You may be drawn to private schools by low student-teacher ratios, anticipating that greater one-on-one teacher attention will help your child realize his or her potential. Bear in mind that the type of attention your child will get is just as important as how much. The best approach to instruction differs widely across students. For one thing, research indicates that nearly 1 in 7 students has a “learning disability” or “difference,” such as dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyspraxia, or dyscalculia, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, auditory and visual processing disorder, nonverbal learning disability or others.  More broadly, people have different “multiple intelligence” profiles—spatial, linguistic, logical-mathematical, etc.—and content should be taught in numerous ways for the benefit of all students.  All parents should consider this dimension of private schools, even if no disabilities have been identified in their children; as a long-time high school teacher, I can attest that learning differences often remain undiagnosed until the teenage years.
Parents should take heart. Research into the science of learning has advanced rapidly in recent years. For example, many learning differences have been tied to variation in brain anatomy.  Good schools will be staffed with teachers and administrators that celebrate and find fascinating the diversity of learning styles and keep current on research in this area.  How can you determine if the school you’re evaluating is prepared to teach your child effectively? You’ll need to know how committed the school is to staying current with 21st century learning theory and how they will apply that theory to your child’s specific needs.
Even with steep tuition rates, private schools with small student populations may not have the scale to support specialized training for teachers in differentiated instruction. Even if the funds are available, the school may have other priorities, as I noted in a previous post. What are the signs a school is committed to teaching all kinds of minds? First, look for a school with at least one full-time learning specialist and other support programs to serve a diverse student population. Second, inquire about training faculty receive in differentiated instruction and assessment. Take a look at recent hires. Are they fresh out of undergraduate school? Do they bring any deep knowledge of learning theory? Are senior faculty mentoring the new hires as they try to put these ideas into practice? How does the institution welcome new ideas about learning? If the school is not forthcoming about answering these questions, proceed with caution.
Keep in mind that you should expect to discover more about your child’s learning style as they grow, so you would be wise to choose a school that is prepared to adapt to your child’s needs. If the school is inflexible, you will have to adapt by changing schools—not a pleasant prospect. Also, be conscious that as you’re sizing up the school, you’re assuming it will remain as you see it today for many years to come because your children will be there for many years to come. Don’t plan on the learning environment being stable if the school is not on sound financial and ethical footing. In a weak economy, tuition revenue declines and schools with a weak balance sheet and no endowment will be forced to neglect capital investments, including skimping on faculty training or hiring untrained faculty. A school with a muddled mission will be tempted to experiment when times are rough, perhaps adopting a more corporate decision-making process and abandoning consensus, weakening the cohesion of the school staff. Your child will suffer in the long run so it is best to take the time to make the right choice in the first place.
When learning differences are a concern here are some things to keeping in mind:
Once you’ve found a school that looks like a good fit, what do you do? What pitfalls are there in the admissions process? When enrolling in a public school, the best approach is to disclose your child’s learning profile and to press for access to all appropriate resources you’re entitled to by law. When approaching a private school, you’re faced with a more complicated strategic problem.
In a way, choosing a private school is like buying an insurance plan. Other things equal, insurance companies would prefer to sell policies to people with few pre-existing conditions and few risk factors. The business office of a private school would prefer to avoid admitting children who will be costly to educate, such as students with learning differences who will require more training for the faculty and use more staff time. This is one of the factors the school will consider when trying to determine if your child will “fit.” On the other hand, your interest is in a school committed to teaching a wide array of students, prepared to adapt as your child reveals who she or he is over time. You should be aware that predicting your child’s “fit” for the next, say, 12 years, is extremely hard.
So, parents of children with learning differences face a dilemma when considering a private school: How much should they disclose to the school about the student’s learning profile, which can be deeply personal and private? Depending upon the school and the economic climate, a private school can be extremely judgmental about a child who learns differently. Parents may want to see if a small private school with a progressive curriculum and well-trained faculty will mitigate the child’s learning difference before disclosing it to the school, hoping that what seemed like a learning challenge in one school may be less pronounced in a different learning environment. It has also been my experience that parents enter into the relationship with a private school believing in the integrity of the school’s educational mission only to find out that the school’s resources were misrepresented in the admissions process.
