For all parents, choosing the right school for their child is a high priority. This is even more so for a child with a reading disability. There are so many questions to be answered:
- Which school will have the best reading program?
- Does that school have equally strong history and science teachers?
- Will there be opportunities for pursuing your child’s strengths in mathematics and for exploring his interest in photography as well as for dealing with his reading problem?
- Where will he be most appreciated and understood?
- What kind of children will his friends be?
- Does the school have a good sports program since he loves playing soccer?
Most parents we know prefer to have their child attend the local public school near by their house. But the typical public school special education program does little to move a dyslexic child forward. On balance, public schools are generally slow to identify a reading problem, provide too little instruction, and, worst of all, often use unproven and incomplete programs taught by teachers who may know little about teaching reading.
On the other hand, there is much to be said for having a child remain in his local school. Public schools generally offer much more diversity than can be found in a private school setting. This diversity extends to the composition of the student body, to the possibilities for choice within the curriculum, and to the opportunities for participation in important nonacademic activities such as sports, music, and art. Public schools are also free.
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It would not take much to vastly improve public school education for a child with a reading disability. Reform is occurring across the country. Schools can be opened up to new ideas, they can change, and they can successfully institute effective educational programs.
The availability of special education is by itself, of course, no guarantee that a child is receiving an appropriate education. Parents must always be vigilant to ensure that their child is receiving the most effective reading instruction, that it is integrated with his other academic subjects, and that his strengths are not overlooked.
There may be instances when it is in the best interests of the child for him to change schools. If you have tried a public school setting and
- the school has provided a special reading program but your child is still lagging behind, or
- after much effort the school still has not organized a coherent program and your child is falling behind, or
- the constant battle to have the school provide promised services is adversely affecting your family, then serious consideration should be given to changing schools.
Selecting that new school represents a critical juncture for parents.
Many parents turn to independent day schools because they find the local public schools wanting. Private schools offer smaller classes and potentially more opportunity for individualization. Discipline tends to be firmer, and the students have a greater chance of going on to college. Of course, like public schools, the day schools vary in quality.
At their very best such schools can provide a constructive refuge for a child. If the administration and faculty are willing, a small private school can provide the bricks and mortar of an effective program for improving reading. Relative smallness can also bring with it a sense of intimacy in getting to know the student and in providing him with a supportive network of encouragement throughout the school.
A growing number of nontraditional smaller private schools pride themselves on innovation and on serving the individual needs of each student. These boutique schools fill an important niche for parents because they incorporate in their programs cutting-edge educational research while developing the child’s interests in diverse areas such as science, drama, art, and music. Such private schools are increasing in number, but in my experience, they are still the exception.
For many children the options for private schooling are more likely to be country day schools or boarding schools. More often than not, these schools turn out to be a disaster for a child with a reading problem.
In addition to failing to address the learning problems of many of their students, many schools often deny requests for modifications or accommodations to address a child’s learning disability. Denial of a problem insulates a school from having to address it. And so, at these bastions of tradition, the newer, evidence-based reading interventions are generally not available; enriched language instruction as well as additional support for spelling and for writing are not provided.
Parents who persist in requesting such modifications for their child are often treated in a demeaning manner.
As noted earlier, for the parent of a child who is dyslexic, attendance at a private school represents the belief that he will get more attention and a better education than possible in a public setting. But on another, perhaps deeper level, attendance at an independent school conveys acceptance and means the child is just like everybody else.
Many parents worry that if their son or daughter attends a special school for children with reading disabilities, he or she will be removed from the mainstream of society and will not be able to participate as a full member. Society tends to view people with disabilities as not only different but as lesser individuals, often confusing a learning disability with mental slowness or retardation.
There are also specialized schools for boys and girls with a reading disability. Like all schools, these vary in the quality of their instruction and in the makeup of their student body. The reader may be surprised to learn, that quite a number of highly accomplished college students spent part of their formative years at schools for children with dyslexia (in most instances two or three years).
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Children also learn how to use the power of the computer to better organize themselves. For example, computers are used to deliver the homework assignments to children and to their parents, and then each student’s completed homework is maintained in a separate computer file. In this way assignments are not lost or confused.
Although many parents, shy away from such schools because they are fearful of its effects on their child’s self-esteem, our opinion is that the result is often just the reverse. In truth, there is no one perfect school environment that will suit every child with a reading problem and his family. The perfect school does not exist; each school is going to have pluses and minuses.
The key in selecting a school is to determine which school’s profile best matches you and your child’s priorities at a particular point in time. And your priorities will change as a child goes on in school. In grade one, for example, your priority may be for your child to learn to read; later on, when the child is in grade nine, the provision of accommodations such as extra time on exams and participation in a team sport may be most critical.
