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Private special ed schools feel effect of attention to programs in public districts

| Saturday, Aug. 3, 2013, 7:32 p.m.
Gwen Titley | Tribune-Review
Aaron Stuck, 11, is guided underneath a parachute by his peers and teachers at The Watson Institute in Sewickley on June 4, 2013 during their field day called Move It Outside Day. The Watson Institute educates students with disabilities from around the area.
Gwen Titley | Tribune-Review
Andrew Schmidth, 17, throws a rubber chicken into a large blow up basketball hoop during The Watson Institute's field day, Move it Outside Day on June 4, 2013 in Sewickley. The Watson Institute educated children with disabilities from around the area.

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

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