For many students, private school is a place where they will thrive instead of falling through the cracks. Independent schools for children with special needs are especially adept at creating customized learning experiences that address the individual needs and maximize the abilities of each child.
"Most special needs schools have a niche in providing services for kids who don't fit into the mainstream system," says Barbara Brown, co-chair of Partners in Specialized Education (Spectra), which represents six independent schools in Ontario. "Many students have unique problems and difficulties, and need a different type of program that's better suited to their requirements."
At special needs schools, instruction is geared toward addressing and making the most of students' specific learning challenges. Such schools address almost any type of special needs, including learning, cognitive and developmental disabilities, communication or language disorders, attention disorders, behavioural problems (such as troubled teen behaviour), and physical disabilities.
Underpinning almost every aspect of a student's experience at a special needs school is individualization with the curriculum, extracurricular activities and life preparation training, all catered to their unique abilities and potential.
Special needs schools also have small classrooms, which provide more hands-on teaching in a focused environment. Often students enter private school from the public system or other conventional private schools, where they were lost in a large class and fell through the cracks, says Peter Coll, headmaster of Landmark East School in Nova Scotia, which caters to students with dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and nonverbal learning disorder (NLD).
"When you put them in a room with a teacher and three other students, they get the personal attention they need. Teachers are able to intimately understand their strengths and weaknesses and work closely with them using approaches that suit their learning style," he says.
Special needs questions (read our in-depth answers)
There are special needs schools in Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Vancouver, Mississauga, Calgary, Edmonton, and across the country. They are equipped with the knowledge, expert staff and teaching technologies to provide a wide range of specialty interventions that may include speech and language therapy, psychology, behavioural therapy, music therapy, and social skills training.
Depending on the school, students can access intensive remedial assistance with reading, writing, mathematics, comprehension, logical reasoning, visual and auditory memory, non-verbal learning, attention span and processing speed. Schools will also typically focus on preparing students for life after graduation by promoting the development of life skills, emotional growth, independence and community awareness.
"The biggest question I hear from families is, 'What's going to happen next? Will my child be able to work, live on their own and have a quality of life?'" says Brown, who is also principal of Kohai Educational Centre, a school for students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), genetic disorders, learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder (ADD), ADHD, behavioural problems, and language disorders.
Some of Chisholm's students are gifted kids who want to do even better; others have learning disabilities. Still others have issues with motivation and some students - most of whom study one on one with teachers, usually for high-school credits - are working out their own personal problems. Bernstein says they might be students trying to come to terms with a terminally ill parent, for example.
An ebullient man, he is especially enthusiastic about Chisholm Academy High School, a private school with a difference.
"There's no private school which takes kids having (academic) difficulties," he says. "Our kids are average but not doing well. Or they may have an attention problem."
The idea, he says, is to gear them up for college. Not university, where most other private school grads go, but college. To do that, Chisholm provides small classes (of about 12 students), plenty of work on computers, and such things as a homework hotline and Web site where parents can find out what their child has been studying, what texts are being used as well as what's expected for homework.
A keyboarding class is mandatory in Grade 9 because Bernstein wants every student to be able to communicate via computer. "This is a very important skill if the child is having trouble in school," he says. "It helps them compensate for some learning disabilities."