Brooklin Boudreaux, 6, had a tough time pronouncing the name of her favorite food — chicken strips. The “ch” and “str” combination gave her a “really hard time,” said her mother Brin Marie Boudreaux.
Though Brooklin had been receiving speech therapy in her public school, thanks to the state’s Succeed Scholarship Program, which allows parents of children with special needs to have the option of attending an approved private school with a scholarship, she has made significant strides throughout the past three months attending Immaculate Conception School in Fort Smith.
“She can say that (chicken strips) now,” her mother said. “She has to slow down to say it. But now we can understand her and don’t accidentally order her a burger.”
These seemingly small victories can lead to much bigger accomplishments thanks to the option of a smaller, more personalized academic environment through private schools.
In 2015, the Arkansas General Assembly passed the Succeed Scholarship Program. Katie Clifford, executive director of The Reform Alliance, a nonprofit that supports school choice in Arkansas, said students approved for the program are awarded up to $6,646 annually to attend the private school, which is the amount “the state provides a public school in foundation funding per student.” The money is supplied through the Arkansas Department of Education budget and will likely increase each year.
“It does not come from the public school fund,” Clifford said.
The program is limited to 100 students who have been enrolled in a public school for at least one year. There are currently 16 scholarship recipients placed in non-public schools, Clifford said, with another nearly 40 applicants currently being processed. There are no restrictions on how many students in one family can be accepted. Approval can take a few weeks, depending on the school, and parents can still apply for the 2016-17 school year.
Students must show they have an individualized education program, or IEP, a document given by the school to a student after they’re qualified for learning assistance. Clifford said Succeed does not specify what the IEP has to say, which has resulted in a broad range of students who have applied, including those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), speech delays, autism, anxiety and dyslexia.
While the program is still in a learning phase, Clifford said “if I could count the number of tears being cried in our office from parents” who are thankful, “that’s really spoken volumes to us here.”
“I just got a call from a parent who said her student has been in this program for a little bit and the biggest difference for him has been the noise level,” Clifford said. “… It just helps him so much to have a lower noise level because the whole school is smaller, not just the class sizes.”
But she said there’s also been frustration about the specific requirements (see sidebar). There are currently 15 schools that have been approved or are waiting on approval for the Succeed Scholarship; eight are Catholic. They are Trinity Junior High, Christ the King, Immaculate Conception and St. Boniface, Fort Smith; St. Joseph, Fayetteville; Immaculate Conception, North Little Rock; St. Edward, Little Rock; and St. John, Hot Springs.
“The Catholic schools in particular really have a heart for these students and helping these families,” Clifford said. “… We’d love to see more Catholic schools. We see a lot of demand for them; we get a lot of requests because parents want that environment for their child.”
Immaculate Conception School in Fort Smith has five students on Succeed Scholarships, with two more pending. Principal Sharon Blentlinger said the students all happen to be Catholic and are receiving extra help in speech, language and reading. The school has had a special education program for more than 15 years.
“It’s possible for us to provide a smaller environment, a more personal experience and you know really meet the needs of those children,” Blentlinger said.
Patty James, a resource teacher and dyslexia specialist at St. Edward School in Little Rock, said there are three student applications that are pending approval. James, who has worked at the school since 2000 and holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in special education and a dyslexia therapist endorsement, oversees the Academic and Behavior Learning Plan for the school.
“The good thing about the Succeed Scholarship is it allows parents of children that have more severe learning differences another option for education for their children,” James said. “It is almost a way to evangelize, and we wholeheartedly believe that’s part of our mission to educate all of our children.”
Stephen and Brin Marie Boudreaux sent their two sons to Trinity Junior High School in Fort Smith. But with changes in the economy, “private school wasn’t an option for us.”
“We’re so thrilled the program even exists,” Brin Marie Boudreaux said. “Her father and I both think she’s made a lot of progress at a quicker pace at the private school.”
In addition to more communication with the faculty, Boudreaux said her daughter is more accepted.
“In a religious school setting, I just feel the children are more sympathetic and kind of guided better by their teacher and their parents by being able to acknowledge diversity in a positive way,” Boudreaux said. “We feel the children are more open to her disability; she’s not made fun of, she’s included and we’re just blessed that we’re able to attend Immaculate Conception.”
For more information about the program and requirements, visit thereformalliance.org.
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