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Putting Abilities First

Sheila del Toro’s daughter, Brittaney, attended public schools for four years before the daily grind became too much to bear.

Brittaney, now 13, has cerebral palsy and sensory processing disorder. She was the sole survivor of triplets and suffered a stroke at birth. When she was in public school, she missed instruction time for physical therapy care or because her frustration at times forced her to leave the classroom. But the biggest problem was fatigue.

“She could do the work but would have frequent meltdowns and anxiety,” del Toro says. “She needed more attention. This is nothing against the school, but her educational needs were not met. The focus was too much on her disability and not enough on her ability.”

Homeschooling a typical child, let alone one with special needs, can be difficult, even for parents who have a background in education. Yet many families have met that challenge, learning about their own abilities in the process and helping other families to achieve success.

Del Toro, of LaFayette, had a background in early childhood education and often was a substitute teacher in her daughter’s school. As an experiment, she took her daughter out of school for a week three years ago, citing illness, and attempted to teach the girl at home. It was an immediate success. Brittaney got to sleep in longer and was much more alert during lessons. If she got too frustrated with a math problem, her mother would move on to science and get back to math later. And if Brittaney got overstressed during the day, they would simply finish the lessons at night. She has been able to stick with the regular state education guidelines thus far and has not had to select a different curriculum based on her disability.

Del Toro joined the Home Learners Association of Central New York to connect with other parents. That group offers a variety of Friday classes in Camillus, where children can get additional instruction in a variety of subjects and, most importantly, interact with other kids. She then co-founded the Homeschooling in Central New York group, which mainly organizes field trips.

For learning materials, del Toro shopped online, visited Barnes & Noble bookstores, or simply received used books from parents with older children. “This past year, I haven’t had to buy a thing,” del Toro says. Materials can also be bought at the Lesson Planet website, which has thousands of worksheets available for a $39 annual subscription.

Brittaney is del Toro’s only child. Her husband, Jim, is an engineer and helps out with their daughter’s science lessons and projects two nights a week.

The Home Learners Association of Central New York, now in its fourth year, was set up to provide curriculum and opportunities otherwise unavailable to homeschooled children. The Friday classes include foreign languages, robotics, musical instruments and various levels of the more traditional academic subjects. About 65 families signed up in the program’s first year, and that number has remained steady.

“We try to make up for any potential gaps,” said Jenafer Medina, the program founder and president. “We even have school lunches, school photos and spring concerts. It’s all about filling the needs.”

The program is a co-op, meaning most of the teaching staff are parent volunteers whose own children are enrolled in classes, although a few teachers are hired. The nonprofit organization charges a $30 annual fee and $10 per six-week course.

Medina said special needs children and their families have especially appreciated the program. “They’ll tell you that they just watched the stigma of homeschooling melt away,” she says. “Everybody gets along on such a natural level. It’s beautiful.”

June Bartos, of East Bloomfield in Ontario County, pulled her young son out of the public school system after a short stint in pre-kindergarten.

At age 5, Isaac was diagnosed with dyslexia and celiac disease. He needed a completely gluten-free diet and had several cavities. He was not diagnosed anywhere on the autism spectrum even though he was very behind in language skills for his age. Isaac would mispronounce things, and could not identify objects by the right words. He often confused nouns with verbs.

“There were so many layers upon layers of issues,” Bartos says. “Even with a full-time aide there (at pre-kindergarten), he was always distracted, and he was distracting the other kids.”

Bartos worried her son would never learn to read, let alone ride a bike. But several years later, he’s able to do both.

Isaac, now 9, is somewhere between the first- and second-grade skill level in most subjects. Bartos must use quite a bit of repetition to help her son understand and retain concepts, and math is especially difficult. For exams, they go over each question together.

The homeschooling process, while frustrating at times, has mostly gone better than Bartos imagined. She began by reaching out to several general homeschooling groups that did not specifically address special needs. She found some of them to be rather cliquey, “almost like high school,” and could not participate in their social events due to her son’s very limited diet. She also discovered that some groups were zealous in their approach to secular education and did not respect those that promoted religious themes.

