Curious Incident Podcast Episode 8: Understanding Private School Admissions
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(LISTEN) The Curious Incident Podcast: Episode 8: Understanding Private School Admissions
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About this episode:
New York City Special Education Attorney Adam Dayan sits down with Linda Gardner to discuss the admissions process for private special education schools. Linda is the Director of Admission at the Aaron School, a private school in New York City that provides a rigorous academic program and a strong social skills program for students with learning, language, and attention challenges. Linda has served in this role for the last 20 years. Linda received her B.A. in Psychology from Hobart and William Smith Colleges (Geneva, NY), and earned an M.A. in Learning Disabilities from Columbia University Teacher’s College (New York, NY) and a SAS from Columbia University Teacher’s College (New York, NY). She holds an Elementary Education Certification from New York State (K through 6).
If you have questions about special needs children and their education that were not covered in the podcast or need guidance about how you should move forward, please contact the Law Office of Adam Dayan, PLLC at 646-866-7157 to discuss your particular circumstances.
About the Law Offices of Adam Dayan, PLLC
Adam Dayan Esq. is a New York special needs attorney. Established in 2009, the Law Offices of Adam Dayan, PLLC has the primary purpose of making sure children with special needs receive a quality education and long-term financial security.
Transcript - Episode 8: Understanding Private School Admissions
Speaker 1: This is Curious Incident, a podcast for special needs families and your window into the world of special education. Parenting can be challenging and we want to make it easier by providing you with the resources you need to best help your child. Let's delve deep into the world of special education with your host, Adam Dayan.
Adam Dayan: I am excited to present my next guest on this podcast, Linda Gardner. Linda is the Director of Admission at the Aaron School, a private school in New York City that provides a rigorous academic program and a strong social skills program for students with learning, language and attention challenges. Linda has served in this role for the last 20 years. Prior to that, she was a teacher, learning specialist and director of development at a special education school in New York. Linda has a bachelor of arts in psychology and a Master of Arts in Education and Teaching of Individuals With Specific Learning Disabilities. Linda, it's great to be with you here today.
Linda Gardner: Great to be here as well.
Adam Dayan: Nice to see you in person.
Linda Gardner: Thanks for having me. Yes.
Adam Dayan: Tell me a little bit more about you. What makes your approach or outlook unique given your particular background, skills and experiences?
Linda Gardner: So, as you mentioned, I did start my career out as a special ed teacher and became a learning specialist. So because of my past teaching experience, I really have an understanding of the special ed student. I understand the relationship of the student and the teacher, and I also understand how parents are feeling throughout their children's educational years. I think that knowing all of this really helps me understand what students will be appropriate for the Aaron School program.
Adam Dayan: Those must be such helpful perspectives to have as you're touring families around the school and talking to them about what they're going through, that experience of having been in the classroom, having been a learning specialist and director.
Linda Gardner: It does. And it continues because when I meet with parents and when I explain who we are as a school and when I explain why I think their children are or are not appropriate for us, I really can use my background knowledge of sitting in teacher conferences with parents and explaining how children learn.
So it's a unique perspective. I don't know that all admissions directors have ever been in a classroom, but it also helps me understand when I'm at school and I have to cover a class because a teacher has a CSE meeting or they're absent and I am able to understand classroom behavior plans and classroom management.
Adam Dayan: That's wonderful. Tell our listeners, what does a Director of Admissions do? Can you describe a day in the life?
Linda Gardner: The best part of my job is that no day is ever the same. I never know what I will walk into at 7:45 and I find that really exciting. I started at the Aaron School when it began in 2002, and because the school was so small, all admin took on a lot of roles and that was great. So I sometimes help with the arrival of the students or I have to talk to a parent or a student who comes off the bus in a somewhat grumpy mood. I might cover a class if a teacher has a CSE meeting or is out sick. Again, every morning is just very different. But once I settle into my office, I go through all my emails, I respond to the most pressing ones, I save the rest for later. I answer all of my messages, again, deal with the most urgent ones, leave the rest for later. And these days my calendar's filled with prospective parent Google meets or professional Google meets or school meetings via Google meets. I spend a lot of time on the phone. I speak with prospective parents, I listen to their stories, I try and help them decide whether Aaron could be appropriate place for their child. I speak with evaluators, I speak with lawyers. I hear about prospective students and so I guess I just do a lot of listening.
