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New York City
August 2002

Special Ed Schools Offer Intimate Learning Environments
By Hope Glassberg

In schools across the country, special education facilities have the ignominious distinction of being housed in basements, trailers, and various other tucked away locations. These sub-par facilities reflect, in many ways, once held beliefs about special education. According to Nicky Nichtern, Director of Development at The Churchill School and Center, a private special education institution which offers an elementary, middle, and high school program, “special education was pushed aside because there wasn’t an awareness that not everybody learns the same way.”

These days, the stigma attached to special education has arguably diminished in size and scope. In fact, in New York City, enrollment is up across the board at private special education institutions; these schools–Churchill, The Gateway School of New York, The Gillen Brewer School, the Mary McDowell Center for Learning, The Parkside School, Stephen Gaynor School, West End Day School, Windward School, and Winston Preparatory School–offer smaller, more specialized education programs for students with special education needs.

Both Nichtern and Karalyne D. Sperling, school coordinator for the West End Day School (a K-6 special education school), emphasize that most students at these schools have normal to high IQs but process information in a non-traditional manner.

Parents tend to seek out diagnostic testing when their child’s progress in school slows. This usually happens at points when school curricula increase in difficulty (kindergarten, third grade, fifth grade, and seventh grade). After testing, some parents find that their child needs outside help (e.g. a tutor) but can continue attending a mainstream school. In some cases, however, a child’s learning disability requires greater intervention and parents start looking into different private schools.

The process of getting into these schools is as involved, if not more so, than applying to college. After a child is tested, parents begin the process of comparing different schools. Usually, after viewing a possible school, parents submit an application detailing their child’s educational history. The application is then reviewed (at Churchill, the application form is reviewed by a team of six people, at West End the application is reviewed by the director of admissions). If the reviewers think the child would benefit from attending the school, he or she visits the facilities. Finally, a determination is made as to whether the child is eligible for enrollment.

Sperling says that the lengthy process is designed to make sure that the student can truly benefit from the school setting. The evaluation also allows educators to place the child in the proper classroom.

“We assess the student from top to bottom, academically, behaviorally, socially, everything, before they are even entered into the school,” Sperling said. “We know the child so well that we’re able to place them in a classroom where they will succeed.”

Once enrolled, students find themselves in a more intimate schooling environment. At Churchill or West End Day, the typical classroom has no more than 12 students and is taught by both a teacher with a masters degree in special education and an assistant teacher, who either has a masters in special education or is in the process of earning a degree. Most of the schools also have in-house speech pathologists, behavioral therapists, and social workers on their faculty who work with the students.

Curricula are tailored to students’ individual learning styles. At Churchill, students are evaluated and then broken up into smaller reading and math groups in which students have relatively commensurate abilities. At West End as well, students are divided into pull-out groups based on pre-testing.

Nichtern says that tasks in the classroom are designed to integrate different abilities. For example, a child may be asked to describe different parts of a painting they have produced so as to reinforce both verbal and visual skills at the same time. In general, the educational philosophy is “accentuate the positive.”

“We know their academic weakness and try to help them find something they really like. We let that enthusiasm lead their own joy of learning. If a child is really interested in cars, for example, then we’ll let the things they make in art or science [relate to their interest],” Nichtern said.

Teaching proper social skills is also part of the package. West End Day School has several after-school programs with other schools and also has activities such as “girl’s lunch,” when a group of girls in the school get together to socialize. These activities, Sperling says, are designed to “to teach a child how to handle a larger classroom.”

Churchill is the only private special education school that offers an elementary, middle, and high school program; significantly more have K-6 programs and assist in placing graduating students in appropriate programs. Regardless of the size of the school and program parameters, all emphasize that they do not want a child to stay in special education schooling longer than they need to. Most special education schools emphasize that they want to return their students to the mainstream. Indeed, a healthy return to the mainstream seems to be the goal of most private school special educators.

“Our hope,” said Nichtern, “is that we can give the children the understanding, the educational strategies they need to be able to return to the mainstream at whatever time is the right time for them to do that.”.#

Hope Glassberg is the summer editor-in-chief of the Columbia Spectator


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