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FAQ: Private Schools and Students with Disabilities

questions-and-answersQ: What are private schools required to do in order to serve students with disabilities?

A:  Unlike public schools, private schools (K-12) are not required to follow federal and state special education laws. If parents make a decision on their own to enroll their child in a private school, they should understand that the school has a lot of power to decide how much they are willing to do in order to serve that child. This is true whether the child has a disability or not.

Private schools do have to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA requires basic access to a private school’s buildings and programs. Students cannot be discriminated against, treated unequally, or isolated because of their disability. Private schools can set admission requirements, but they cannot intentionally screen out applicants with disabilities who are otherwise qualified to attend.

Private schools must make “reasonable modifications” to policies, practices and procedures to provide equal access. They are required to provide aids and services to allow people with vision, hearing or speech impairments to communicate effectively. Private schools are not required to provide modifications, accommodations, aids or services that would create an excessive burden for them. When deciding exactly how to meet the needs of a student, parent or employee with a disability, factors can be considered such as how the cost of the aid or service compares to the overall resources available to the school. If resources are very limited, a school can choose less expensive options.

Private schools do not have to provide special education instruction or services like speech, occupational or physical therapy.

Private schools do not have to fundamentally alter their program in order to accommodate a student’s disability. For example, a school that has an identity based on having an advanced curriculum can remove a student who was working well below grade level. A school that focuses on hands-on learning in the natural outdoor environment can refuse to serve a student who is extremely fearful of most animals and insects.

We are often asked about what private schools are required to do by law. However, there are many private schools that voluntarily go beyond the minimum requirements. Some offer extra academic instruction for struggling students. Some will try hard to work with a student who has behavior challenges. If your child has a disability and you are thinking about private school, you should look at more than test scores or college acceptance rates. Ask if they offer additional support for students who need it. Pay attention to body language and other clues when you speak with school staff. Those may tell you a lot about how willing the school is to make an extra effort to help all of their students succeed.

Worried that your child may be retained?

Mother and daughter using smart phoneAt this very moment, many parents are very worried about the possibility that their child might be required to repeat their current grade. Many of these parents have received one or more letters notifying them that their child was at risk for retention because they were not meeting grade-level expectations for learning. These are often form letters that are sent automatically based on the child’s performance on academic testing done at several points during the school year. In many schools, the warning letters do not take into account that the student may have an identified disability.

With only a couple of exceptions, North Carolina’s public school law gives principals sole authority to determine what grade a student is assigned to. The exceptions include 3rd grade, when the Read to Achieve law mandates retention of any child who does not demonstrate “proficient” (grade level) reading skills on the End-of-Grade (EOG) assessment. Principals can request a “good cause exemption” for students who meet certain criteria. Students who have Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) based on disabilities that impact reading are eligible for such an exemption. The tricky thing about this is that the principal is not required to request the exemption. They can still choose to retain students who have this kind of disability. In high school, students are assigned to a grade based on the number and type of course credits they have earned. However, a high school principal can decide to assign a student to a homeroom that is different from the grade shown on their official transcript.

Parents do not have to just sit and wait anxiously for that last report card. There are things that they can do to try to help their child.

If you get a letter in January or February warning you about possible retention, you can contact your child’s teacher(s) to get more information about why the letter was sent. If your child is not learning at the expected rate, you can ask about what actions have been, or can be taken, to help them make more progress. For a child who does not have an IEP, this might mean starting or intensifying research-based interventions as part of a multi-tiered system of support (MTSS).

If your child has disability and receives supports as part of a Section 504 Accommodation Plan, you might want to consider asking for an evaluation to see if the child now needs special education services. If your child already has an IEP, you can request an IEP Team meeting to consider making adjustments to instruction and/or supports to improve learning.

Under any condition, it would still be a good idea to meet with the school principal to discuss your concerns about possible retention. Most public schools are too large to expect a principal to know each child well. You can discuss potential pros and cons for your child. For example, you can explain why it might make more sense to promote your child to the next grade with targeted supports and services, than to require the child repeat the entire curriculum of his/her current grade. You can also take that opportunity to share additional information about your child that the principal can consider as he/she makes their decision.