Adam Dayan: What's the most challenging part of your job?
Linda Gardner: I think the most challenging part of the admissions job is that we as a team want to help obviously every student that applies and we will do everything we can to try and make the fit happen. But on occasion, and it's not often, but it does happen, a child is not appropriate for us. And having that hard, ethical and honest conversation with the parents as to why what we saw and what I think might be a better fit is really very hard.
Adam Dayan: How does that conversation go typically?
Linda Gardner: I want to say usually the parents are in agreement and they understand, and I would say eight out of 10 times, that's the response. But on the rarer occasions, I get met with anger and upsetness and disbelief and "Please try." And when I point out why and what we do and who we serve best and why I don't think their child is an appropriate fit, it's hard. It's hard. It's hard to hear.
Adam Dayan: So what words do you have for those families who may be set on Aaron School and are coming to you and then hear from your team that you don't think it's the right fit? What should they be keeping in mind when they come to meet with you?
Linda Gardner: So I'm really a true believer that kids, when in the right setting, will really do beautifully well. And I often offer up to parents the opportunity to come back in a year, in two years, in three years. And I say, "If things change, if the education of your child is more secure, if their language has come in, we are more than happy to revisit and have another look."
Adam Dayan: So they have that glimmer of hope that could come back in the future if it's right, but it's super important for them to find the right placement, right, the appropriate placement.
Linda Gardner: The appropriate placement at the immediate time is the most important thing you could do for your child. But yes, I give a glimmer of hope and I like to think it's more than just hope because I do think that I mean it and I have seen it. And I think in 20 years, the beauty of that is that I have seen children come back and they present very differently a few years later because they had got the intervention they needed at the time when they needed it.
Adam Dayan: Okay. What's unique about the population you serve? Can you talk a little bit about the kinds of diagnoses and issues that the students you work with typically present with?
Linda Gardner: So we serve a diverse set of learning and social needs students who present with average to above average IQs. I think the IQ score is just a number and parents often get a little bit stuck on that number. And when I say average to above average, they know that their child's score might be a little bit lower. We look at scores that are lower because what we're really looking for is the diversity and the scatter and we dissect all the scores and understand why they're that number. So if the child's struggling with a speech and language issue, their verbal score will be lower and therefore their overall scores will be depressed.
So we look into that part of it. So it's not just a hard fast number that informs us. It's part of the bigger piece. The types of learning challenges that we accept are, or that we look at, are students with language and learning issues, attention issues, LD, ADHD, anxiety, executive functioning problems, dyslexia, pragmatic language issues, high functioning ASD, all primary learning challenges. We do not accept students with primary behavioral challenges. So the child who's ED or ODD or conduct disorder, we're not the right school for them.
Adam Dayan: What does the school admission application itself look like or require?
Linda Gardner: The application now, as of this year, is online. It is a pretty standard application. There's no essay, it's just more demographic, biographical information. We do require a completed neuropsych that's current within a year, possibly two years if the child is applying for an older grade, two years is acceptable, although the more current the better. We would like to see any speech, OT, or any other evals that support your child's application, the child's application rather. And for high school applicants, we need to see a current transcript. We need teacher recommendations for all ages.
Speaker 1: You're listening to Curious Incident, a podcast for special needs families with your host, Adam Dayan.
Adam Dayan: So you mentioned the neuropsychological evaluation and I'd like to focus on that. Talk a little bit about what role does the neuropsychological evaluation play in the admission process from your perspective?
