a school that fulfills all his or her education needs may be even more difficult. The public school system has specialized programs, but, for some, exploring alternatives outside the public school system just might be the answer.

Does your child’s physical disability prevent him from excelling in daily school activities? Does your child struggle with daily writing activities or come up with excuses to avoid handwriting assignments? Does he have a hard time paying attention in class? Does your child’s confidence seem to be waning? Is your child constantly bullied by other students for her disability?
Here’s how several local families solved those problems:

In general, the No. 1 goal of a private school that specializes in special needs is to offer a comprehensive education program designed to build the academic, social and emotional competence of their students. These programs hope to enable your child to experience success without fear of failure or ridicule.

Private schools aim to provide a focused education for special needs children that primes them for all of the benefits and responsibilities of adulthood. They hope to provide your child with the academic, career and socials skills that are needed to be independent, assertive and contributing citizens of their communities.

Private schools offer individualized attention exceptional students require to achieve their education goals. Schools like The Fletcher School and Dore Academy have been offering services to families with special needs kids in the Charlotte area for many years. Their programs are designed to adapt to the needs of each child as they develop. Philips Academy is a more recent addition to the educational offerings.

Margaret Sigmon, Head of The Fletcher School, says, “Our teachers are diagnostic teachers. Every day they are re-diagnosing where a child is and what that child needs. We call it ‘diagnostic prescriptive teaching,’ which means lesson plans aren’t done a week ahead. If a student doesn’t ‘get it’ one day, the teacher covers the material again the next.”

At Fletcher, students are often encouraged to return to a regular classroom environment as soon as they are ready to be independent and successful learners. Given appropriate remediation in the areas of academic difficulty and adequate practice using strategies for compensation, this school feels a child can make remarkable gains in academic achievement and develop the self-esteem and self-advocacy skills that allow many to experience success in regular classrooms.

Barbara Parrish, a founding member of Philips Academy, first asked the question “Wouldn’t it be great if Charlotte had a small school with a learning-disabled population of non-college-bound students?” She helped make the dream come true by establishing Philips Academy, a small school presently serving eight students who can remain at the school until they earn their high school diplomas. Here, the goal is for the students to learn to live independently and enter the workforce or a technology program at a community college when they graduate.

Distance Learning
Sara Montgomery is an 11th-grader from Davidson, NC, who is living with Aspergers syndrome and cerebral palsy. Her disability makes handwriting a challenge so she used an AlphaSmart (computer) in her neighborhood school classroom to type assignments. This made her to feel uncomfortable and out of place in the classroom. Most students did not relate to Sara, teasing her and making it difficult for her to concentrate.

“Sara’s self-esteem was down to the floor. She was being picked on at school so much she was pulling her hair out, pulling her eyebrows out and biting her nails down to the quick. She wasn’t doing homework or participating in any classroom discussion,” said Shirley Montgomery, Sara’s mother.

After being threatened by another student, Sara’s family sought an alternative to public schools. They found the solution to their problem in the Laurel Springs School, an accredited distance learning school. Now Sara is able to attend a private school and excel in the medium that works best with her cerebral palsy. . . “Everyone told me if Sara stayed home all the time she wouldn’t thrive. But it has been the complete opposite. Sara is thriving. She loves working at her own pace,” says Shirley.

Distance learning is not your typical home school. It is a type of education where students work on their own at home or at an office and communicate with faculty and other students via e-mail, electronic forums, videoconferencing, chat rooms, bulletin boards, instant messaging and other forms of computer-based communication. One of the benefits of distance learning is the flexibility and delivery of the student’s materials — he or she can read it at their leisure. Students, regardless of their academic level, can study, learn and complete homework at their own pace.

According to Laurel Springs, another benefit of distance learning is the close communication between teacher and student.

Most distance learning students go on to college or a university. Laurel Springs has a complete staff of college advisors to help and encourage their students to achieve higher goals.
Sara was able to learn at her own pace, without the distraction of being picked on by other kids at school. Today, she is confident in her preparation for a college education.

Another online alternative is the Garden Schools, a k-12 distance learning school that incorporates a private Christian school environment in a virtual education. Students interact with teachers and socialize with other students from around the world.

