By Ken Abramczyk
Parents of special needs children require very specific environments and knowledgeable teachers to address their particular challenges. They also want their kids to obtain a top-notch education, giving them the best opportunities that will position them to lead productive lives. Fortunately, metro Atlanta is home to a variety of schools that are designed for special needs students. And those institutions are as diverse as the children themselves, focusing on distinct issues and conditions, from autism and dyslexia to a range of other learning differences. Here, we look at several schools that truly stand out within Atlanta’s impressive education system: GRACEPOINT School, The Howard School and The Cottage School.
The GRACEPOINT School specializes in educating students with dyslexia. Students receive a comprehensive, high-quality educational program that combines remediation with enrichment and acceleration. GRACEPOINT’s mission is to equip dyslexic students with the skills needed to develop into independent and confident learners through sequential and multisensory instruction, helping each child develop “a lifelong desire for growing in wisdom and gaining knowledge of the Lord.” The school has enrolled 132 students in first through eighth grades.
GRACEPOINT’s Orton-Gillingham (OG) instructional program is one of only 19 accredited programs in the nation by the Academy of Orton-Gillingham Practitioners and Educators. Orton-Gillingham is a diagnostic, prescriptive and multisensory approach to reading and spelling. “Our teachers are trained to use this approach when teaching reading and to reinforce the approach throughout the day in all subject areas,” says Susan Spruill, director of marketing and communication. Students receive 75 minutes of reading instruction daily. Spruill adds, “While remediating their academic weaknesses, GRACEPOINT identifies and exploits students’ strengths, viewing dyslexia as a gift to embrace and celebrate. The school helps foster their self-confidence and self-advocacy skills while creating positive work habits and study skills.”
GRACEPOINT also created a unique program that increases the students’ understanding of morphology—the study of words, their meanings and how they are built. “Morphemes are the smallest unit of meaning (bases, prefixes and suffixes). One common strength of the dyslexic learner is their ability to see these patterns, or morphemes, in words,” Spruill says. Morphology and OG are intertwined from the beginning in remediation and continue in advanced morphology classes. Angie Strack, director of morphology, created special characters, including Dr. Morphology, to introduce morphology to the students. “GRACEPOINT School’s schoolwide morphological initiative empowers, enriches and equips its students to attack vocabulary, which strengthens reading comprehension and develops a deeper understanding of word meaning.”
GRACEPOINT administrators expect the school will be able to serve up to 50 percent more dyslexic students with the purchase of a building at 1407 Cobb Parkway. The building will be renovated throughout the current academic year, with completion slated for a fall 2023 opening. The school is currently on the campus of Piedmont Church, and the renovated building will provide students and staff with larger classrooms, an indoor gym, a GRACEPOINT news-technology lab, a designated lunch area and two science labs. And the school has plans for continued growth.
As Spruill concludes, “With limited options in our area for a fully immersive program to serve dyslexic learners, GRACEPOINT has steadily grown due to word-of-mouth testimonials.”
The Howard School focuses on language-based learning differences. Nestled into more than 17 acres on the west side of Atlanta, the school serves approximately 350 students in grades K through 12 and is the only school of its kind in the city, says Marci Mitchell, director of marketing and communications.
Marian Howard founded the school in 1950. Mitchell notes that Howard was “an amazing woman who changed the landscape of education in Atlanta by creating an educational world with no boundaries, labels or diminished expectations.”
Howard offers a full school experience with many opportunities to succeed in academics, the arts and athletics. “Teams of highly qualified and dedicated teachers and specialists—including speech-language pathologists, psychologists, literacy and math specialists—work with students to provide individualized instruction and learning plans,” Mitchell says. The nationally certified speech-language pathologists work with teachers on the language of instruction in every classroom, acting as a catalyst for listening, understanding, speaking and writing; they also engage with teachers in planning, observing and reviewing to optimize the impact of the language in the classroom.
Additionally, The school’s STEAM initiative is intended for all students, focusing on student growth and experiences directly related to students’ needs. The program prepares students with lifelong learning skills, a necessity in the rapidly evolving workplace.
In terms of extracurricular activities, students have the opportunity to participate in self-selected clubs, including Animal Community, Amine and Manga, BattleBots, Hawk Talk (a student-run news broadcast) and many others. What’s more, Howard’s All-In policy serves as the core of the athletic program, as students are encouraged to join the athletic community. The program balances participation and competition and educates students on the importance of good sportsmanship, respect and common decency.
In early 2020, the school expanded with two new state-of-the-art spaces, the Young High School and the Marifred Cilella Student Center. Today, students travel to attend The Howard School from nearly 70 different metro Atlanta zip codes, and graduates are accepted every year at a wide variety of colleges, universities and specialty trade schools.
The Cottage School (TCS) offers a comprehensive academic college preparatory curriculum for students in grades 3 through 12 with mild to moderate learning differences. The 23-acre campus gives students an experiential learning environment, and the school recently added a new high school building that includes not only additional classrooms, but also a beautiful visual arts studio and project management lab.
“All students are smart and learn differently,” says Dr. Steven Palmer, head of school. “The secret is to teach them differently. That is what The Cottage School does best. TCS meets the students where they are, helps them see and believe they can, and they achieve great things.”
The school currently has 260 students, and students are admitted throughout the school year. TCS’s one-of-a-kind, business-based model prepares students for real-world experiences, according to Kim Weber, director of special events and alumni coordination. To better serve students, the student-teacher ratio is 10-to-1. “With small class sizes, our students are able to forge a strong relationship with teachers and counseling staff and are encouraged to advocate for the tools they need to succeed,” Weber says,
Experiential classes and clubs can include drama, computer literacy, yoga, chess, photography, journalism and yearbook, art, horseback riding, mountain biking, bowling, weight training and culinary skills. Through the sports programs, student can learn discipline and foster teamwork and sportsmanship. And each student is encouraged to participate in clubs or sports. “We are especially proud to have an awesome esports program,” Weber says. “Relationships made while attending The Cottage School can last a lifetime, and many of our alumni return during each year to visit favorite teachers and staff. TCS is a family and, to so many, it is home.”
TCS meets Georgia high school graduation standards and HOPE scholarship requirements. Every graduating senior leaves The Cottage School with a post-secondary plan, whether they expect to attend college or technical school or seek a gap year as they enter the workforce. Weber concludes, “We help the students fill a toolbox with everything they need to move confidently into the future: self-advocacy, leadership skills, financial literacy and so much more.”
Atlanta Speech School: Serving the Community
Atlanta Speech School’s mission is to help each person develop their full potential through language and literacy. Its three preschools and Wardlaw School for elementary-aged children with dyslexia pursue this goal with joy, a deeply held commitment to connection with each child and a research-based focus on brain and social science. This level of individualized academic attention and dedication to constructing the deep reading brain for each child is not only accessible to students of the Speech School, but also by the community-at-large. To start, children attending other schools can attend the Clinic for assistance. And beyond the campus, through the Rollins Center for Language & Literacy and the online Cox Campus, Atlanta Speech School holds long-standing partnerships with researchers and organizations to pursue “literacy and justice for all” through school systems across the world. In every endeavor, the Speech School weaves the science of constructing deep reading brains with the art and soul of masterful teaching so that each child has the tools to decide their own future confidently, empathetically and thoughtfully.
For more information, visit atlantaspeechschool.org.