However, if a parent has a clear diagnosis from psycho- or neuro- educational testing with concrete recommendations for appropriate interventions, then the parent should probably present these to the school and ask if those accommodations can be provided. Ask to meet the school’s learning specialist and determine a method for implementing all the interventions and the role the learning specialists and the teachers play in providing accommodations.
Learning Specialists, Learning Centers and Special Programs
Private schools demonstrate their commitment to learning differences in various ways. Outstanding schools will have a learning center or program where students can get help with an array of academic issues and implement their learning plan.
Here are some links to a few local private schools to help characterize how they approach learning differences. Good Counsel, The Academy of the Holy Cross and St. Andrew’s Episcopal School are examples of schools that have support centers and programs so students with learning differences can access the school’s curriculum with extraordinary support. More typically, private schools provide support staff, such as a Learning Specialist. In this case, look at the school’s long-term commitment to supporting learning differences more closely. Schools such as Barrie School, Georgetown Day, Sandy Spring Friends and Maret School all have learning specialists on staff, but you need to probe to find out how these schools (and others) utilize this staff. Be sure they are full-time employees with at least a M.Ed. in special education who are qualified to interpret psycho-educational and neuro-educational testing. Ideally, you should see a full-time learning specialist at each level—elementary, middle school and high school. Be sure to ask how long they have been in place and seek out other parents for a first-hand account of how well the system works. Is the learning specialist available to parents and students? What is his or her exact role in the school? It is important not to trust school referred references here.
Elementary Schools in the Archdiocese of Washington, for example, offer few of the type of learning resources discussed here. Our Lady of Victory in northwest DC and Holy Redeemer in Kensington make no mention of learning resources. However, if you are interested in Catholic education, you might consider schools who make reference to learning resources such as St, Jane Francis de Chantal in Bethesda. One of the more progressive schools in the Archdiocese of Washington is St. Francis International School which mentions 21st learning supports as a key part of their school objectives.
Also note that a few schools have made a niche of catering to students with learning differences. The Lab School of Washington has been path breaking in the field of learning differences since 1967. But also, other schools of note are Jemicy school in the Baltimore region and Sienna School in Silver Spring. Since these schools are so focused in the field of brained based learning problems, they often have dedicated staff to assist families with declaring tax-deductible medical expenses to help assist in paying tuition.
Finally, a note of caution when considering the most competitive schools in the area—those which consistently place graduates at top colleges. You’ll need to assess if your child is suited to the school’s primary purpose, serving students capable of absorbing and integrating massive amounts of academic material while simultaneously excelling in athletics and other extracurricular activities. What becomes of students who discover this pursuit is not their calling, whether because of learning differences or some other reason? Is there a place for them in the school community, or do they end up leaving the school? Only you can determine if this environment promotes your child’s educational and social/emotional welfare, but don’t assume without verifying that the support they need will be there.
Remember, all students learn differently and this has become scientific fact. It is not unreasonable for a parent to expect their private school to accommodate all kinds of learners. No matter what school you choose, if you find a private school with teachers who are encouraged to keep their faculty development current, trained in brain-based learning theories and differentiation and collaborate with colleagues to keep the curriculum vibrant and unified, you will find that a student with mild to moderate learning differences will do well. A learning community that prioritizes these things properly will be successful with a broad base of students and not just students with learning differences because this type of learning environment tends to be beneficial for all types of learners and learners with different “multiple intelligence” profiles.
 “According to the International Dyslexia Asssociation and the Learning Disabilites Association of America, about 15% of the population (close to one in seven) has a learning disability.” (See also LD Online, http://www.ldonline.org/questions/aboutld#5063> )
 “Howard Gardner: ‘Multiple intelligences’ are not ‘learning styles’,” Washington Post, October 16, 2013, Valerie Strauss. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2013/10/16/howard-gardner-multiple-intelligences-are-not-learning-styles/
 For example, just this week, neuroscientists published path-breaking research on the auditory and speech centers of the brain for dyslexics that sheds light on how they learn. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=dyslexia-linked-to-brain-communication-breakdown
 For a 21st Century perspective on dyslexia, see The Dyslexic Advantage, by Eide and Eide, 2o12.
© Karen Byrne and Selecting the Right Private School: A Teacher’s Perspective, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Karen Byrne and Selecting the Right Private School: A Teacher’s Perspective with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.