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Choosing a School: Understanding Your Range of Options

Disabilities School - Finding a SchoolOnce you’ve decided to look for a new school for your child with learning disabilities (LD) and/or Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD), it’s time to find out what your choices are. Maybe, as suggested in the first part of this article (“Choosing a School: An Overview of What Parents Need to Consider”), you’ve made a prioritized list of what’s important to you in a school. Now use that list as you discover your school options.

What Kinds of Schools Are Out There?

The amount of choice you have as a parent depends on where you live. School districts and states vary in their flexibility. Popular schools usually have long waiting lists. So the sooner you narrow your choice, the easier it will be to enroll your child in the right school.

Public Schools

The advantage of public schools is that they are bound by federal law to offer special education services to eligible students. For guidance on the specifics of federal law and how you can advocate for your child, see NCLD’s IDEA Parent Guide (IDEA is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, last updated in 2004).

Traditional public schools — those that educate a wide range of students — vary in the quality of their staff, academic offerings, and facilities. Talk to other parents about popular schools in your vicinity. See if another school has more of the features you consider important for your child with LD.

Magnet Schools

Magnet schools are public schools with a particular focus, such as art or technology, or a different structure or organization, such as year-round school or mixed-grade classrooms. Like charter schools (see the following section), magnet schools draw students from throughout a district — even from other districts. Popular magnet schools have waiting lists. You’ll need to evaluate how likely it is that your child will get into a magnet school in the necessary time frame.

Charter Schools

Most states (but not all) offer charter schools as an alternative public school choice. Charter schools are usually formed to offer more flexible scheduling, staffing, and instruction. States allow charters to skip some of the rules and regulations that apply to other public schools. Charters are, however, accountable for student achievement. A state’s department of education can close a charter school if, for example, the school is graduating students who fail to meet the state’s graduation standards. The rules, structure, and funding of charter schools vary from state to state. Some states offer online charter schools.

A charter is a kind of contract. A school’s charter spells out the school’s mission, program, goals, students served, assessment methods, and ways success is measured. Depending on the state, charter schools may be run by for-profit companies, parents, teachers, community groups, and nonprofit organizations. A school’s management can change over time. If you look into a charter school for your child, find out who started the school, who currently runs it, and what its financial status is. See if the school has a permanent building or if it has changed locations. Enrolling your child in a stable school is critical, so if you’re looking at a particular charter school, make sure you’re considering the entire “package” — not only its mission statement.

Charter schools may have special curriculums or instructional approaches that make them attractive to parents of children with LD. Most charter schools are small and offer smaller class sizes than regular public schools. Their small size allows them to offer more personalized instruction, which may be important to you and your child. As public schools, charters are subject to all federal laws related to students with learning disabilities. The problem is that most states don’t have systems in place to help charter schools meet their special education requirements. If you’re interested in a charter school, be sure to investigate the school’s programs for students like your child.