If you’re like me, you might find yourself surprisingly, woefully underprepared for your first special needs school search, especially if you are considering mainstreaming and attend tours that mainly consist of parents of typical children. The tour guide, whether it be a parent coordinator or the vice principal, is not going to offer up a special needs version of the tour most of the time, but will instead cater to the general audience and tell you how competitive their school is academically and how amazing their extracurricular activities are. There’s nothing wrong with that—it’s good to know those things, but depending on your child’s disability, academic competition and after school clubs might not be at the top of your list.
So what should be on your list then? Well, obviously priorities are different for each parent depending on their child’s disability, unique needs, strengths and personality, but here is my Top 10.
1. Availability: When you telephone the school for an appointment do you reach a real person or an automated message? If a real person, are they helpful and polite? Is your call returned promptly if not taken right away? Or, did you email? Was your email forwarded to the appropriate person? How long did it take to receive a reply?
2. Appearance: What is the general appearance of the school? Does it look well cared for? Is it clean? What about the reception area for you to wait in (is there one?) Is there a security guard or other security in place at the entrance? Does someone greet you when you arrive?
3. Administration: Do you have the chance to meet with the Principal or Vice-Principal during your visit? If not, do you have a way to contact them with questions? Are you invited to set up a meeting with them at another time?
4. Food: Where do the students eat—in a classroom or lunchroom? Does the school cater to special dietary requirements? How are food allergies handled? If mainstreaming, do special ed students eat with the general population?
5. Medical: Is there a school nurse on-site full time? If not, how are medications handled? Spills on the playground? Sick children?
6. Behavior Issues: What strategies does the school use to manage challenging behavior? How do they monitor if it is working? What is the school’s policy on bullying?
7. Specials and Specialists: What therapists visit the school and how often? Does the school have regular access to Speech, OT, PT, a guidance counselor and a pyschologist? Does the school offer Adaptive PE? If your child has speech and language difficulties ask what method will the school use for communication. Do they have access to assistive technology? Are there any extracurricular activities that are open to special needs students? Are there electives during the day that are appropriate for special needs students?
8. Things to note during the actual tour of the school: Is there a gym? Is there an auditorium? A music room? An art room? An outdoor playspace? A separate room for Speech, OT, PT and the guidance counselor? Take a look at the students in the classroom. Are they engaged in a meaningful activity? Are they just sitting around? Are there pictures on the wall, students’ work, etc?
9. Paraprofessionals: If your child is going to a public school and will need a para ask what training is given to the paraprofessional. Will your child get the same para every day? Will the para be with your child at lunchtime and recess?
10. Guidance (or lack thereof): Talk to the school guidance counselor and find out how many other students have IEPs. Do any of the students have 1:1 paraprofessionals? Do any of the students participate in Alternative Assessment? What classroom settings are available (Gifted, Gen ED, ICT, 12:1:1, etc)? Are all classroom configurations offered to students with IEPs? What opportunities do special education students in contained classroom settings have to mingle with the rest of the school population? Does the school require that your child’s IEP have a specific classification in order to be eligible for admission? If a private school, is it on the NYC Approved List (makes funding tuition easier)? What is the admission process, and what evaluations and reports are needed? How recent should they be?
If you get a chance try to come back at different times of the day, particularly in the morning, during lunch and toward the end of the day. Does the principal greet the children as they arrive? Do the buses arrive on time and deliver the children safely?
There’s a lot to consider, and I’m sure you can come up with a few more things relevant to your situation that I didn’t even mention. And by your 11th school (yep, 11 and still going) you might not feel any less stressed or lost but you will at least have these questions memorized (always keep your eye on the silver lining).