Public or Private School for Child with ADHD?

A parent wonders whether her child's needs would be better served by a private school than a public school.
My son is twelve and was diagnosed when he was six. He is currently on 60mg. Ritalin® per day and Clonidine® at night. We are currently in the U.K. in an American school with a great study skills teacher who has helped my son tremendously. We will, unfortunately, be moving back to Houston this summer, disrupting his life once again. My son has already been tested by the school district in Houston before moving here. It was advised that he should have some resource classes if needed. My question really relates to how best to educate our son. The Houston School District does not have a very good reputation, although there are resource classes to help. Given his age and the potential of drugs, etc., in the schools, I am concerned as to where he should be placed. Would private school be better, even though they have the option of not admitting him because of his problems, or a public school where there are so many ugly influences on a child who does not know limits within himself, yet the educational needs are hopefully met? If you have knowledge about a good school district in the Houston area or a suggestion as to how to go about finding out, I would be grateful.
You say that your son has already been tested by the Houston School District. Since you have been abroad for a bit, and since your son has had a "great" study skills teacher, there may some changes in his profile. You might want to have the school re-evaluate your son, to determine his current status and his current need for services. If your son has been successful with the level of support in the U.K., then you should look for, at least, that level of service in the U.S. Also, if your son responded to the teaching style of the teachers in the U.K., and the class size (or any other factor) facilitated his success, point this out back in Houston. Your requests for services stand a better chance of being granted if they are based on your son's recent successes. You should ask his current teachers and tutors to write down the characteristics of an educational program that have enabled him to do as well as he has, and share these with the teachers at the new school.

I certainly understand your concerns about moving your son back into a school system where "ugly" influences may be at work. However, there are lots of factors that influence the reputation of a school system, so it's important to find out what you can about the actual school and the teachers your son will have when you transfer. You should meet with the building principal and the director of special education and interview him or her as you would do in a private school. A school system which takes pride in its accomplishments also takes time to meet with prospective parents (even if they are taxpayers and not tuition payers), and you owe it to yourself to give the school a chance to "sell itself" to you and your son. Since you are concerned about the quality of special education services he will receive as well as other factors, you might want to talk with other parents of children with special needs (there may be a special education parent advisory group, or a subgroup of the PTA). By getting as much information as you can about the curriculum, the teachers, the culture, and the safety of a school, you will be making a decision based on facts and not rumors or media portrayals. This way, if you look into private schools, you'll have more information on which to make your decision.

It doesn't seem wise to apply to a private school which doesn't have special services or doesn't know how to deal with your son's special needs, when the public school is obligated by law to meet his needs. On the other hand, if a private school, after reviewing your son's records and meeting him can assure you that they are confident that they can meet his needs, you may decide that the private school option allows you to "purchase" the culture in which you would like to see your son educated. You may have to bring in additional supports (tutors, special education consultants) to ensure that your son's needs get met, so be sure the school will agree to work with outside specialists, if need be.

You can find out information about private schools by checking books that describe schools and their offerings. One such book is called the the Directory for Exceptional Children: A Listing of Educational and Training Facilities 1994-95 edited by Porter Sargent. (This is a bit dated, and there may be a new edition coming out.) This may be a place to start. You may also wish to contact the local office of the Learning Disability Association to get recommendations or advice from other parents of children with learning or attentional problems. Also contact the teacher education program at colleges and universities that serve the Houston area and get the opinion of faculty members who supervise student teachers in or consult to area schools.

Jerome (Jerry) Schultz is the founding clinical director of the Learning Lab @ Lesley University, a program that provides assessment, tutoring, and case management services for children with learning challenges. Schultz holds a Ph.D. from Boston College, and has completed postdoctoral fellowships in both clinical psychology and pediatric neuropsychology.

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