When Private School Doesn’t Fit – Changing to Public School

School can be a challenge with a student with a disability. Private schools can be particularly unhelpful when they are asked to provide for a student’s unique needs. This is something we experienced with our son in elementary school. It was September of 2001, and although most folks remember that as the time America was attacked by terrorists, I remember the difficulty my son was having in kindergarten at our private Christian elementary school.

Our daughter was in the 4th grade and she was an agreeable student – quiet, obedient, didn’t cause trouble, as girls often are at school. Our son was struggling in Kindergarten. He needed to stand frequently (his Kinder teacher said he did the entire year standing at his desk, and not sitting.) He had difficulty understanding abstract language, and melted down at unannounced changes or when he was overwhelmed by sound, or smells. He continued to have difficulty in 1st and 2nd grade, and my husband and I were actively seeking a diagnosis so we could assist him better. The private school administration, however, was not equipped to provide the specialized education my son needed. So we eventually pulled our son out of the Christian school and put him into our neighborhood public school for 3rd grade.

I learned a lot during that experience and this is to inform and encourage you if you are standing at this same crossroads. Some things we experienced were:

Where was God in all this? While our public school was highly-rated, we wanted an education for our children that included our faith. I wrestled with God on this one! Why had God made our child the way he is (it seemed likely he would have to leave this school), when we were trying to honor our faith and provide a Christian education? There were many mornings I sat in my car after dropping my children off at school, crying and pleading with God to figure out what to do to help my son be successful at this school. While I didn’t get an answer to my Why? right away, eventually I came to acceptance that moving him out of this school was a better scenario than keeping him there.

Not all private or parochial schools have a hard time supporting children with special needs. I know of one local Catholic school that has a very supportive environment (in 2017) for students with disabilities, particularly those with autism or Aspergers. Unfortunately these schools are few and far between.

Our private school was not equipped. I knew I could still access services at my public school if it was warranted. I asked for a public school evaluation when my son was in the 1st grade (at private school). They did the evaluation, and that was another piece that informed our next steps with him. They did not offer him services. But if they had, they would have been obligated by law to provide the services at the public school. If my public school had offered it, I could have brought my child to the public school to see the OT (occupational therapist), SLP (speech language pathologist) or counselor, and to have him participate in social skills groups!

By February of 2nd grade, the private school teacher refused to have my son in class and the private school principal’s best suggestion was to pray about it. What she was saying was the private school was simply not equipped to deal with my son’s challenges. I wished it was different, but when faced with the reality, I had to imagine public school would be able to offer him more. So my husband and I made the difficult decision to switch him to public school.

Talking about the change. Talking about the change was a natural thing to discuss with my son. He was undergoing a lot of different evaluations at the time, and he knew he was having trouble at school. (In 2006, following 12 different diagnoses, he was correctly diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome. Read about our journey to his correct diagnosis in this post.) So we talked about the things he would gain from changing to the public school. He would get some services right away, like OT and counseling. He got an IEP with modifications like preferential seating, breaks when he got overwhelmed, an AlphaSmart word processor to do written work on (he struggled with writing with a pencil.) Also his neighbor friend was going to this school and that provided more opportunity for them to be together.

My daughter continued to attend the private Christian school, and that caused some challenges. My children had to ride in my car together, first to the private Christian school to drop off my daughter, then to the public school to drop off my son. I had to field questions from him on several occasions “Why don’t I go to this school anymore?” and “Why doesn’t Mrs B. (the Principal) want me at this school anymore?” I answered as best as I could, “You know how you work with the OT, and there’s a counselor at your new school? They don’t have these things here, so that’s why you go to your new school. Mrs. B. tried to help you, but she just didn’t have the special things you need here.”

He was no longer “the worst kid in school”. A benefit was seen right away in public school. My son, with all his issues, was no longer the worst kid in school. There were a bunch of children in his public school who were diagnosed with autism, ADHD, dyslexia, and many other disabilities. Of course, kids with disabilities are not bad. I am referring to the other parent’s opinions of my child. I’m sorry to say the parents at the private Christian school did not include me or my child in their lives. Frankly, they ostracized me and my child. By the time we left, when he was in the 2nd grade, they were no parents in my son’s class, who were friendly and accepting of us. This changed when we moved to the third grade. Still I made closer friendships with families that also had children with learning disabilities, but the acceptance and connectedness at the public school was an improvement.

Services followed his needs. For the first time in school, we were offered support services for my son. Now it wasn’t all wonderful, but we were headed in the right direction. My son suddenly had some protections because he had an IEP. I believe our case was fairly serious, because the evaluator recommended a 3rd grade SDC (special day class) for ED (emotional disturbance). My son had been through 3 years of school in a regular classroom without supports. I was just wanting supports, so I refused the SDC and put him in our neighborhood school. My son would not have gotten services at the private Christian school. His IEP and those services were the life raft to my sinking ship! It was a decision that proved to be beneficial over the years to come.

Private school tuition got used on other services. With the switch to public school, I suddenly found myself with that unused tuition money. Now I was able to spend money on a private OT who I discovered was brilliant with my child. I paid for social skills group lessons with a private SLP. I paid for an educational counselor, which I was unable to do when I was paying my private school tuition. It was an added benefit to the whole situation.

Changing schools was not what I wanted or expected. But as I worked toward new goals, I began to see the positive side. It took a long time, but this, like many experiences I had with my son diagnosed with Aspergers, caused me to grow and develop a sensitive side in me that would never had happened if I had an ordinary neurotypical child.



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