How to Decide What School Is Right for Your Child
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A parent liaison for special education shares her wisdom
“Hi, my family is moving to your school district, and I want to know what the best school is for my son with [fill in the blank].”
As the parent liaison for special education for my local school district, I get this question or some variation of it every week. If I had a crystal ball, I would be a billionaire.
I get it, I really do. We want our kids, especially our sons and daughters with extra challenges, to be in schools that welcome, value, respect, teach, and adore them. We want a school where our child gets lots of individual attention and is never bullied, that has experts about our child’s disability and holds high expectations for our child. Oh, and we want the school to be in our neighborhood of choice, be a public school, and have room for all our kids. Can you see why I wish I had that crystal ball?
Many states and districts offer open-enrollment options. That means that you can apply for a public school other than your neighborhood school for your children. Some districts use a lottery system if the demand is high. Some use it to fill their charter schools. There are also private schools in most urban and suburban districts, and, in many areas, schools are part of a religious institution. Parents have lots of choices in most areas, particularly if they have funds, time, and transportation. It’s not so simple when your only choices are underfunded, underperforming public schools, particularly in our inner cities.
Every district has some continuum of families from white, upper-class homes with a stay-at-home parent to a Solo Mom working full time to make ends meet. Keeping equity issues in mind, choosing the right school is easier said than done.
Since many of us Solo Moms may not have the resources for private schools, let’s talk about choosing a public school for our child with special needs.
When I talk with parents moving to the area or those looking at the right elementary, middle, or high school in their district, there are some common questions and also some common misconceptions.
If a school district uses a set of standards to develop its curriculum from, then schools should be more similar than not. Then the question is how the school implements those standards. In other words, what is the school culture and climate?
Choosing a school for your child with special needs is a unique formula of family values, realistic logistics, feeder schools, and specialized programming. The “best” middle school for my daughter was our neighborhood school that also had a specialized instruction for her needs and a culture of inclusion. My son’s “best” middle school was miles away and used project-based learning mixed with outdoor education. They also went to two different high schools.
I recommend that parents visit the schools they are considering and trust their intuition. Here are some other factors that you should consider when making your choice:
- Is the school within walking distance, or will you have to drive? Neighborhood schools mean you see classmates at the grocery store, in the park, and on your street.
- How many classrooms does the school have per grade? Kids who have trouble making and keeping friends might not have them in their class as they move up through the grades in a large school.
- Does your child have sensory issues? Most kids can get used to any school, but some kids are unable to learn in schools with open classrooms, large class sizes, being close to street traffic, or having other students who are also dealing with a disability.
- What are the feeder schools like in that area? The middle school may be inclusive and welcoming, but the high school is known for its academic rigor and high stress level for students. Can your child go to a different high school?
- Does the school offer after-school care if you need it? You may need to visit that program, too, since child-care programs will sometimes exclude children for various reasons.
- Does the school have teachers who are experts in your kid’s area of need? Do they know how to work with behavior issues, language needs, or specific literacy needs?
- How does the principal handle discipline, especially for kids with special needs that manifest as inappropriate behaviors? Suspensions rarely teach children with special needs how to improve their behavior. Too often, suspensions teach them only how to get sent home!
- Does your child need a reading teacher who knows how to teach students with dyslexia, or does your child need a board-certified behavioral analyst to help your child learn to manage behaviors that are part of his or her autism? Ask about the special-education team’s expertise and experience.
- Does the school know how to do meaningful inclusion, or are students with more significant needs just guests in the general-education classroom?
- Do you feel welcome as a family? Is the school accessible? Does it understand your family structure as a Solo Mom and not make subtle derogatory comments about your ability to participate?
- Do your values and the school’s match? Some elementary schools frown on commercial characters and screen time for kids. Other schools expect every kid to have a personal laptop for school.
- Will your child have friends from the neighborhood or other places at the school? Academics are offered at every school, but having a good friend is not something we can put in your child’s individualized education program.
It’s always a good practice to visit your neighborhood school. In areas with a lottery, you could find the perfect school and not get in because of the lottery. Have a plan B.
Choosing a school because of one teacher is also tricky. Teachers move around all the time, taking their expertise with them. Look at the whole school, and listen for how the classroom teachers and principal talk about kids with special needs. (Hint: It shouldn’t be obvious what they are talking about since all students are general-education students first. “Special education” comprises services, supports, and aids brought to the general-education students; it’s not a separate place.)
Choosing a school for a child with special needs feels bigger than choosing a college, and, in many ways, it is bigger. Trust your intuition, do your research, and examine your values. You’ll make the right choice.
Anna Stewart is ESME’s Kids with Special Needs Resource Guide and the Solo Mom of a daughter and two sons on the brink of adulthood. She’s a champion for the rights of people living with disabilities and those who love them.
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