Experts question Detroit district chief’s wish to create new schools for kids with special needs

On the carpet inside a language arts class, three boys quietly play a word game with their teacher. In the same room, on a comfy sofa and chair, two students discuss a poem’s message.

But across the room, where the soft sunlight washes through the windows, one of their classmates sits alone, rocking to and fro in a chair, his hands covering his face.

At some schools, allowing such behavior from a student might come as a surprise. But at Aim High School in Farmington Hills, a private school where almost three out of four students have a formal diagnosis of autism, things are different.

The teacher and students realized he needed to cope with something that was troubling him that day. So they let him be.

If Detroit schools superintendent Nikolai Vitti gets his way, more schools like this one that cater to students with special needs could be coming to Detroit. Though the district already has a number of schools and programs that serve students with disabilities, Vitti has said he’d like to open two or three new specialized schools in 2019.  He is considering a school for students diagnosed with dyslexia, one serving students with autism, and potentially a third serving students who are hearing impaired.

His goal is not only to better meet the needs of students, but also to attract more families to a district that has been bleeding enrollment for years. At a time when roughly half of Detroit families are currently choosing charter and suburban schools, Vitti says he believes targeted programs can attract parents — potentially even those who live in surrounding suburbs — who haven’t been satisfied with the supports and therapies their children have been getting in traditional schools.

“Most public school systems don’t have the kinds of services that are really about meeting dyslexic learners’ individual needs,” Vitti told Chalkbeat last year. “Statistically, one in five children face dyslexia and that number can be even greater for those growing up in poverty.”

The district serves a disproportionate share of students with special needs in Detroit — 18 percent of district students compared to 12 percent in Wayne County —  but Vitti has identified this as a potential growth area.

His spokeswoman, Chrystal Wilson, noted Thursday that if Detroiters want to attend a special school for students who are deaf and hard-of-hearing, they currently have to travel to Flint.

“By opening up a school that services children with disabilities and special needs, the district can provide support for them in their community,” Wilson said. “These students shouldn’t have to drive to Flint to get an education. They should be able to get an education in their own community.”

Some parents said they welcome the additional options. But Vitti could run into opposition from advocates who believe that segregating students is not in their best interest.

”Students with autism are not going to go to the movie theater for autism,” said George Theoharis, a Syracuse University professor who researches inclusion. “They are not going to the Walmart for autism. They are not going to go to the grocery store for autism. We live in, and we have to have, a more inclusive society.”

Theoharis said he has visited and taught in schools around the country for 15 years and said he’s “never met a kid who can’t be included in a general education school and classrooms.”

Federal law requires all schools to have a written plan for every student classified with special needs. The plan spells out what extra services the child must receive at school, including physical or occupational therapy, speech therapy, or other individual attention. Some children have aides assigned to work with them throughout the day.

If a district cannot meet those needs, parents, through a process, can remove their children from the district and place them in private schools, and the district has to pay for it. But that’s a process that’s largely only available to parents who can afford lawyers or know how to navigate the complex educational bureaucracy.

Many parents of exceptional children fight within their own schools to get their children the help they need, or move them to a different school. It’s those families Vitti might be hoping to attract if he can make the case that his new schools will better serve those students.

Vitti is no stranger to creating environments for specialized learning. He started a school for children who were dyslexic and another for children with autism when he was superintendent in Jacksonville, Florida.

He believes people who think every student can succeed in a mainstream classroom are being unrealistic. Because the district is still short almost 200 teachers, some have 30 or 40 pupils in a class, making it difficult for them to address the needs of individual students.

“The regular school often is not equipped with the capacity, the resources, the training or even the focused time to get it right,” Vitti said.

The superintendent has lived through what it’s like to attend school in a place that wasn’t able to focus on his needs. He struggled because he is dyslexic, something that wasn’t diagnosed until he was an adult.

In the Detroit district, he doesn’t know for sure what focuses the new schools might have, even though he is considering  services for students diagnosed with autism and dyslexia. He wants to talk with families before making a recommendation to the board.

He said he approached the state about reinstating the Detroit Day School for the Deaf, which was closed in 2012, but the state Department of Education has not approved that request.

Vitti believes he can attract more students to the district with these specialized schools. Farmington Hills’ Aim High School is in such high demand that some students commute up to 90 minutes to attend, even though this year’s tuition is $22,000.

Although Detroiter Donna Seay would consider sending her twin 13-year-old boys to a small school like Aim, which accepts students from 6th through 12th grade, she’s not sure she would send her sons to a specialized school in the Detroit district.

Currently, one attends Bates Academy, a district school for gifted children. He is high functioning on the autism spectrum and she wants a small environment that offers one-on-one teaching, an in-classroom tutor who is always available, and typical children with whom to socialize.

“I’ve thought about it, and my idea of a school for autism is not to group them together because the spectrum is awfully long and I don’t want him to be around bad behavior,” she said.

“It can be a separate school, but you’re still going to have the same problems. If they can talk, they are going to bully.”

She said her other son, who has been diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, lost social skills and mimicked bad behavior when he was in a specialized classroom from kindergarten through fifth grade. Now an eighth-grader, he attends a Cornerstone charter school.

Theoharis agrees with her. He said schools that categorize children in schools for autism, for example, don’t offer them peer models. He said he’s witnessed some “really negative behavior” in them.

The co-founder and head of Aim High School, Michael Earls, has also seen some negative behavior, but for different reasons.  

“These are kids that did not fit into a traditional school model. They need a very personal model,” he said, adding that he has seen students “kicking and screaming because they’ve had such traumatizing experiences at school” before arriving at Aim.

“Our mission, first of all, is to get them to feel safe in school again, connect with their teachers and start to have some success.”

But Theoharis believes children can get the same attention in a mainstream environment that they would get in a specialized school like Aim.

“The kinds of services and support kids need can happen in typical elementary, middle and high schools,” he added. “They do, in fact.”

Vitti said offering only one option does not address the reality of what resources are available in a struggling school district.

“It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach,” he said. “I don’t believe in saying ‘You have to go to this school if you’re dyslexic.’”

One researcher says both methods have some validity if used thoughtfully.

“There’s really no research that would say that either approach on its own is better,” said Allison Gandhi, managing researcher at the American Institutes for Research, a nonprofit that helps states and school districts implement best practices.

Gandhi said that ideally all children would attend mainstream schools that are equipped with all the resources they need. But students often are moved to segregated environments because traditional schools can’t always provide adequate specialized services and teachers may not be prepared to teach those students.

She agrees it’s a difficult situation for students who need extra support. But she said both methods can work if attention is given to the instruction itself.

“It’s not really about where the kids are placed,” Gandhi said. “It’s really about what’s being done with the kids where they are.”