PROGRAM — Special Needs Scholarship Program

I’ve always wanted to be a special educator of kids who have different learning styles and different strengths and talents. I started as a special education teacher working with emotionally disturbed kids, even though my degree was in learning disabilities. After working with severely emotionally disturbed kids for a while and supervising teachers doing that, I moved into tutoring one-on-one and got more interested in helping kids learn to read. I became a Wilson trainer. I enjoyed teaching teachers how to teach reading as well.

In 2007, Georgia passed a law saying that kids with special needs could get special money if they had an IEP. I opened a school with one teacher and four students. Over time, it’s grown. We have three locations now. We have seven teachers now. We have 40 kids now. We became a nonprofit in 2016. The fun thing about this adventure has been being able to help families who are in a lot of pain and distress because their children are failing at school, or not getting the proper instruction. It’s not the school’s fault, because they have too many kids to teach and too many boxes to check.

We purposely keep our class small; our teachers are highly qualified, and I do the training. We have folks who are highly dedicated to being here because they don’t make a lot of money, they don’t’ have a lot of perks, but they do love our students. They go above and beyond to make sure students are learning and can be successful.

Our school, Academy of Innovation, is for students from first grade through high school. When we first opened it, I had envisioned first through eighth grade but had a lot of rising sixth graders come in because parents had their kids in elementary school, but were worried about middle school, with the bigger classes, lockers, teachers, and a lot to deal with. I had quite a few sixth graders as we grew. Then, over time, my eighth graders became ninth graders and didn’t want to leave. So, I had to expand to high school because I had kids who didn’t want to go back to larger high schools and they were thriving here. That wasn’t part of the plan, but you just have to roll with the punches.

We don’t do grade levels. We test the students and put them in classes they need, versus grade levels. Our goal is to get students as close to grade level as we can, but we put them in groups that are homogenous so the teachers are working on the same skills. We double dose reading and we do math fluency and math application skills, and word problems. We do keyboarding with every student every day so they learn to touch type efficiently. We have Tae Kwan Do and swimming. We do academics heavily in the morning because that’s when our kids have the most attention and the afternoon is when they have more hands-on social studies, science, and PE. We have an art teacher that has come in and made a world of difference because a lot of our kids are talented in the arts.

Every child in our school is required to read 10 books per month. I got this idea from the Book Whisperer, by Donalyn Miller, a wonderful book by a great teacher in Texas about how she saw kids who never read outside the classroom. It’s worked out nicely even for kids who don’t have reading skills. They can listen to books instead of eye read. One day a student came running in, tongue hanging out, waving a book. He said, ‘Cole left his book at home and I’m bringing it to him, but he can’t go beyond chapter six because I don’t want him to know what happens next without me.” They’re reading the books together.

At the end of the month, we have a reward for the kids who read their 10 books and have done the reading responses. They might be able to go to Get Air, Top Golf, picnic in the park, all kinds of things. Our kids hated books when they come to us because they see it as a sign of failure. We have to do everything we can to encourage them.

In October, kids are required to read one biography or autobiography. At the end of the month, they have to dress up like that person and give a speech or make a poster or PowerPoint. Parents come in and we have a big parade of heroes and they love that. That’s been a kind of tradition that everybody enjoys. Those are some things that are like public school, and yet different because of our population.

Lots of our students struggle with reading. But there are very few kids who have pure dyslexia. Most often students come to our school with comorbid diagnoses, where they have ADHD or executive functioning problems, along with dyslexia. We serve kids with attention issues as well as problems with reading. I have a student with cerebral palsy because she got through seventh grade without learning to read. We have some students who are high-functioning autistic kids who are dyslexic, and students with rare genetic problems. We had one student who had 50 seizures in an hour.

When you open your doors for special needs, I can’t limit it to only dyslexia. We open our doors to kids who have mild behavior problems and usually those go away once they start having success. We’re working with kids who might have a central auditory processing issue. We never know what we’re going to find, but it’s always an interesting story. If the student is struggling with reading and language and doesn’t have a huge behavior problem, they are certainly welcome here. We serve a variety of students.

I have students, sometimes at age 16, who are really struggling to read. One student had been in special ed and came in from public school. He was reading at the third-grade level. His parents tried homeschooling. He still got desperately behind because he couldn’t read. The computer was not addressing his reading issue. He has anxiety. All of these obstacles were exasperated because he did not learn how to read at a young child.

If kids cannot read, they manifest other behaviors like anxiety, school refusal, and depression. Kids don’t want to try anything because everything they’ve tried doesn’t work. Imagine if you went to work every day, you tried your hardest and no matter what you did, you had no success. That’s what a lot of these kids are facing.

If it wasn’t for school choice, a lot of our students wouldn’t be able to attend our school. My message to lawmakers is that the public schools are overburdened. There are too many students to deal with and a lot of teachers don’t have the right training. Kids are suffering. We need to get these students early and often. We need to offer another choice for parents who are not happy with their kids not being in the right environment. Public school is not a one size fits all.

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