Back-to-school season is arguably the most stressful time of year for families recalibrating after the long summer break. But for parents of children who face attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, dysgraphia, and other learning challenges, every month of the school year can be a white-knuckle ride.
“A competitive mainstream classroom requires you to be an expert generalist. You have to turn up every single day and be good at every single subject, and if you’re not, you have to show up tomorrow and fail again,” says Dr. Scott Gaynor, head of school at the Stephen Gaynor School, an independent special education school for children with learning differences on the Upper West Side.
“In school you’re held accountable for everything. That’s a big burden for a child to handle.”
New York’s unique educational landscape, with its academically competitive, mission-focused private and specialty public schools, can make that burden intolerable for children with learning differences — sometimes called “learning disabilities,” depending on the educator.
Unfortunately, however hardworking or bright a child may be (and by definition, a child diagnosed with a “learning disability” (LD) is intelligent but has an underlying academic challenge that impedes their ability to reach their potential), there is a limited tolerance among New York’s independent schools for accommodating a wide range of learners. The child who struggles to keep up often ends up being counseled out.
“New York is a boutique city, and I think the schools reflect that,” Dr. Gaynor says. “If you put your child in a school for kindergarten, you may not understand right away what their learning style is and what the best match is, but very soon you’ll find out that, whether it’s a progressive school or a more structured traditional school, your child may not fit that mold.”
The good news is that New York is home to some of the country’s most renowned special education schools for children with these kinds of learning challenges. Independent, coeducational special ed schools such as Stephen Gaynor, co-founded by Dr. Gaynor’s grandmother in 1962; the Windward School in lower Manhattan (sister to the Westchester campus in White Plains); the Gateway School on the Upper West Side; and Mary McDowell Friends School in Brooklyn, among others, excel at teaching nontraditional learners with highly skilled educators and individualized programs, which include multisensory instruction and class sizes as small as three students.
“Our kids need specialized teaching methods, accommodations, and modifications for them to be successful,” explains Debbie Zlotowitz, head of school at the Quaker college preparatory school Mary McDowell, which has three campuses in Brooklyn. “We have to have a huge toolbox, because kids learn differently, and at different rates. They need to have teachers who will adapt their materials to meet them where they are. You need to be able to work with all different modalities because you need to see how kids are processing information. Do they do it through the auditory channel, the visual channel, the kinesthetic channel, or a combination? So we ask, ‘What are the different tools we have to reach students?’”
A learning disabilities school may come with a hefty price tag — tuition can cost up to $20,000 a year more than the average mainstream city independent school — but under Federal law, New York families can seek reimbursement for a large proportion of the tuition from the NYC Department of Education through the Carter funding law.
For those families who cannot afford to pay the tuition upfront, the Connors funding provision allows families to have their tuition “directly funded” by their school district. (In order to pursue Carter or Connors funding, parents must file for an “impartial hearing.”) And many parents feel a specialized education is worth any price when considering not just the academic but also the emotional toll on a child who repeatedly struggles in the wrong learning environment.
“Adolescence is tough enough,” says Dr. Gaynor. “You don’t want to add the stigma of not being successful in school.”
This is why educators in the special ed field always recommend acting sooner rather than later. “I’m a huge believer in early intervention,” says Dr. Gaynor, whose school begins at pre-K. “As you get older the issues become more complex, and it’s not only the learning challenges that the students have, it’s their emotional approach to learning that may be the barrier, which can become more solidified as they experience failure in school.”
With early remediation, some children go on from schools such as Stephen Gaynor and Windward, both of which end at eighth grade, to competitive mainstream private and public schools, while other students opt to remain in a specialized education setting through high school.
Mary McDowell Friends School is one of the few LD schools in the city with a high school (the Churchill School and Center on East 29th Street is another).
“We felt we could offer a high school education, and offer it well,” Zlotowitz explains of the decision to add an upper school to the lower and middle schools. “We really wanted to see our students complete the process of being ready to go to college.”
Which brings us to the elephant in the room for all parents of children with LDs. “Will my child go to a good college?” is the question every parent asks. With the right specialized education, says Zlotowitz, the answer is an emphatic “yes.”
“Our kids get into excellent colleges, some of the top colleges,” she says, listing Vassar, Smith, George Washington, Wesleyan, and NYU among the universities the 2020 graduating class was accepted by. “That’s because they get the support they need to be really successful. You need to know what you need to learn, and you need to know how to advocate for yourself, and you need to know how to get the accommodations you require. Then you will be successful throughout.”
Dr. Gaynor agrees: “With the right support, these kids go on to do great things, get into great colleges, and have big careers.”
Also read: The 7 Best Special Education Schools in NYC