Bartos and her children participate in programs at the local YMCA, which welcomes homeschooled children for lessons on art, physical education and music.

“You can find local resources that work for you, but it’s not a requirement,” she says. “For me, the biggest challenge is when progress is so slow. A concept can take months. Some days, you sit there and say, ‘I can’t do this.’ But in your heart you know what you are doing is the right thing.”

Over time, Bartos says, you get a feel for when your child is performing at his best. For instance, her son focuses best from 9 a.m. to early afternoon. She also found that she did not need to reproduce a classroom environment in her home, although she did set up a blackboard in one room because Isaac prefers a visual approach to learning.

Her advice to other parents who are considering homeschooling their special needs child: Get a clear, precise diagnosis of the child’s disability first. That will help you in choosing the right learning materials. And network with other parents—whether or not they are part of an organized group—and find an experienced person who can provide moral support.

Bartos has also learned a lot about herself in the past four years, and so she decided to homeschool her youngest son, who is 5, even though he does not have any special needs. She believes more individual attention and a flexible schedule suits him better than traditional classrooms.

The resources of Parents Instructing Challenged Children (PICC), a statewide nonprofit organization dedicated to serving homeschooled children with special needs, have also helped Bartos, among many others.

PICC LEAH (for Loving Education at Home), is the special-needs support chapter of New York State LEAH (www.piccnys.com). It was established by two Central New York families and is now overseen by Long Island resident Mary Fratianni. Her son, E.J., was diagnosed with a rare brain tumor nearly 15 years ago. The family initially feared the boy would never get a decent education, so they sought out help from other families in similar situations.

E.J. had behavioral issues because he could not communicate. The worst part, his mother recalls, was that the school was aware of techniques and programs to educate her son but educators told her that their hands were tied because of the costs.

Fratianni completed courses in brain injuries and neurodevelopment to better understand her son’s limitations. Then she reached out to parents with similar situations and contacted homeschooling organizations. More than a decade later, E.J. is fully functional and on track to graduate from high school in two years. Fratianni, meanwhile, has given invaluable guidance to families from Onondaga, Madison and Oswego counties.

She did not have an education, or a medical or psychological background when she made the decision to homeschool her son. But today she is confident she’s done a better job educating him than her school district would have done.

PICC represents a variety of disabilities, including attention deficit disorder, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and blindness. An increasing number of children with autism have transitioned from public schools to homeschooling in recent years, Fratianni says.

A significant chunk of PICC’s membership fees are applied to a legal defense fund. It’s very important, Fratianni says, that families are represented by attorneys “in case their school districts step out of bounds.”

PICC and other homeschooling organizations have a sometimes cooperative but sometimes adversarial relationship with local school districts or the state education department. The disagreements are usually over money. Current state education laws require school districts to extend services for special needs children to those who are homeschooled, Fratianni says.

Most homeschooled special needs children are taught by their mother, she says. She recommends that one member of the family handle the teaching in order to maintain routines, expectations and the necessary rapport that the child must have with the teacher. However, she stresses, this homeschooling must be a team effort.

“It’s important for Dad to spend time with the child on weekends,” Fratianni says. “Life is a classroom. Teaching appropriate behavior in the grocery store, or teaching them about unit pricing when weighing the produce. Think about it, if you have to go to Home Depot, bring the kid.”

Siblings, meanwhile, can help with tasks like physical therapy and fine motor skills work. Full family participation is strongly encouraged, Fratianni says.

“Give Mom time to recoup. Buy her a gift certificate to the day spa. And the time spent with the husband, wife and all the children together, that’s what’s going to pull you through when you have a bad day. If you lose focus, your progress diminishes significantly.”

Ultimately, making the move to homeschooling is a monumental decision that should not be made by just one person, Fratianni stresses. Both parents must agree on the decision, and the family must be 100 percent committed. She says parents should remember that they are not alone—there are many others in the same situation, and there are many resources available.

“There’s plenty of support in this community,” she says. “If you need help from someone one on one, it’s easy to find.”                       

Aaron Gifford is a writer who lives in Cazenovia with his wife and two children.

Photos above: Michael Davis Photos

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