Educational Alternatives

by Patricia S. Lemer, Ms.Bus., NCC, Chairman of the Board, Epidemic Answers

Imagine — a ten year old boy attending his fifth school in six years!  His mother consulted me last spring, hopeful that I knew about a special place where her son with Asperger’s syndrome would thrive, not just be tolerated.

Unfortunately, there is no such place, I told her.  She described a wish to start a new school for her son and others like him.  She wanted a challenging cognitive curriculum, an art room, computers, hands-on science, and other experiential activities that respected her son’s sensory needs to touch and move, and his interest in technology.

Today, he and a peer work together in a close-to-ideal classroom. Although many other families expressed interest in such a project and came to preliminary meetings, they all made other arrangements for fall.

Some returned to public schools, determined to fight harder for their children’s rights.  A few found places in forgiving independent schools. The most frustrated turned to home-schooling, or “unschooling” in a controlled environment.

What forces drive parents to stay at home, convinced that they can do a better job than their local jurisdictions at educating their kids?  Cindy is not alone. In 1998, about 1.5 million students in the U.S. were homes-chooled, five times the estimated number a decade before.

Many of these are children with special needs who are not being serviced appropriately in the public schools.  Their parents are tired of slaving over IEPs that no one reads, and of having the sensory issues that are driving unmanageable behaviors ignored. Instead of putting their energies and money into lawyers and filing for due process, these families have “walked.”  They have found compatriots on the Internet, formed local websites with calendars of events and chat rooms, and exchanged information through monthly newsletters.

For home-schoolers, the fear of inadequate socialization is no longer necessary.  Bowling leagues, choruses and soccer leagues made up of home-schooled families from observant Jewish and devout Christian communities are flourishing.  Children with PDD-NOS and autism join typical kids to visit farms, zoos and museums.

Occupational and speech-language therapies, when appropriate, can still be delivered at the local public school during the day. Inclusion, mainstreaming, modifications and accommodations are non-issues.

NATHHAN, the National Challenged Homeschoolers Associated Network (253-857-4257), contends that their members’ children make far better gains than they did in public school.  Their premise is supported by a preliminary study done by psychologist Steven Duvall in which the progress of four students with learning disabilities was tracked.  Their gains are impressive.  With only a few hours of “school” each day, parents report that their kids are happy, no longer need medications, get many more movement experiences, and eat and sleep better.

Not only parents have revolted.  In West York, Pennsylva­nia, ten years ago, primary teachers demanded a new curriculum.  They felt that many of their kindergartners and first graders were unready for the academic demands being made on them.  The administration listened.  The teachers found Dr. Harry Wachs, who wrote Thinking Goes to School.  In the West York program, medication is rarely needed, and the number of children requiring services for the learning disabled in third grade has dropped dramatically.

I recently asked a seasoned educational consultant, “What can we do about schools that push academics prematurely and have a ‘one-size-fits-all’ philosophy?” This gentle woman responded, “The only solution is to blow them up!”

On bad days I think this drastic measure may be the only fix.  However, yesterday was a good day.  I was encouraged after attending a hearing in Annapolis on the need for charter schools in Maryland.  According to the Center for Educational Reform, 29 states and the District of Columbia now have laws allowing for charter schools.  Almost 800 are in operation with another 500 approved to open this fall.

We desperately need educational alternatives for children who are developmentally at risk, schools that follow sound developmental principles without unnecessary labeling, schools for children recovering from PDD-NOS and autism, schools where diet, movement, vision, music and sensory experiences lay the foundation for learning.

Dare we dream that one day there will be a choice of programs for every child?  Yes!  Please let us know of any charter schools or homeschooling groups which you know.  We would love to visit and clone them.  In a future edition, we hope to publish a list of home schooling and charter school resources culled from your suggestions.