My Special Ed High School Experience

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It all started with the simple fact that I could not sustain functionality in public school.

I’d gotten through my freshman year passably well, my schedule stuffed with the most rigorous course-load possible, but I collapsed towards the very end and landed in a mental hospital for a month. The hope was that once I got out, I’d be rejuvenated enough to launch myself forth into the sea of potential everyone insisted was before me. I was told I was smart enough to shine in the advanced classes, but it’s the emotionality piece that gets you, Olivia! And get me, it did. I couldn’t go to school. I spent the entire of my supposed sophomore year, save the first handful of months, huddled under my covers, room and hair both birds’ nests and cheeks most often tear streaked.

We called meeting after meeting with the school and its special education coordinators and counselors, who were wonderfully accommodative and with whom I still maintain a good relationship (their secret? Experience!). I underwent testing that placed me into a special ed program, one that gave me access to a little-known, tucked away room in my high school in which I could dash to at any time of the day in order to decompress and process my emotions. I was allowed specialized tutoring, online classes; anything to get me through my sophomore year. None of it stuck. I was languishing.

I didn’t lose my conceptual drive to make it through high school, though. Where my twin dropped out, I was determined that a diploma was in my future. I heard in one of the meetings that sending me, funded by my district, to a school for special needs kids was an option for the next year. My only, singular criterion? Does it have AP classes?

I found, through self driven Googling, a school around 40 minutes from my house that seemed to fit the bill perfectly; it had APs, honors, was very small, near my mom’s work, and was about to be designated a state-approved Special Ed school, meaning my public school would pay the tuition (more on that later). It was advertised as a school for academically capable, even gifted, students who couldn’t handle public school for reasons to do with emotional disability. It seemed perfect.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, or the ADA, disabled students must be guaranteed an equal quality education to their more typically abled peers, and must first have exhausted all in-house options before being shipped somewhere else. I was willingly and happily shipped, but I regret my experience at the school I was sent to. Here’s why.

In theory, it’s a great idea. Accumulate a specialized staff and create a safe haven for kids who are too anxious and depressed to function in larger, generalized public school environments. My school lured students in with the prospect of extreme individualization and emphases on executive functioning and therapeutic groups, as well as equal quality classes, supposedly, to those of the kids’ former public (or prestigious private) schools. That, and the school was many families’ last hope for their children who had thus far presented an inability to get to school. Most of the kids were sent from their districts in the surrounding towns and counties.

It was definitely individualized, but from my perspective, that’s where the benefits ended. What the institution lacked, and what so many special education, mental illness-centric institutions lack, comes down to funding and experience.

It wasn’t necessarily that the funding wasn’t there, at least more of it than was immediately evident. The tuition, while I can’t speak to the exact amount, was between 50 and 70 thousand dollars a year, and was described to me, by someone who actually had to personally pay it, as “more than most college tuitions.” With around 40 students at a time, and no shortage of students applying for admission, one would think that this would provide the school with adequate funding to provide proper provisions for its students.

It was a poorly kept secret that the funds were being mishandled and pooled at the top of the pyramid. When asked, the teachers and staff would roll their eyes and grumble that yes, the budget could be better spent… which was a gross understatement.

We had around 10 old, malfunctioning Chromebooks for student use, no functioning student printer, limited integration of textbooks into curricula, and walls as thin as paper. The walls were, in fact, built over the summers in order to create new, cramped, hot classrooms (every year there was discussion of expansion, and every year it failed to happen). Our sister school was suddenly shut down due to budget mismanagement by the same folks who ran our school. Did this reallocate funds to our school? Rumor has it, the owners of the parent company pocketed much more than their fair share. We saw no boost.

There was no school nurse. The extent of our healthcare consisted of band-aids that were kept at the front desk. There was no Sex Ed; it became a personal battle of mine, one that was fought in futility, to install the course, which to this day I still think is legally required of a state-funded school, but my complaints fell on deaf ears. Our population was one that specifically needed it; we were “at-risk” teens who were, as it turns out, engaging in sexual activities on campus. Not even knowledge of that incident swayed the administration in favor of the course, or even a unit on Sex Ed in Health class.

