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Special needs students accelerate with scholarship program

Annie Zelm • Nov 18, 2011 at 10:30 AM

For years, Denny and Barb Wetzel rarely heard good reports from school about their son Jonathan.

The 9-year-old boy is autistic and has behavioral problems that can lead to violent meltdowns.

Something as simple as a new bus driver, or even a trip to a busy grocery store, can result in a full-blown tantrum.

So when they received a glowing evaluation from Jonathan’s new teacher last year, they assumed there’d been a mistake.  The couple had tried several public schools without much luck — at one school he lasted only a few weeks.

“The teachers didn’t know how to handle him,” Denny said. “They were treating him as a juvenile delinquent when it wasn’t his fault; it was autism.”

After he started attending the Haugland Learning Center in Sandusky last year, the Wetzels said he thrived in a way they’d never expected.

The private charter school at 514 Jackson St. is designed for children with autism and emphasizes positive reinforcement, rather than punishment, to change behavior.

Jonathan still throws tantrums at school — last week, he broke a window — but his teacher Sarah Lemle is trained to react to his impulses. Rather than restraining him, she gives him a time-out to cool down.

A recent progress report from the school shows he’s mastered his ABCs, can count to 100 and is learning to read.

“It’s very encouraging,” Barb said. “I think they’ve done wonders with Jonathan. He’s really grown a lot.”

The individualized attention at the school comes at a cost that’s higher than the yearly tuition at many colleges.

The Wetzels said they’d never be able to afford it without the $20,000 scholarship they receive each year from the state.

In fact, all of the 10 students who attend the school receive funding from the Ohio Department of Education’s autism scholarship program, Haugland Learning Center assistant director Kathy Fox said.

The scholarship has been available for several years, providing up to $20,000 a year for parents who want to send their children to a private provider. It has typically applied only to students with autism.

But starting in January, students with other disabilities will have the same opportunities.

The state budget finalized in June created the Jon Peterson Special Needs Scholarship Program, which allows students with learning disabilities, health problems, brain injuries or other disabilities to receive funding.

Depending on their needs, students are eligible for up to $20,000 that can be used for tuition at private or public schools, if the school chooses to accept them.

The special needs scholarship movement started in Florida, and at least six other states now offer them.

“This will give families who are frustrated and dissatisfied a choice and an option,” said Chad Aldis, executive director of School Choice Ohio, an advocacy group that promotes educational options.

“It will also encourage school districts who have a vested interest to make sure they’re serving those students,” Aldis said. “Previously, the option was, you can go elsewhere if you can afford it, or you can go to court. We think this will empower a lot of Ohio families.”

The number of scholarships available is capped at 5 percent of the population of students with special needs.

Ohio has about 260,000 students with special needs, which means about 13,000 scholarships will be available, according to the department of education.

But some school superintendents worry that the scholarships will funnel money away from the district while still holding them responsible.

Sandusky Schools, for instance, has more than 600 students with special needs ranging from speech impairments to multiple handicaps. The district attracts special needs students from all over the region.

“Anytime they take money out of the district, it concerns me,” Sandusky Schools superintendent Tom Tucker said. “We have to accept every single student — a private school does not. We have a myriad of services in this district with a lot of educators who have been doing this a long time.”

The specifics of the scholarship program are still under review by the Ohio Department of Education.

Tucker said it’s not yet clear how it could impact a district like Sandusky’s.

It’s also not clear how many other options might be available for families here — currently, there are only two local providers in the five-county area where the autism scholarship is accepted.

Families may have to travel as far as Cleveland, Toledo or Columbus to take advantage of it, unless other providers come to town.

And no matter where a student goes, Tucker said, the district still has to keep track of them in some way.

Public schools partner with parents and others to write an individualized education plan for each student with special needs. Those plans are reviewed each year and would still need to be reviewed if the student chooses to go elsewhere, Tucker said.

“When these students would go to a private provider, we are responsible for their IEP, administrating tests for that, psychological testing — we are still going to be paying for that,” he said.

Other options

The following is a list of area providers where parents can use the autism scholarship. It’s unclear what other providers may be added to the list as the scholarship program expands to include other disabilities.

• Abilities Pediatric Therapy, 4806 Timber Commons Drive, Sandusky: 419-621-1166

• Haugland Learning Center, 514 Jackson St., Sandusky (headquarters in Columbus): 614-602-6473

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