Linda Gardner: So as I previously stated, along with the application, we do need to see a psychological. And the reason why we feel it is the one of the most important documents we can start the process with is because it gives us an understanding of what's behind the scores. We're able to really understand if a student can be appropriate for us by looking at the scatter, by looking at where their strengths and weaknesses lie. It's an incredible insight into their development, into their learning style and their learning needs. Often the psychologist or psychiatrist or neuropsych, whoever did the eval, will often give us, or give the family, recommendations and the recommendations are often very important for them to help guide the family as to a roadmap as to what the next few years of their child's education will look like. So the psych eval coupled with the IQ score, provides a full picture of the child in addition to the academic piece and all the academic achievement tests. So it's just an amazing tool. If you look at it like it's a tool to help the families and the schools, it's an important document.
Adam Dayan: And the other evaluations you mentioned, you said speech evaluation, you said OT evaluation, what role do they play?
Linda Gardner: They are not gatekeepers in terms of opening up the application file for us, but should a family come to the Aaron School and receive speech or OT services, we will need current evals or updated notes because we are not an evaluation site. We provide the services of speech and OT, but we can't evaluate the students. So we need something current to tell us, "Oh, the child is starting at this level or the child has just remediated this part of their speech," so we know where to start from. It's a jumping off point.
Adam Dayan: Makes sense. Can you talk about the differences in the admissions process for high school students versus elementary or middle school students?
Linda Gardner: So high school students, it is a bit of a different process, but the paperwork is the same, other than we need their transcript. The process is such that we acquire their application and their psych eval, we review them as a team, we see on paper whether or not we think this child could be a good fit for the Aaron school and if we think they could be, the high school student comes to visit the school for a full day. They follow, they shadow a student that we pair them with, they go to all eight classes with that student. Every teacher that sees that student writes up an evaluation of the student during that 45 minute class, puts it in a drive, the admissions team reads the file and we then come up with the decision as a team.
Adam Dayan: Okay. Linda, what role does a student's IEP, individualized education program, play in the admission process from your perspective?
Linda Gardner: We require it, but we do not follow it. We look at it to inform what services the child's currently receiving in the domains of OT, speech and counseling and then we look at our students and how they're functioning in our school and determine what the service distribution will be at the Aaron School. Again, we don't follow it, but we do read it. The other important thing about it, if a child requires busing and busing is checked on the IEP, the child gets free door to door busing very easily and we look to see whether they're a 10 or 12 month student. We do offer a two, four or six week summer program and if a child has a 12 month IEP, they are eligible for it. It's not mandatory and if they have a 12 month IEP, they have to attend some summer program, but we do have a summer program should they need it.
Adam Dayan: Is there anything different about the admissions process for 12 month students compared to 10 month students?
Adam Dayan: What questions do you get most often from parents, from prospective families?
Linda Gardner: I think the two most frequently asked questions, and they were asked this morning of me, "How long does my child have to stay at Aaron?" And "What's the boy-girl ratio?"
Adam Dayan: "Have to stay at Aaron," that's such an interesting phraseology.
Linda Gardner: It sure is, before they've even accepted a position there. I think the anxiety and the hesitation of parents of going into a special ed school, especially once they've been in a public school or a mainstream school, they're nervous. They don't want this as a mark on a record or on their child's transcript. And the truth is, if you were to look at our website and see where our students have been accepted into colleges, and just anecdotally, I meet with families frequently and I hear about their students and where they've gone, so many, 85 to 87% of our students who started with us 20 years ago, have attended four year mainstream colleges. And we do have a list on our website, but I do think there is that initial fear when they're starting something brand new.
Adam Dayan: What do you say to those parents who are concerned that enrolling at Aaron's School would be a mark on their children's records?
Linda Gardner: I've never said this out loud, but I think I would say the alternative is a lot worse.
Linda Gardner: By not attending to their child's learning needs, when they identify them, we'll have repercussions later on in life.
