Alternative Education Programs

Hopefully, you will be a persuasive advocate when interacting with your child's school district. You just may be the person to educate and enlighten the professionals in your district if they require a better understanding of Asperger's Syndrome. In some extreme instances, families have moved to another school district or another state in order to have their child attend a certain school program. Unfortunately, in addition to the stress on the whole family that this type of upheaval can cause, it also allows school districts to remain uneducated about how best to support students with Asperger's Syndrome.

The Delta Program

Some progressive school districts have developed alternative education programs available to those students who want them. One such example is the Delta program in State College Area School District, Pennsylvania. Since its 1974 inception, the Delta program has become a national model for alternative, “nontraditional” educational programming for eligible children from grades seven through twelve. Delta is founded on the belief that students are motivated to do their best when they are responsible for their own learning. Classes are not arranged by grade level, but by learning level, from introductory to midlevel to high level.

Delta is a partnership between the student, parents, and staff through shared decision-making. Enrollment does not exceed 200 students at a time in order for teachers, administrators, and support staff to provide quality, personalized interactions with students. Students are required to complete all state-mandated requirements for education the same as their peers. The program differs in that each student has an advising team (like an IEP team), and an open campus structure allows for flexibility, experiential learning, and community service projects.

Each semester, students in tandem with their advising team design personal educational schedules by choosing from courses offered in required subject areas. However, as a guide, each course has a difficulty level that ranges from introductory to midlevel to high. When planning student schedules, the set number of credits required in each subject area is taken into account along with the difficulty level. In advance of course enrollment, each Delta student is aware of the course content, learning objectives, and the manner in which his work will be evaluated — all of which serves to promote independence and personal responsibility in learning. As an added incentive, further program flexibility is offered by allowing students to take certain classes in the regular high school or middle school, attend nearby Penn State University, or participate in other opportunities available through local businesses or technical schools designed to suit student-centered needs.

The Waldorf School Model

Another progressive educational model is the Waldorf School, which serves children founded upon the holistic philosophy of teaching the whole child, mind and body. The Waldorf website (www.whywaldorfworks.org) further defines its mission: “Waldorf schools offer a developmentally appropriate, balanced approach to education that integrates the arts and academics for children from preschool through twelfth grade. It encourages the development of each child's sense of truth, beauty, and goodness, and provides an antidote to violence, alienation, and cynicism. The aim of the education is to inspire in each student a lifelong love of learning, and to enable them to fully develop their unique capacities.”

Fact

The Reggio Emilia model of education (such as that found in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and elsewhere) allows schoolchildren to guide the curriculum. The inherent sense of wonder and curiosity children have about how things work in nature gives educators a “jumping off” point. The child with Asperger's may fit well with a similar program in which interests and curiosities are valued.

The school considers that each phase of childhood requires different perspectives. This translates into seven-year spans, starting at birth through age twenty-one.

Throughout, the emphasis is about sequentially teaching what is good, truthful, and beautiful. By these standards, teachers honor the work of all children. The individual interpretations of each child are valued in balance with the contributions of others. Children are shown with care how to be discriminating, thoughtful, and prudent.

Charter Schools

Most states have an educational option called charter schools, in which the school district has received a “charter” from the state. The charter provides rules, such as where it is located and the maximum number of students permitted to attend. With a charter, the school district receives the funding and allocations based on the number of students. The state department of education grants the school district funding to pay for teacher salaries, equipment, and materials to meet the individual needs of each student in a charter school.

Charter schools are considered “public schooling” and must abide by all state regulations. The charter school may have an emphasis on the arts or science with a smaller teacher-student ratio.

Virtual Charter School

Another innovative program, called a virtual charter school, uses the charter school model with a couple of differences. The virtual charter school is like a “public school in a home environment,” but it is not the same as home schooling.

Former U.S. Secretary of Education William Bennett and some others started a company called K12, headquartered in McLean, Virginia. K12 provides the curriculum and management services; the virtual charter school hires the teachers and support staff. The head of the school, the controller, and a few others are employees of K12.

To attend a virtual charter school, the student's parents unenroll him from the local school district and enroll him in the virtual charter school. The school district funding follows the student and encompasses books, materials for art and for science experiments, a computer, and other materials. The student also receives a regular education teacher, a special education teacher, and an IEP, just as in the local school district.