It wasn’t just bids for Sex Ed that went ignored. There was a student council, of which I was the relatively lame duck president, but it defiantly received zero funding from the administration, and if we wanted to have a field trip we’d have to fundraise through bake sales. Bake sales for 40 depressed kids with mostly no independent income? We made less than 50 dollars per sale, generally, and no, we didn’t get any field trips. Where did the money go?

Certainly not to the staff. It was no secret that the staff were underpaid. The turnover rate was unprecedented; every year, around a third of the staff vanished, replaced by another round of recent college graduates or new teachers. Yes, I did have two or three teachers who I really connected with, but they were the exception. While nice people, the school had to find teachers who were willing to work for little, and this meant inexperience. Not just in the teaching realm; almost none of the teachers had any special education experience to speak of. While the school was billed as a special education program, a very small number of its staff were trained in any capacity.

My disorders were foreign to the staff, who had no way to understand what was happening to me. For a period of time I was suffering from intense PTSD, and my frequent panic attacks were met with limited understanding and reprimanding if I needed to leave class to sob my heart out or take my medication. I was made fun of by staff for needing to brush my hair and apply deodorant at odd moments and with high frequency, symptoms of my OCD that I could not control. Bullying was rampant, which I’ll get into more, and many staff members would insert themselves into the juicy gossip, spreading rumors and asking nosy questions. To be clear, there were some exceptions who I admire dearly (one teacher I adore, and asked to write me a college recommendation, even), but this was the rule.

What did special education mean to this staff? It meant that homework and deadlines were optional, breaks were always granted, and attendance was a suggestion. The intention was to be able to work with students who genuinely had difficulty attending, being understanding rather than punitive, but their version of this allowed students to skate by. If they knew they could get away with asking for a break and vaping in the bathroom for 45 minutes, they would. And they did, all the time. All it took was “I’m having a hard day” and homework was moot, “I need to see my life coach” and class was skipped. Students were permitted to sleep on couches rather than go to class, vanish with feeble or no explanation, and hand in work weeks, months late. Fights and screams echoed through artificial hallways on a daily basis. Three times, a student escaped the building and ran around the surrounding towns. The police were called. Thrice.

The post that eventually got my bully suspended/expelled, but not before my life coach said “yeah, but I bet she won’t actually do it, go to class.”

It meant that bullying was handled with extreme inelegance. I’ve written about my bullying experience at this school before, but the school attracted a wide range of kids, some of whom have issues that go far beyond depression and anxiety. Some are aggressive, combative, violent. Some are impulsive, gossipy, deeply insecure. Some are addicted to some substance or another. Every single one of these issues deserves sympathy and accomodation, but there has to be infrastructure in place to provide that, and in this school there was none. Every week, it seemed, a new, vicious rumor was floating around. My bullies got suspended and expelled, but plenty were met with wrist slaps or nothing at all, and my outcome was only provided after intense outside pressure, including the threat of police involvement. All around me, I watched as friends and acquaintances were too terrified to come into school, lest they be met with bullying peers and inadequate support. The staff would do as little to institute change as they could get away with. “Just ignore it!” “It’s not that bad!” “I’m sure she won’t actually do it!”

It meant a jarring lack of diversity. The school was surrounded by towns and districts with diverse student bodies, and was even located in one of those towns. However, the student population only ever featured one or two non-white students at any given time, at best. At one point, students were hurling racial slurs around in their jokes, and when I complained to the staff, nothing was done. It simply had to become naturally un-funny to fade away. On another occasion, the GSA (Gay Straight Alliance) club, a handful of white kids, were tasked with putting posters up on the main wall to honor famous LGBT+ figures. Every single one of the figures they displayed was white. LGBT+ history is rich with diversity, and when I approached the club with gentle objections, I was ignored and mocked. Why should they pay attention to me? The student body couldn’t relate to diversity. Both the astronomical tuition and general tendency to more willingly designate white children as special ed meant that the school was comprised disproportionately of rich, white children, and the staff were disinterested in changing this or educating the student body in diversity. Yet another way the students were to experience college culture shock…