The principal does have the authority to make the final decision about retaining or promoting your child. However, you can try to influence that decision before it is made. You can also continue to advocate for your child to get the instruction and services that he/she needs next year, regardless of the grade they are assigned.

Is your child in the right courses?

For students in middle and high school it is extremely important for parents to keep up with the courses that they are taking. The classes should offer the right amount of challenge (not too easy, not too hard). They should be preparing your child for whatever their goals are for life after high school. More importantly, the courses need to be chosen so that they meet the graduation requirements for your school system. With many schools using computer programs to create schedules for students, it’s not hard for the needs of individual students to be overlooked.

For many students who have disabilities, course selection is even more critical. For some students it will be important to make sure that they are placed in the course sections that are co-taught by both regular education and special education teachers. This can offer real-time assistance and support to help students be successful with grade-level material. The co-taught classes can be selected in the areas most likely impacted by the student’s disability. Sometimes the assumption is made that, because the student has an IEP, they should automatically be placed in the lowest level course available. This approach would keep many students from building on their strengths to reach their full potential. Students who need support in some subjects can also take typical or even honors classes in subjects that are areas of strength for them.

These days, most high schools are using block schedules that cover the entire content of a course during a single semester. It may be important to make sure that the courses that will be most challenging for your child are not all piled into the same semester. With thoughtful planning, the school can create a schedule that spreads the work load out more evenly. For example, your child can take two really hard classes at the same time plus a support class and an elective in an area of interest. This kind of planning from the very beginning will usually allow students to complete all of their graduation requirements within 4 years so they can graduate with their peers. Even if they have to pick up a summer class or return for an extra semester, the goal is that the student experiences success and gains knowledge that will help them throughout their life. The extra time will be well spent.

Parents also need to look out for other kinds of scheduling problems:

  • Make sure that courses are taken in the right sequence. The level 1 course should come before the level 2 course.
  • Make sure that your child is not assigned to a course that they have already successfully completed. With rare exceptions, they will not earn course credit the second time around.
  • Make sure that your child was not placed in an elective course that they have no interest in, or one that is a poor fit, just because there was space in that class. Forcing an extremely shy kid to take a drama class will probably not end well.
  •  Make sure that your child is on track to graduate when expected. Your child could be taking math and science classes that are counted as “electives” that do not meet the graduation requirements for that subject area. If your child comes up short by missing even a single graduation requirement, they will not get a diploma. At least once a year have your child’s guidance counselor review the courses that your child has taken and compare them to the courses required for graduation.

Read your child’s class schedule carefully as soon as you get it.  If you see anything on that doesn’t look right, contact staff at the school immediately.  Go to the school in person if you need to.  The sooner any problems are corrected, the easier it will be for your child, and the better their educational experience will be.

School Transitions: Are You Ready?

This is the time of year when one school year winds down and we start thinking about the next year. Perhaps you have a child who will simply be moving from one grade to another in the same school.  Or maybe your child is facing a more dramatic transition such as:

  • Starting Pre-school for the first time
  • Entering Kindergarten
  • Moving from Elementary to Middle School
  • Beginning High School

It’s time to move from thinking to planning!  Take steps to make this transition as smooth as possible by gathering information about what might be coming up, and sharing important information about your child with the right people.


If your child is staying at the same school, find out what might be different for the coming year (e.g. class size, number of teachers/aides, daily schedule, curriculum, meal times, etc.).  Each of these factors could  impact your child and may require some changes in how your child’s needs are met.  You might also want to speak with the Principal about the classroom environment and/or teacher styles that are likely to be successful or unsuccessful for your child.  Hopefully, the Principal will use this information to make a good match when class assignments are made.

If your child is moving to a new school, you will still want to know the things mentioned above, PLUS,

  • Visit the new school to check out the physical layout and ask about a typical day
  • Request a transition IEP meeting to discuss and make decisions about any changes that may be needed to the IEP as far as accommodations, modifications, supports, services and/or goals
  • For many children, it is helpful for them to have an opportunity to walk through the new school and possibly see their classroom(s) and meet their teacher(s) sometime before school starts

Most importantly, stay positive and help your child feel good about the upcoming school year!

Do you have any other tips or ideas that could help parents?  Feel free to share them with us as we continue to move toward the 2012-2013 school year.