Adam Dayan: Right. I think that's an important point for parents to keep in mind because anybody involved in this process, whether it's a director of admissions or a school administrator or a special education lawyer or a neuropsychologist, everyone is trying to make sure that students with special needs get the right interventions and get them as soon as possible. And so I think that's a really important point for parents to keep in mind.
Linda Gardner: I think one of the biggest problems parents have is not acting when they know it and delaying. And learning challenges don't go away, they do need to be remediated by professionals who know the art of remediation for what their child presents with. And I do think their earlier parents get these children the support that they need, the more successful they will be later on in life.
Adam Dayan: And the other piece of what you mentioned before, the girl-boy ratio, what is the significance of that consideration? What do you say to parents who are asking about the girl-boy ratio in a classroom?
Linda Gardner: So the national norm for girl-boy ratio in the field of special ed is 80-20, and I think Aaron's School pretty much reflects that. So it's 80% boys, 20% girls. So naturally for families of girls-
Adam Dayan: 80% boys, 20% girls. Okay.
Linda Gardner: Yeah. So for families of girls, I understand their concern and the way we do get around that is we do girls lunches, we do girl groups, we do girl activities and girl applications. And girl attendance seems to pick up after fourth grade because more girls are identified coming from the mainstream after fourth grade. So our K1, 2, 3 is definitely much more boy heavy, as the children get older, the grades... I don't want to say even out, but there are many more girls as they get older.
Adam Dayan: That's interesting. Do you have any insight into why that's the case? Why are more girls identified after the fourth grade?
Linda Gardner: Well, I think that, and this is not scientific, and I'm not a doctor, but I think that girls are more school ready. So they come to kindergarten and then they sit quietly and they don't act out and they're not jumping around. So teachers just let them sit there, and the children might not be absorbing all the information that is actually being taught, but they're not disrupting it either. Boys are much more obvious. And then in third grade, after they've learned to read and they're reading to learn, girls who haven't really learned to read yet are a little bit stuck. So that's why I do see the girl uptick after third into fourth grade.
Adam Dayan: What questions should parents ask of a school to determine if it's appropriate for their children?
Linda Gardner: I think families should be cognizant of our student profile, of our academic approach, the academic and social curriculum that we use, how we will meet the needs and the social needs of their student. In addition, I think they should ask about the services that we provide that can help their student achieve their goals.
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Adam Dayan: What resources are available to parents who need help identifying which private school placements they should be considering?
Linda Gardner: I think the psychologist that possibly is doing the evaluation for their child or the psychiatrist, an educational consultant of the Parents' League, school fairs. Those are our biggest dreams of... Oh, and lawyers, actually. Lawyers give us a lot of referrals. Yeah.
Adam Dayan: How far in advance of the enrollment date do families need to apply?
Linda Gardner: So we start our tours in September and the tours are already listed on our website. They can call me, they can email me to set or to sign up for a tour. All tours, initial tours at this point, are virtual. That's our first line of defense and then we would like every family to come in, but we're only touring families in groups of two or four until this pandemic settles more. So they should start applying September, October, November or start the process September, October, November.
Adam Dayan: And is that typical? Families typically tour a school they're interested in September, the September before the school year they're considering, then apply in October or November? And do they find out sometime later in the spring about admission for the upcoming school year, is that typical?
Linda Gardner: Very typical. So we start our intake process in December and we run it through June and we continue to run it until our classes are full. We start sending out acceptance letters at the end of February, beginning of March.
Linda Gardner: And then it becomes a rolling basis.
Adam Dayan: And rolling basis meaning that there are some cases where a student might be accepted outside of the normal application process, correct?
Adam Dayan: What else do you want parents going through this school placement process to know?
Linda Gardner: I truly, truly, truly believe that it all works out and I do believe that every child lands somewhere and we keep an open mind. So as I mentioned to you earlier in the show, for parents who have applied to us and then made other decisions to go somewhere else, let's say two or three years down the road, they'd like to revisit us maybe for middle school, maybe for high school, we would love to see them again.