The teachers become the educational supports working in partnership with the parents (who have the lead) to educate the child and ensure he takes all the state-mandated standardized tests. The parent must log time daily on a website and track the student's progress, such as what lessons he has completed; lesson plans are also received via the website. Frequent field trips, all of an educational nature, are planned as a way for the children, teachers, and parents to connect with one another.

Home Schooling

Increasingly, parents of kids with Asperger's are choosing to home-school their children. This may be because they are dissatisfied with their child's school district, their child's curriculum, or issues related to their child's IEP. Some parents may feel they know best how to meet their child's educational needs, or they wish to afford their child individualized educational opportunities that build on passions and interests and provide one-on-one attention. In the most disconcerting circumstances, children with Asperger's may be home-schooled because they have been taunted and bullied by other students, or because teachers have misperceived them as “lazy” or devalued them as “underachievers.”

Bernie Pippin, a teacher and guidance counselor, has been a home school supervisor for many years, has been an evaluator for home school families, and has home-schooled her own two children. She explains the home school process based on her experience teaching in Pennsylvania, but advises that protocols may vary substantially from state to state. (Readers considering home schooling are advised to contact their state department of education or log on to their state's website for details.)

Pippin notes that, “The superintendent of the school district in which the family resides has the responsibility for the supervision of a home-schooling program. When an initial decision is made to homeschool a student, a parent, guardian, or other authorized person submits a notarized affidavit to the superintendent indicating the plan to home-school the student. The affidavit should be accompanied by a set of objectives that are to be worked on for that school year. This process may be done at any time in the initial school year; however, in subsequent school years August 1 is the deadline for submission.”

According to Pippin, the school district is required to provide books to the home-schooling family of the texts used by the students in the school who are in the same grade level as the home-schooled student. There is a wealth of curriculum offerings available to home-schooling families as most major educational publishing houses have come to recognize the home school market. Some families choose to invest in one curriculum and use it exclusively; other families pull resources from various places. The one substantial advantage to educating from a traditional homeschooling model is that the supervisor of the program has the flexibility to make decisions that he or she feels are best for the student and to use materials that are consistent with the needs and abilities of the student.

Pippin continues, “Throughout the school year the supervisor of the program should keep a record of the days of instruction and all the subjects logged by the student. Some use a plan book, some use a calendar or computerized log. The supervisor also should be consistently and regularly gathering examples of the work done by the student for the portfolio to be assembled for the end-of-the-school year evaluation.”

In addition, tutors may be accessed for various areas that the home school supervisor doesn't feel qualified to teach. Private schools or educational institutions affiliated with religious denominations may offer a more individualized curriculum with one-on-one instruction, but the cost of enrolling your child may be prohibitive.

Benefits and Disadvantages

Alternate educational placements may benefit the child with Asperger's Syndrome through smaller teacher-child ratios, leading to more individualized attention and quality assurance in your child's learning comprehension. Smaller class size may afford instructors the luxury of time to focus attention on meeting the unique educational needs of each child. Educational curricula in alternate settings may also have greater flexibility and provide for enhanced opportunities to reinforce curricula in ways that may be tangible and concrete for the child with Asperger's, such as regular field trips to museums, businesses, landmarks, and other community attractions. There may also be opportunity for creative programming in which the child may have myriad choices from which to select when planning class projects, presentations, or reports. Greater individualized attention may also mean that your child's personal passions can be used to underscore his learning in ways that might prove difficult or impossible in larger public school classes.

Alert

Be aware that some alternate educational placements that offer your child individualized guidance and one-on-one attention may extend only up until a certain grade level. You may need to determine, in partnership with your child and the alternate-school administrators, if the transition to and from such a setting will benefit your child.

A disadvantage to alternative educational programming and placement may be the cost. If a newly designed program is considered, planning, implementation, and start-up time are all factors that may be deterrents for some as well. Social opportunities may be more limited with smaller or one-student classes unless efforts are made to compensate for this. Your local school district or state department of education should be able to provide you with details about a range of education program options, as well as funding options and obligations in order for you to make an informed decision about where your child receives her education.

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