Effective questions to ask when looking for a school for your child with special needs
In DC’s unique landscape of “choice” in public schools, the difficult challenge for parents of children in special education is that there are many references on a school’s location, testing scores, aftercare programs, etc., but it is very hard to find out how a school functions in special education. For example, in DC because most charters are their own LEA (local education agency) and DCPS has such individual school “format” there are dozens of variables in the public schools surrounding special education, including:
- What is the staffing structure – are there special ed coordinators or inclusion specialists or student services managers? Are they assigned by grade?
- Does the school leadership embrace inclusion and the special education population?
- How are related service providers organized/staffed – are they only in the school for 1-2 days a week or full-time?
- Are there reading specialists in the school and are they incorporating evidence-based reading interventions?
Unfortunately, it is really up to parents in DC to do their own research on a school; and still the best way to learn about the school is a face-to-face visit at the school and meeting with the staff/administration.
I suggest starting with the principal and requesting a meeting. It is the best way to “see” how the leadership embraces (or not) principles of inclusion, different learning needs, accommodations and staffing.
First, ask as many specific questions as possible. Some school staff may not answer fully (mostly because they may not fully grasp the school’s data/numbers) but the special education staff will often be very up front.
- If your child has a specific disability, for example Autism, ask if the school has had a student with autism before, how many do they have enrolled currently and in what grades.
- How does the school structure their classrooms or learning models to deal with these student’s needs – did they provide differentiated instruction, how did they deal with transition (from classroom to gym or art) do they practice responsive classroom or other positive behavior systems?
- Does the school have positive behavior support and are staff trained in these techniques? (and how often!)?
- How do they deal with behavior issues, which teachers have had training in ABA, teaching children with autism, etc.
- Do they have assistive technology?
- Who is their OT, SLP, PT, and how often are these related service providers physically in the school? (In DCPS for example, it is not uncommon for a SLP to have 2-4 assigned schools, meaning that they may not be physically be at your child’s school more than one day a week. This can limit the amount of integration, and collaboration between a classroom teacher and the SLP in creating a functional environment for a child who needs speech therapy.)
- How many students in the school have IEPs – how many in specific grades?
- What range of disability codes are in the school population?
- How often does the MDT (Multiple Disability Team) meet? (And does the principal sit in on the MDT meetings?)
- How many full time special education teachers are in the building and how they divide their duties (by grade or by class or by high need)?
- Who serves as the special education coordinator?
Absolutely ask if you can talk to other parents with children with IEPs at the school. A school staff might not give you a contact right away, but as a parent I was often contacted by the Spec Ed teacher at my daughter’s DCPS school to talk to prospective parents. From a fellow parent, ask:
How that parent “feels” at the school, i.e., Do they feel a part of the special ed team/MDT? Do they feel welcome? How do they describe the special education and administrative staff, positive? professional? knowledgeable? trustworthy?
By no means is this an exhaustive list – but it gives parents a start at what is appropriate and an opportunity to insert traits about your child. For example, when asking about transitioning within the building, you can share that your child gets over-stimulated in noisy areas and going to the Gym for large events can create a meltdown.
At the very least – as a prospective parent, if you ask pertinent and reasonable questions – the school staff will become aware that you are a parent who understand’s that your child will need more than the average student and that you are within your rights at a DC public school (be it DCPS or public charter) to insure that your child receives all the accommodations and support he/she needs to access the learning curriculum.
I really like the book by Michelle Davis and Rich Weinfeld (DC-area special education advocates), Special Needs Advocacy Resource Book. Pages 220 & 235 provides additional questions.