Noah Rahman’s head follows his eyes as they gently roll across the ceiling, not quite set on anything. At his parent’s instruction, he lowers his head, makes subtle eye contact through his wire-framed glasses, and mumbles a barely intelligible salutation. Still, the 7-year-old is making progress. By the end of the last school year, Noah had held two conversations with his dad for the first time. What did Noah hear outside? “Train.” And what did he think about trains? “Choo-choo.”
Noah is quadriplegic and has been diagnosed with cerebral palsy and autism. “Before going to Arbor...I would have told you that I would have never had a conversation with [Noah] in my whole life,” says Sami Rahman, Noah’s dad. Moving his son from a public school to a private one dedicated to children with special needs has made all the difference.
Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, public school districts are obligated to provide services for children with special needs, whether those needs be mental, physical, developmental or otherwise. Once a child is enrolled in a special education program, an Individualized Education Plan is created by the school’s faculty and parents, detailing goals and services for the student. Still, many parents and administrators believe public schools can only theoretically meet the needs of children with disabilities.
Although Noah’s public school teacher was “loving,” says his father, she didn’t push him beyond the perceived limits of his handicap during the eight months she worked with him. “He is on 28 goals right now, in 14 categories, and they rotate weekly. When we were in public school, it was four goals that we never accomplished the entire semester.”
“[Public schools] are working with a whole lot of children, and they’re making rules that apply to everyone,” says Donna Marshall, head of school at The Westview School and president of the Special Schools Coalition of Greater Houston. “When you come to our school, we work with each student individually.” The average public-school special-education teacher works with up to 24 students a week. In special needs schools, the average is eight.
The Special Schools Coalition represents 18 schools in the Houston area, where tuition ranges from $6,000 to more than $50,000 annually. At The Arbor School, for instance, which accepts students with a range of diagnoses—everything from ADHD to severe cerebral palsy—tuition for three-month-olds starts at $24,000.
These hefty sums partly explain why parents are so willing to give public schools a chance before heading to private institutions.
“[Public schools] are able to provide lower faculty-to-student ratios at the 3 to 6 year age range, so the programs tend to have a little more integrity than later on,” says Debrah Hall, head of school at The Monarch School, a Spring Branch institution for children with neurological differences. The cost per pupil in HISD special education is $10,000. The Monarch School? It can go as high as $47,000.
In addition to smaller class sizes, Hall and many other private-school administrators believe private schools have more success with students with special needs because they employ a range of methodologies and a strategy of non-inclusion—that is, students with disabilities are not in school with typically functioning students.
Putting everyone in the same class, as public schools often do, “is not going to help our kids,” says Tricia Brinks, director of education at The Arbor School. “They can become an adult that’s very friendly and social, but doesn’t have any skills to be independent or productive.”
Melisande Zook initially liked a public school inclusion model for her son William, who has ADHD, a speech impairment and global cognitive delays. By the fourth grade, however, other children began to distance themselves from him. “At a certain age, being different is not okay, and my son is different,” says Zook. The 16-year-old attends The Monarch School; he now enjoys swimming and trips to the museum with the friends he's made there.
What’s more, private schools typically employ a more creative, dynamic approach to educating special-needs children. At Monarch, “we pull evidence-based programs from all over,” says Hall, including those based on the DIR model (developmental, individual-difference, relationship-based) and CPS (collaborative and proactive solutions).
Of course, as children grow and change, so do their goals and needs, which means parents need to regularly monitor how well a school is serving them. “The reality of special needs is, the fit now is not the fit two years from now,” says Rahman. “It’s not like Noah is static.”
For now, however, The Arbor School fits, and in some moments Noah is like any other child. Rahman’s eyes well up remembering his second conversation with his son, one in which he asked what Noah wanted for breakfast.
“Ice cream,” came the reply.