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Innovative Programs Improve Services for Kids with Special Needs

August 3, 2018
Students with disabilities, mental health needs thrive with proper support

Research shows that the vast majority of students with special needs can achieve at the same level of other students, with the right supports.

But the painful reality is that for too many students, those supports are lacking — leading students to struggle and families to make tough choices, like educating their children at home.

The New Orleans Therapeutic Day Program offers a powerful example of what better can look like.

In New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina had a devastating effect on family stress levels and the systems designed to care for students with mental health issues. Children in New Orleans are nearly five times as likely as their peers nationwide to show signs of serious emotional disturbance.

“It’s hard to address traumatized kids because on the surface they can look unmotivated, like they don’t care and are choosing this behavior,” says Therapeutic Day co-founder and clinical psychologist Monica Stevens. “But at the end of the day it comes down to a mindset change — for both the educators and for the students about what they’re capable of.”

The New Orleans Therapeutic Day Center's goal is to help special needs students return to their neighborhood school within the school year.

Therapeutic Day is designed as a short-term intervention for students with serious behavioral challenges, with the goal of helping students return to their neighborhood school within the school year by combining intensive mental health treatment with academic instruction.

Most of the program’s students make a full year’s worth of academic gains in less than six months at Therapeutic Day, says Monica.

For example, Leslie Johnson’s son was one of Therapeutic Day’s first students.

Diagnosed with bipolar disorder, he had trouble focusing at his old school. Leslie enrolled her son in Therapeutic Day and, within a year’s time, her son made academic and emotional strides thanks to the combination of small groups, home visits and staff who understood his needs. After a year, he rejoined his original school and is now preparing to enter high school.

“We believe kids want to do well, and will do well, if they have the skills to do well,” says Therapeutic Day executive director Elizabeth Marcell. “So we focus on addressing those underlying skill deficits and any psychiatric issues they have.”

The Walton Family Foundation is supporting the New Orleans Therapeutic Day Program and other innovative programs as part of our efforts to improve services to students with special needs.

Unfortunately, students with special needs are often misunderstood. A lack of understanding about students with developmental and mental health needs leads many such students to achieve well below their grade level, putting them at risk of not completing high school and struggling with post-secondary opportunities like college and career.

However, research shows that the overwhelming majority of these students can meet the same standards if given the right supports.

In addition to Therapeutic Day, the foundation supports inclusive schools like Westside Innovative School House (WISH) Charter School, which enrolls students with mild, moderate and severe needs within the same classrooms as more typically developing students.

At WISH Charter School in Los Angeles, students of different ability levels stay together throughout the day.

Located in Los Angeles, WISH Charter School offers an inclusive education that benefits both students with special needs and general education students. Based on the successful inclusive CHIME Charter School in suburban Woodland Hills, Calif., WISH serves a wide range of ability levels in grades K-12.

“When we raise these little ones together in classrooms that value all people, we teach kids to care for and support and value diversity,” says WISH founder and principal Shawna Draxton, who previously worked at CHIME. “We expect our classrooms to be a microcosm of society. It’s really important to us that we don’t marginalize or separate folks due to ability.”

At WISH, students of different ability levels stay together throughout the day. Special education and general education teachers “co-teach” classes, and specialists come in to support students throughout the day.

This model benefits all students. Parent Ivey Steinberg sent her son Jack — who lives with a condition called optic nerve hypoplasia that causes vision and speech impairments — to several other schools that struggled to accommodate his needs, which include several specialized devices to help Jack move and communicate.

Ivey enrolled Jack at WISH beginning in second grade and watched his school experience drastically improve — so much so that Ivey later helped WISH expand to serve middle and high school students.

Because WISH accommodates Jack’s needs alongside other students, Ivey says her ninth grade son is now a star student, particularly in math.

“Here’s this kid who uses a wheelchair and who people may suppose is not as bright because his articulation isn’t as good as his peers, but nobody ever questions whether or not he can do the work,” she explains. “They don’t shine a spotlight on his disability, he’s one of the gang.”

Seeds of Opportunity is a storytelling series recognizing 30 partners the Walton Family Foundation has worked with over the years to build better schools, protect our environment and improve quality of life in our home region through culture, recreation and the arts. They are people and organizations who – through creativity, imagination and urgency – are advancing opportunity for people and communities at home and around the world.
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