Adam Dayan: Linda, I really want our listeners to take away how admissions decisions are made.
Linda Gardner: So we spoke a little bit earlier about the high school admissions process. The K through seventh admissions processes is similar but different. The first step in all of the admissions, K to 12, is the review of all the students' documents. If we think on paper the K through seventh student versus the high school student seems like a good match, we'll invite the student in for just a one on one intake. If we think the high school student's appropriate, as I mentioned earlier, we take them in for a full day. The lower school, it's just a one-on-one intake, it's about 45 minutes. After that meeting, we meet as a team, we determine what the next step would be. We sometimes need more information about the child.
So the next step could be that the student comes and visits a classroom for a day or two, and we get to all observe him or her, and the teachers get to give us their input. We get to see how the child functions socially, how the child functions academically. And then I often will go visit a child in their current setting. So once we've gathered all that necessary information from all of these visits and the paperwork, the intake notes, the admissions team meets and we discuss the current academic levels and whether we think we can meet those needs, we discuss the student's social needs and whether we think we can meet those needs and then we assess our current groupings and whether the student would fit well into one of our classrooms, and then we make a decision.
Adam Dayan: And the observation at the student's current classroom setting must give you such a window into how that child is functioning.
Linda Gardner: It's fabulously informative. Yes.
Adam Dayan: I would imagine so. And what about eighth graders?
Linda Gardner: So, that's a great question. It's a little tricky. We are a K through 12, and we are K through seventh at our 45th Street campus. We're eighth through 12th at our high school campus, although eighth grade is still considered middle school. We moved our eighth graders to the high school location because we feel like our students all benefit from a lot of practice and eighth graders get the practice of being in the high school with bells going off every 45 minutes without accounting on their transcript. So it's sort of, in our mind, a way for them to experience the hustle and bustle of a high school without it counting on their transcript so that by the time they get to ninth grade, they're ready and it's not new anymore to them. And by the way, the eighth grade is still receiving eighth grade curriculum, not high school curriculum.
Adam Dayan: What happens after a decision to admit a student is made? What is your role in the next steps?
Linda Gardner: We send out... I send out an acceptance email and a contract. If it's determined that a family's pursuing Connors reimbursement, I have to send them a preliminary acceptance and vet the case very carefully. I need permission to speak to their attorney, and I would need their tax returns. And when the lawyer says the case is very strong, we move ahead with an actual acceptance and a Connors contract.
Adam Dayan: So that concept of Connors funding is so important, and I think it's really important for our listeners to know this. What you mean when you say Connors funding is that parents may be able to work out a modified financial arrangement where they're paying reduced tuition payments to the school with the understanding that they're going to pursue the special education legal process and secure the funding directly from the Department of Education, correct?
Linda Gardner: That is correct. I would say it's always been my understanding that the Connors funded families put down a deposit, as our Carter funded families do, but the Connors deposit, it has a range, and that is the only deposit they put down. The rest of the tuition gets reimbursed to us through the DOE.
Adam Dayan: So just to emphasize this even further, families who are in difficult financial circumstances would put down a deposit if they're accepted to a school like yours and then potentially not have to make further tuition payments for the time being while the legal process is pending.
Linda Gardner: That is my understanding.
Adam Dayan: And it's such a super important tool for families in difficult financial circumstances. Some families think that they're not going to be able to send their child to a special ed private school because they don't have the means, but this legal process is set up so that families in difficult financial circumstances are not left out of the private school placement process if there's not an appropriate public school program.
Linda Gardner: It 100% equals the playing field and it gives, as you just said, students who would not otherwise have the opportunity to have a private special ed education, it's not at a reduced rate, they're still paying the full tuition, it's just coming through a different stream.
Adam Dayan: Thank you for clarifying that. Linda, do you have any anecdotes you can share to make this journey more concrete for our listeners?