It meant counselors who were quaintly renamed “life coaches.” Newly graduated psychology majors, and almost exclusively young women in their twenties (my life coach was only a handful of years older than me!), they were billed as 24/7, go-to counselors for kids who were struggling. Equipped with their own office and pittances of paychecks, the average tenure for a life coach is between 1 month and a couple of years. Of the around 7 or 8 life coaches who are on board at any given time, only two were exceptions to this rule. The figures in deeply challenged kids’ lives who were supposed to support them through the biggest goal in their life- getting through high school- were underpaid, undereducated, and often left midway through the year for more lucrative jobs (of which there are many, mainly in public schools), leaving kids upended and reeling. Hell, my best friend, still stationed at the school, is losing her life coach, her supposed rock, this month! My public school counselors are well educated, experienced, and have been stationed there for many years. There is no comparison.

There needs to be a comparison, if the mandate of the ADA is to be taken seriously. The students at my old school deserve better. Almost no one running it, and likely schools similar to it, is in a position, whether through funding or education, to help kids who desperately need it. Absolutely every child deserves a high quality education, both emotionally and academically, and the school gave neither. With a small handful of exceptions, the instruction and resources of my classes were sub-par. I don’t blame the teachers; they were tasked with far too daunting a job for their skillset. Yes, there were AP classes (less than the number of fingers on one hand, mind you), few honors too, but they generally paled in comparison to public school level instruction. I didn’t even take any AP tests, and I took the maximum number of APs that the school had.

What is the most telling element of the school’s impact on its students? Matriculation.

The stated goal of the school is, in short, to get these kids to college. How? Any way, at all costs! Grades are nullified, little to no homework is given, deadlines are pushed and pushed. The college counseling is weak at best (again, lack of experience, something invaluable in the college counseling arena), and what ends up happening? Limited college options. Even more distressing is the graduation rate of the kids who even make it to college. Every year, and I’ve kept track, the vast majority of graduating classes (for example, eight out of ten, sometimes all) drop out of college or transfer. That’s right; the school is failing at its most central mission, the one families and public districts shell out dozens of thousands of dollars for annually. Almost everyone who graduates either drops out or downgrades to a school of lesser caliber. Why?

Special needs students need specific, enhanced care, but they need that care in order to function just as well, though differently from, their neurotypical peers. The goal is to allow them to live as rich a life as anyone their age, and that requires education, knowledge, skill, and intention to achieve. My special education school had none of these attributes, but claimed to have them all and did not prioritize self reflection and improvement. That works while the student is in the bubble of the school, but once they get to college, the kids flounder because they weren’t really taught ways to manage their emotional issues as they pertain to school and education. They were taught how to just skate by, by exhausted, confused, underpaid staff who cared so much and could do so little to help.

Even setting the bullying aside, I am so glad that I left the school. I re-entered my public school, my perspective on my options reformed and with three more years of therapy under my belt. I’m in experienced, gentle hands now, with a wide swath of public school options available to me. I poured my heart into improving my special education school, but at the end of the day, it is a byproduct of a much larger, neglected mental health system that needs much more impactful and systemic reform than I could feebly suggest at the weekly student council meetings.

To this day, the prom that I threw the students, the school’s first ever and effectively its only school-wide event that resembled that of a normal high school, is the most fulfilling thing I’ve ever done. I got to help the kids feel normal, feel like they fit in, like they were any other high school student. I did this with our own version of the Walk Out, too. I only wish the school, and the mental health system at large, could give special needs kids as good of an education as they did a dance.

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2 thoughts on “My Special Ed High School Experience

  1. I am impressed with your analysis of the school system you attended and the benefits and detriments you found along the way. There is obviously much room for improvement.
    We had our own experience with special need schools many years ago, and the acknowledgement of the need to help students requirng special assistance was
    barely given a nod. It seems there now is much more acknowledgment, but little more sophistication. Young people coming out of college are filled with idealistic goals to help people and to make the world better, but still have to become experienced enough to bring it off. Your comments reflect that.
    Lots of focused determination is required to make any good program work. It is great you have been able to see all this and offer your constructive comments to daylight the issues which most need to be addressed. I hope those who have the power to improve this part of the school systems take note!
    Good work Olivia !

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