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
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
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
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