Linda Gardner: I think what we find, and what I have found in the last 20 or so years, is that many, many, many fathers and mothers or families are not on the same page when it comes to the education of the special new child. Many of them have other students... or other children rather, who are in mainstream and they just think that their child can figure it out or tough it out or it's going to be okay. One story that sticks in my head is we had a little boy whose mom and dad absolutely did not see the same child the same way and they had another son who was at a private school, and the mom knew very much that this child needed special ed and the father was very much against it, but the mother was able to convince the father to send him to Aaron's School. And the father picked him up on the very first day of school and the child came running down the stairs with the biggest smile on his face, literally jumping down the stairs. And the father looked so perplexed, it was intriguing, and they went off on their way. The next morning, Dad took him to school as well and he ran down the hallway and entered school... not ran, used walking feet, but walked briskly down the hallway and entered the school and then again, dad picked him up. And this went on for about a week. And after about a week, he pulled the principal of the school aside and just remarked that he never in his life thought this could happen. And he realized that not only was his wife correct, but that his child really was getting what he needed.
And it came up at every conference, it came up at any time he could grab you and say, "Thank you. Thank you." And that student was there for four years and then went on to a less restrictive environment and today is at a boarding school and doing beautifully well. And I think it's sort of represents a lot of the families at our school where there's just... it's very hard to be on the same page and it's very stressful. The decision to do it is not easy, but when you see the results, it seems so easy.
Adam Dayan: That's a really heartwarming story.
Adam Dayan: I love that story. Any other tips for parents who might be thinking about pursuing special education private school placement?
Linda Gardner: Start early. Early intervention's key. If there are any indicators that your child needs support or intervention, it's just not going to ever go away unless you get the help. So act and please don't delay.
Adam Dayan: All right. Before we conclude, I have to ask, what fuels your passion? Why do you do what you do? What drives you to get out of bed and go into school every day?
Linda Gardner: I do work with the most talented and dedicated professionals. My work environment's just amazing. I do love coming to work every day. I love my environment. But I really love the students and watching them grow and mature and laugh and have fun. It's just... it's an unreal setting.
Adam Dayan: What's one interesting fact about you?
Linda Gardner: I ran the New York City Marathon and I had two goals to finish and not come in last, and I achieved both.
Adam Dayan: Amazing. Congratulations.
Adam Dayan: Where can our listeners get more information about your school?
Linda Gardner: You can check into our website, www.aaronschool.org. You can email me email@example.com. Our phone number is (212) 867-9594. And we have an Instagram page as well under Aaron School and a Facebook page, sorry.
Adam Dayan: And where'd you say the school is located?
Linda Gardner: The K through seventh is located at 309 East 45th Street. Our high school location is 42 East 30th Street.
Adam Dayan: All right. Linda, thank you so much for doing this. I think I met you for the first time when I toured Aaron's School many years ago. We've been working together over the last decade or more to help families navigate this complicated legal process. I really admire your dedication over the last 20 years to your school and the students you serve. And it's clear that you put your heart and soul into your work and I'm so glad that we have this opportunity to sit down together for a chat.
Linda Gardner: Thank you for giving me this opportunity and I very much enjoy working with you as well and continue to do so.
Adam Dayan: Excellent. Thank you, Linda.
Linda Gardner: Thank you. Take good care.
Speaker 1: Thanks for listening to Curious Incident, a podcast for special needs families. Don't forget to subscribe for a new episode every month. For more resources and helpful information, check out our blog at dayanlawfirm.com. This podcast provides general information which is not intended to and does not constitute legal advice. You should not rely on this information for any purpose. For legal counsel, you should consult with an attorney to discuss your specific circumstances. Your listening to this podcast does not create an attorney-client relationship between you and the Law Offices of Adam Dayan, PLLC. No attorney-client relationship is established unless a retainer agreement has been executed between a client and the Law Offices of Adam Dayan. This podcast may constitute attorney advertising. Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome. Any guests featured or resources mentioned on this podcast are for information purposes and are not endorsed by the Law Offices of Adam Dayan, PLLC.