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Aug./Sept. 2006

Tapping Into Potential
Exploring Special Needs Education
by Wendy Hersh

As any parent will tell you, every child is special, each with their own unique qualities, strengths, personalities and learning styles. Finding the right educational fit for a child with mild to moderate learning differences, however, requires special attention, especially when making the move to a new city. Fortunately, there are a variety of Atlanta schools that strive to accommodate and give intensive attention to the specific learning needs of these children.

Paul Stockhammer, president of the Georgia Association for Private Schools for Exceptional Children, as well as president and headmaster of Brandon Hall School, which offers small group and one-on-one college preparatory classes for both traditional learners and students with learning differences in Dunwoody, views the term "special needs" as often going beyond learning disabilities. "There are simply students who are underachieving for a variety of reasons, and there are others who need English-as-a-second-language classes or special behavior modification programs, for example," says Stockhammer.

The Cottage School in Roswell, for example, provides a learning environment for students who have not experienced success in a traditional school, due to anything from depression or frequent relocation to mild processing weaknesses that have not been addressed. "We focus on mastery-based learning," says Jacque Digieso, Ph.D., executive director at The Cottage School, "which means that the student doesn't move on until they've learned what they are supposed to, and we also emphasize goal-setting and accountability."

Schools serving students with special needs also typically offer smaller class sizes and completely individualized attention, emphasize development of self-esteem an d utilize multisensory learning methods. While some schools specialize solely on special needs students, there are also schools that house both special education and mainstream classes that allow children to interact socially with their classmates. For example, the M'silot/Pathways Program at Greenfield Hebrew Academy is a school-within-a-school. Notes its director, Phyllis Rosenthal, "As such, students are taught in modified, self-contained classrooms. During non-academic times, students are able to integrate with peers."

Parents looking for a special needs school for their child should begin by researching what's out there. "Atlanta is a city rich in schools focused on learning disabilities," says Marifred Cilella, head of school at The Howard School, located in east Midtown, focuses on language-based learning disabilities. "However, they're not all the same--the key to any school is to find the right match of a school that addresses the specific needs your child has." Also, make sure to visit the school so that you can get a feeling of what the environment would be like for your child.

It is also, however, very important for parents to make preparations before the move, such as obtaining current educational/psychological evaluations and grades. Diana Roache, whose son Kaelon attends Mountain View Elementary in Marietta, agrees.
While very pleased with Cobb County and the Individualized Education Program (IEP) for her son, which is a federal program for public schools across the nation, she regrets not having his records sent ahead of time, as Georgia gives the school 30 days to set up an IEP from the date the child is initially found to be eligible for special education services. "Find out what the procedures are," says Roache. "You have to be in the school, asking for meetings, being involved. You are an advocate for your child."

Many public school systems have programs in place to accommodate children with learning differences, although the quality of these programs may vary depending on the size of the school, number of teachers and other factors. As a result, many parents choose to supplement their child's education with outside resources. For example, Aurora Strategies, a Decatur-based learning center, helps students reach their learning potential through customized rapid-improvement strategies that are based on the latest findings in neuroscience.

Medical professionals at another supplemental center, Children's Therapy Works, focus on the development of all children with special needs, from mild learning difficulties to autism, using cutting-edge research and technology in several different types of therapies to create positive stimulation that helps the brain process information.

With the range of resources focused on learning differences available in Atlanta, the possibility of finding the right one to suit your child's specific needs is almost certain. Susan Hawkins of The Porter School, which offers classes for students with special needs in kindergarten through the fifth grade in Roswell, offers this final advice for parents: "Find a support group. It is important for parents and students to have a network of others who are going through similar experiences."

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