Special needs students accelerate with scholarship program

For years, Denny and Barb Wetzel rarely heard good reports from school about their son Jonathan.
Annie Zelm
Nov 18, 2011


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



Here? In Sandusky? KUDOS.


Tom Tucker, get on your P's And Q's then!!!!!!!  Your system is lacking empathy for students who need Individualized Education Programs!!  Your disregard is the reason that parents and students are frustrated and dissastified.  You do a disservice to the students and to the community as a whole when you do nothing to encourage students that require intervention in their education.  This is the reason that so many eventually drop out.  Your lack of committment to these students is the primary reason that they continue to have low self esteem because your "IDEA" relies on punishment which it claims to discourage.  

The reason that street gangs among youngsters have suddenly taken an uprising in our community in the last couple of years is due to the fact that these are the individuals who share a common identity that were and are being cast out.  They are creating their own society where they will be respected and understood. 

The No Child Left Behind Act helps to encourage and reinforce an inability to provide attention to these students. 

Your main concern is for the MONEY you will be losing is absolutely disgraceful.  


I agree.  Tucker's response is odd, but not surprising.  Where is the effort to improve?  I've never been a fan of voucher programs, but at least they force some measure of accountability.  I guess educators can either spew excuses or look for ways to improve.


How much is allotted towards a typical student rather than a special needs student? I'm not trying to sound hard, but at who's expense is all this, the typical students? I'm not familiar with Autism, but how will these children function etc in mainstream society, how do they now (the adults)?


The school systems in Ohio receive 25,000.00 per year per student with a diagnosis of Autism, Asperger's or PDD-NOS. The scholarship money comes out of that 25K....the public school of the system in which the child lives receives the remaining 5K. What is NOT mentioned here is that when that 25K comes into a school system, whatever is not spent on the student can be spent in any way the school sees fit. I can see why school systems gripe about children (and their state-funded monies) going elsewhere...but I don't feel bad about it. Just like everything else, there are good schools and there are bad schools....there are schools that don't fit every child's needs. Some schools make you into a raving lunatic trying to get what's best for your child when they don't fit the cookie-cutter...other schools do what they can to help your child in whatever way possible. To answer your question SimpleEnough, how these children will be as adults has a lot to do with what happens with them as children...and how severe their symptoms. Some children with more severe symptoms of autism are non-verbal, very much in a "world of their own" and may always be that way. Other children with autism, while socially awkward, are literal genuises. Like anything else, if the "symptoms" are not addressed, they aren't going to improve. I can tell you from this article that I am sure glad I don't have to deal with Tom Tucker....and he can be glad that he doesn't have to deal with me.


SMF1, Thanks for the explanation. So the State of Ohio allocates $25,000 per student or is this just per student with the conditions that you had mentioned? Thanks.


@ SMF1

So I'm wondering if I can locate information on funding for students with other disabilities than Autism or Aspergers?  Are you aware if there are scholarships for all students that have been implemented into IEP's? 


SimpleEnough - not sure about now, but in 2009 the State said it should cost $5732 to educate a "normal" kid.  But they don't give the district that much.  The amount they give the district depends on the wealth of the community, so most districts (even around here) get MUCH less than than that and have to raise the rest locally.


Czechurself and SimpleEnough....you can get that info through the Ohio Department of Education. I couldn't tell you what other diagnoses receive from the state....you can call ODE and obtain that information. If ODE doesn't give it to you (though they should) you'd probably be able to obtain the info from the county parent mentor (she's also listed on the ODE website along with contact information...I'm Huron county so the parent mentor may be different if you live in another county). I know the 25K figure because my daughter has high-functioning autism so it's what I know :) I don't know about other diagnoses such as ADD, CP, etc. But like I said, I know you can get that info through the ODE.