Private special ed schools feel effect of attention to programs in public districts
By Tory N. Parrish
Published: Saturday, Aug. 3, 2013, 7:32 p.m.
In October, Nolan Kertis, 10, who is autistic and has trouble speaking, “had a major meltdown” and bit several adults at his public school. His special-education class lacked structure, his mother said.
When the school told Amy and Dennis Kertis that it could not meet their son's needs, the Pittsburgh area couple in November enrolled Nolan at the Watson Institute, an approved private school in Leet for children with disabilities, said Amy Kertis, 38.
“He can actually learn. … He's just a different kid. It's just unbelievable in the short amount of time that he was there what they did for him,” she said, noting the school provides a structured educational environment and speech and occupational therapy.
The state Board of Private Academic Schools licenses private schools in Pennsylvania to provide education and other programs to children with disabilities. Many such schools opened in the early 20th century, when public schools didn't provide special education. Now, they experience declining enrollment as districts expand special ed programs to keep students — and government money — in public school districts.
Students' home school districts pay 40 percent of tuition at approved private schools; the state pays 60 percent. The state Department of Education counts 32 approved private and four charter schools, compared to 41 schools in 1980.
Since the 2002-03 school year, enrollment in private schools decreased about 13 percent to 4,836 students, Education Department statistics show.
Education experts cite as reasons flat state funding, a push by parents and legal advocates to include special-education students in regular-education classrooms, charter schools siphoning off students who struggle in traditional public schools and better identification and support for students with emotional problems that districts can address.
Yet the private school enrollment decline isn't necessarily a bad thing, said Marilyn Hoyson, chief operating officer at Watson.
“If a student can return to their home district, we consider that a success,” she said.
From 2007-08 to 2011-12, the state's number of special education students decreased by 1 percent to 268,466 students, but the percentage of those students in regular-education classrooms more than 80 percent of the time increased from 53 percent to 62.4 percent, records show.
“The children who are in approved private schools are the ones that require more specialized assistance,” said Cheryl Fogarty, president of the Alliance of Approved Private Schools.
Such schools provide a level of specialized services — applied behavioral analysis, structured teaching and well-trained staff — that most public school districts cannot offer to children with autism, cerebral palsy, brain injuries and severe emotional or behavioral challenges, officials said.
“Students we're getting are a very unique group,” Hoyson said.
Students enroll in approved private schools at the request of a parent who seeks legal mediation with a school district, or at the recommendation of school officials, said Sonja Kerr, a special-education attorney with the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia.
Approved private schools aren't cheap. Watson's base tuition last year, for example, was about $43,000. The Day School at the Children's Institute in Shadyside cost $60,978.
Landmark legal decisions helped to drive up the cost of special education, said acting Superintendent Alan Johnson at Woodland Hills School District, where 117 of 4,015 students were enrolled in approved private schools last year. The district spent $1.4 million on special education.
“Schools are now expected to provide services that, only a decade ago, would have been considered way beyond the scope of public education's responsibility,” Johnson said.
Yet Woodland Hills is expanding its special-ed programs. About a year ago, the district opened the Promise Program to accommodate children with emotional disorders. And it provides full-time autism support classes.
These changes are not just about money, Johnson said. The district believes it can better teach children its curriculum, he said.
“And it's always in the best interests of the child to be closer to home,” Johnson said.
Staff writer Megan Harris contributed to this report. Tory N. Parrish is a Trib Total Media staff writer. She can be reached at 412-380-5662 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Redistricting provides faceoff for Democratic state Reps. Molchany, Readshaw
- Job cuts at AGH part of ‘strategic’ process
- Assessment appeals draw Mt. Lebanon residents’ ire
- Fox Chapel Area superintendent seeks rapport with students
- Ex-Sandusky lawyer investigated in divorce case
- Newsmaker: Dr. Kyle Soltys
- Allegheny County Democrats endorse several incumbents in primary
- Parking tickets in Downtown Pittsburgh spark outrage
- Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh to hold annual public meeting March 26
- Western Pennsylvania organizations team to find housing for vets
- Historical markers approved for 21 sites around Pennsylvania