Once you have determined your priorities, it is important that you know not only about each type of school but about the specific schools you are considering. To help you collect and organize the relevant information, we have provided a list of steps to take and a checklist of questions to ask about each school under consideration. (
Ask as many people as you can about the school.
Find out as much as you can about the school from friends and neighbors. Try to speak to parents whose children already attend or are graduates of the school. Parents whose children are no longer in the school but who have attended recently are usually the ones who are the most frank.
Visit the school.
Before deciding on any school, public or private, parents and then the child should visit. Ask yourself:
- What is the overall environment like?
- Do the children seem happy?
- Is there a sense of orderliness?
- Are the teachers and administrators open and friendly, and do they welcome questions?
Find out how the school views itself.
Most schools have a mission statement; find out what the school envisions as its goals.
- Does the school have a policy regarding children with disabilities?
- What proportion of children at the school have a learning disability?
- What has the school’s experience been with such children?
Observe several classes in session.
Focus on the classes your child might attend. Imagine how he would react, socially and emotionally as well as educationally, to being in this group. During such a visit, force yourself to keep in mind your child as he is, as opposed to your imagined, idealized child. Spend as much time in the school as you can. It often takes a while to get a feel for a school, and your impression may change over the course of a day as you see more.
Learn about the students who attend the school.
- Is it diverse (socially, ethnically, educationally) or homogeneous?
- What is the most common reason students come to this school?
- How severe are the reading problems found among the students?
- What are their general abilities?
- What is the prevalence of serious behavior problems among the students?
- Do the children live nearby?
- How long does the average child remain at the school?
- Where do the children go after they leave the school?
- How many of the students go on to college, and which schools?
Learn about the school’s academic curriculum and its reading program.
Once you have a general sense of the school and its students, ask about the instruction provided in reading and in other academic areas. Try to obtain specific answers about the bricks (the program’s content) and mortar (the explicitness, intensity, and quality of the instruction) that make up the reading program.
- What specific reading programs or methods are used, and are they evidence-based?
- Since effective programs teach children phonemic awareness and phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and reading comprehension, ask if these are elements of the program.
- Are these elements taught systematically and explicitly?
- Are decodable booklets used for beginning readers?
- Do these children regularly read aloud under supervision?
- How is fluency encouraged? Is it measured; if so, how regularly?
- What is done to promote the growth of a child’s vocabulary?
- Are specific comprehension strategies taught?
- Is there a specific writing program?
- How large are the classes?
- How are the students grouped?
- How is instruction individualized to fit each child’s needs?
- What approach is taken with older students who are bright but cannot easily read texts in different subject areas?
- How is reading instruction integrated with other academic work?
- Are there provisions for hands-on or experiential learning, that is, learning through doing?
- Are there opportunities for advanced work in art, math, or science?
- How is technology used?
- Are students able to use a laptop computer for taking notes and for writing compositions in class?
- How is a student’s progress in reading tracked?
- How is the information obtained from these tests used?
- Is there a formal course or ongoing support for developing organizational and study skills?
- How is a child helped to keep track of his daily homework and long-term assignments?
- Are self-advocacy skills taught and practiced?
Find out about the school’s attitude toward providing accommodations (such as extra time on tests).
- Is there a faculty member with expertise (or interest) who coordinates services for students with a reading disability?
- Are students provided with accommodations, and if so, what kinds?
- Does the school work with books on tape from Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic?
- Are dyslexic students allowed extra time on their examinations?
- Can examinations be written on a computer?
- What is the policy concerning foreign languages, and are waivers granted?
Learn about the faculty.
- Are any of the teachers reading specialists?
- How available are the faculty for students who require extra help?
- Does the faculty in this regard have an open-door policy, specific office hours, or availability after school?
- Who is responsible for monitoring and tracking each child’s progress?
- How does the faculty communicate and update one another on each child’s progress?
- How are parents kept informed of their child’s progress?
- How long have the teachers typically been at the school?
Learn about what extracurricular activities are offered.
- Are there team sports, and if so, which ones?
- Do the teams play in interscholastic leagues, and if so, which ones?
- What are the opportunities for exploration of other interests and skills?
- Is there an art program?
- Is there a photography program?
- Is there a drama program?
- Is there equipment and a studio for video recording?
- Is there a school radio station?
- Is there a music program?
- Is there a school orchestra or band?
In the final analysis, our advice is to acquire all the information you can and weigh all the factors—but also value your gut feeling. Your overall impression of the school is important and may provide a clue about intangibles that are difficult to characterize but may be extremely meaningful to you and your child. Schools can look very good on paper, but somehow not have the parts come together in a satisfactory way. Just because you can’t easily put your gut feeling into words, do not dismiss it. Trust your instincts.