An online quiz from the Garden Schools, titled “Is Distance Learning Right for Our Family?” at may help you decide if distance learning is a viable option for your family.

A Spiritual Alternative
If you prefer your child to receive a solid education from a private school that derives its teachings from a religious position, then you should consider placing your child in a religious school.

Several local religious schools offer special needs help within their traditional school setting — a self-contained classroom with individualized education plans.

Mariashi Groner, director of the Charlotte Jewish Day School, says, “What is wonderful about this concept is that, because this class is contained within our day school, the opportunities to mainstream are many; whenever a child proves ready to join a class for a specific subject or activity area, it is made available. In addition, the ‘typical’ children in our mainstream classes have embraced these children as one of our own — a part of our family. What better lesson of love and unity can we teach, if not this?”

The Directed Studies Program at Charlotte Christian School offers educational therapy to students who have average to above average intelligence, yet have specific deficits in perception and/or cognition. This program of intervention uses techniques developed or adapted by the National Institute for Learning Disabilities (NILD). Students are seen twice per week. Tasks are given that stimulate visual, visual motor and auditory processing as well as written and oral language development. The specialist is in partnership with both the teacher and family in guiding the student toward becoming an independent learner.

Many factors will influence education choices for your child including the severity of your child’s mental/physical disability, the age of your child, location of the program and your family’s financial resources. But do not let any of these factors discourage you from making the best choice. Most private schools offer some financial assistance and special transportation may be available in some cases. As you research education alternatives in the area, be sure to ask questions about all the resources available for your child.

Education Resources

Charlotte Christian School
7301 Sardis Road
Charlotte, NC 28270
Phone: (704) 366-5657

Charlotte Jewish Day School
5007 Providence Road, Building E
Charlotte, NC 28226
Phone: (704) 366-4558
Fax: (704) 364-0443

The Cyzner Institute
6401 Carmel Road, Suite 101
Charlotte, NC 28226
(704) 542-6471

Dore Academy
1727 Providence Road
Charlotte, NC 28207
Phone: (704) 365-5490

The Fletcher School and Rankin Institute
8500 Sardis Road
Charlotte, NC 28270
Phone: (704) 365-4658
Fax: (704) 364-2978

The Garden Schools

Laurel Springs School

Manus Academy
6203 Carmel Road
Charlotte, NC 28226
Phone: (704) 542-6471

Philips Academy
3115 Providence Road
Charlotte, NC 28211
Phone: (704) 756-9106

United Cerebral Palsy

Vine Academy
2058 Carolina Place Rd
Fort Mill, SC 29708
Phone: (803) 548.4806

Charlotte-Mecklenburg School Programs

Early Education
Preschoolers, ages 3 to 5 years, are eligible for evaluation, testing and an Individualized Education Program (IEP) based on the preschool child’s needs through the CMS Preschool Exceptional Children Program. Call the program intake telephone line at (980) 343-6960 for more information.

Metro School
CMS has other options for exceptional children, including Metro School (currently serving 200 students) specifically designed to serve students ranging in age from 5-21 who meet North Carolina certification as trainable mentally disabled, severe/profound, multi-disabled and autistic.
Their Web site states the school offers daily instruction in academics, music and art skills, media and technology skills, horticulture, home living and work force development training, and adapted physical education. Per individual student’s IE’s, speech/language, OT, PT, VI and HI services are also provided. Student placement at Metro School is through the IEP team process.

K-12 Inclusion Schools
Fifty-one elementary schools, all middle schools and high schools in the CMS system have “inclusion practices” which offer the opportunity for students with disabilities to access the general education resources of their home school.
Each school that is participating in Inclusive Practices provides a comprehensive continuum of services at the home school site, gives students greater access to the general education curriculum and provides an environment that embraces learning for ALL students.

Teachers at inclusive practice schools attend a week-long summer training session by Dr. Marilyn Friend, chairperson of the Department of Specialized Education Services, University of North Carolina Greensboro.

For more information about these programs, contact the Exceptional Children (EC) Department of CMS at (980) 343-6960. Kara Mann is a recent UNCC graduate and former Charlotte Parent intern.