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School Types and Options

Introduction

Getting the best education possible is vital to all children and youth, particularly those with special needs. Finding the right school or other educational setting can be a challenge for parents. There are many things to keep in mind when making this choice, such as the child’s needs, abilities, and unique personality. This page gives information about the types of schools and other educational choices available, in order to help parents decide what would work best for their child.

Public Schools

Public schools are the first option available to most parents, and they are an excellent choice for many families. A child with special needs will likely need more assistance than other children, but Federal law mandates that every child receive a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment (LRE) possible.
Children with special needs are often entitled to receive additional services or accommodations through the public schools. To support your child and her ability to learn in school, there are three Federal laws that apply specifically to children with special needs:
As a parent, you can ask for a free evaluation of your child to determine his or her needs for special education and/or related services.
  • Contact your child’s school district or your local Head Start program to set up an evaluation that may involve:
    • Psychological and educational testing
    • Speech and language evaluation
    • Occupational therapy assessment
    • Behavioral analysis.
  • The results of the evaluation determine your child's eligibility for a range of services under the applicable law.
  • After the evaluation, an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or 504 plan may be developed for your child.
  • Examples of the types of services detailed in IEPs involve occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech and language therapy, and/or a classroom aide.
Children with special needs are entitled to special education services in school under federal and state laws, but parents do not determine whether their child is eligible for these services. Parents are, however, permitted (and encouraged) to participate in the development of the IEP. For more information about IEPs, see Wrightslaw.
The findings of a school's evaluation team are not final. You have the right to appeal their findings and decision. The school is required to provide you with information about how to make an appeal. As a parent, advocating for your child involves being proactive and taking the steps needed to make sure your child gets appropriate services. Our Advocacy/Finding Your Voice section has more information to help you work within the system.

Charter Schools

Charter schools are public schools. They run on public funds and are open to all students, including those with special needs. What makes a charter school different from a standard public school is that each charter school is run by a parent board, and sets its own goals and focus, which means they differ widely across the United States. The overall goal of a charter school is to provide more choices for students and parents without additional cost.
Charter schools are often known for their small class sizes and high parent involvement. They are based on voluntary enrollment, making them more accountable to parents and student outcomes. As a result, they are given some level of autonomy: they may hire their own staff, develop their own curriculum (course of study), and develop their own programs, although charter schools in many states are evaluated according to student performance on standardized tests, and funds are allocated to each school depending upon the number of students enrolled.
The adaptability and unique setting of a charter school may be a wonderful fit for your child with special needs, and there are even some that are aimed toward specific disabilities. As your child’s advocate, your role is to find what will work best for your child by researching and asking questions about the schools and programs in your area.

Private Schools

There are many private school choices for children with special needs. Some are disability specific. For example, there are schools that offer specific therapeutic interventions for autism, and schools for children with visual or hearing impairment. There may be a school that offers teaching and activities geared specifically for your child. Some children thrive in a school that has a specific focus on their particular challenges.
Private schools tend to have smaller classes and are likely to have more one-on-one learning. Many special needs schools will have experts on staff to support your child and your family through your journey. For some families, the cost of private school tuition may be a hard or impossible choice, but there may be special needs grants and scholarships to help cover the cost of private schools. Contact your Parent Training and Information Center at Center for Parent Information & Resources Locator for information on any grants or scholarships available in your area.

Alternative School Options

Alternative education opportunities are available to families seeking less traditional educational settings. There are a number of approaches to teaching and learning that may be more helpful to meet the individual needs of your child. Home-based educational alternatives differ widely, but all emphasize the value of an individualized education versus a standardized approach to teaching, learning, and testing.
Homeschooling
The goal of any education is to get the most out of the learning experience, and some parents decide that homeschooling offers the best educational opportunity for their child.
  • If you make this decision, your child may be helped by an education based on his strengths and personality, and he can get additional attention to help him overcome his challenges.
  • Another advantage is that your child will not get lost in the shuffle of a large classroom size, limited supplies and books, and the negative aspects of peer pressure.
There are some disadvantages to home schooling, too.
  • For example, a homeschooled child may miss out on extracurricular activities, social skill building, and problem-solving challenges, as well as the rewards of developing friendships with peers.
  • Many parents who choose to homeschool their child make an effort to enroll their child in community sports or recreational activities, or they team up with other parents and homeschooled children.
    • This team approach can help children to develop social skills and ease the task load for all of the parents involved.
Online Education and Schools
If you’ve chosen to homeschool your child, you face the challenge of creating lessons and curriculum. There are many useful resources online. Virtual textbooks, online lesson plans, or even online schools, virtual classrooms, and technology-based “e-learning” may meet your child’s needs. A clear advantage of online classes is that they can take place anywhere, as long as you have a reliable internet connection.
Online education can take many shapes. Online classes offer advanced instructional tools, plenty of hands-on learning opportunities, and curriculum that is based on trusted print and online resources. They also provide elective courses specific to your child’s interests. Online education comes with many learning choices that can be adapted or chosen so your child can be successful and encouraged to keep learning. Some charter schools offer online classes, and in this case no fees are required (charter schools are public schools).
Online classes differ in their approach, including synchronous and asynchronous options. Asynchronous options allow students more flexibility about when they complete their lessons, while synchronous options give more interaction with teachers and other online students. Teachers who work in online schools support their students by using online messaging, phone calls, online web meetings, and sometimes face-to-face sessions, depending on the school and the teacher. Parents play a role in keeping their child on track by helping them complete their lessons.
A great way to find online resources and to decide if e-learning or a virtual classroom is the best fit for your child is to talk with other families who have children in these virtual learning environments, and then consider the pros and cons. All children and families are unique, and finding the best educational opportunities for each is challenging, but you can accomplish it if you do your homework!
Homeschooling it is! Now, where do we begin?
If you decide to homeschool your child, you’ll want to start by checking into your state’s legal requirements, and considering what, if any, adaptations you may need to make for your child’s disability or special needs. There are many support groups and on-line forums for families who have chosen to homeschool their child. Make sure the online resources you choose are reputable sources of information by doing your own research. A great starting point is K12 Academics.
If you’re exploring online education for your child, you’ll want to consider the following questions:
  • What is the correct process to withdraw your child from public school so there is no question of truancy?
  • Is there legal paperwork to file with the state in order to homeschool?
  • What is your state’s compulsory attendance law? (Children in in a certain age range are required to spend a specific amount of time being educated.)
  • What curriculum materials does your state require?
  • What are your state’s requirements regarding testing and assessment?
  • Does your state officially recognize graduation for homeschoolers? If so, what are the graduation requirements?
A key point to remember is that all education environments offer specific and helpful opportunities for children to learn. But as a parent, only you can determine which environment is most helpful and suitable for your child.

Resources

Information & Support

For Parents and Patients

National Charter School Directory
In this site you can search for Charter Schools by location.

Center for Parent Information and Resources (DOE)
Parent centers in every state provide training to parents of children with disabilities and provide information about special education, transition to adulthood, health care, support groups, local conferences and other federal, state, and local services. This link has a search tool to help you find the parent center in your state; Department of Education, Office of Special Education.

Services in New Mexico

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Nonpublic Special Schools

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Public Schools

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Public Special Schools

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School Districts

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Special Needs Schools, Other

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Authors & Reviewers

Initial publication: July 2013; last update/revision: December 2018
Current Authors and Reviewers:
Author: Gina Pola-Money
Reviewers: Tina Persels
Shena McAuliffe, MFA