Choosing the Best New Jersey Private School for Children with Special Needs

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Julie Mower is Executive Director of The Phoenix Center, an accredited non-profit, private school that serves nearly 140 students ages 5-21 with autism, multiple disabilities, behavioral and intellectual disabilities from roughly 60 districts in eight New Jersey counties..

They say looking for a full-time job can feel like a full-time job. The same might be true when it comes to finding the optimal private school for your child with special needs. For many parents, a strong, nurturing private school can not only unlock a student’s potential and talents but also provide parents with a healthy and robust network of like-minded peers, friends, and trusted educators. Additionally, there are trusted resources like ASAH, the not-for-profit that has served private special education schools and agencies in New Jersey for decades. 

In choosing a school, there is often one north star that can guide parents: ask yourself, if you were your child, would you want to attend this school? So many of life’s big choices are a go-with-your-gut decision. But to further articulate the steps that pave the road toward your child’s success, here’s a “Look for Schools That…” model. Put yourself in your child’s shoes, and look for schools that:


Help Students Discover Their Talents

A strong education is not just what your child learns in the classroom; it also equips students with special needs with the social skills needed to build bonds, make friends, and find their voice. What’s more, the ideal private school would also uncover a student’s gifts and passions, cultivating their individual potential, encouraging their inner light to shine. Their unique talents would blossom by engaging in various school programs and activities, so look for schools with a diversity of offerings. 

Living in New Jersey, students have access to many cultural offerings to spark their interests: theaters and zoos, parks, amusement parks and restaurants, houses of worship, and volunteering. Students’ unique talents should be exercised through a variety of school classes or activities, so look for schools with diverse programs and offerings.

Lead from Care and Experience

Sending your child off to school each day means trusting that those educating him or her are accredited professionals. Do your research: how long has the school been around? Has it received any good press? What do the students’ parents think of it? When taking a tour or visiting a potential school, get to know the staff: don’t be shy in asking questions or learning what you need to know to make an informed decision. And if you get a good vibe from the caring teachers, chances are your child will too!

Take Varied Approaches to Educating Based on Need

When it comes to caring for and teaching children with special needs, there is no cookie-cutter methodology. Look for schools that serve the educational, behavioral, and therapeutic needs of young and adolescent students who have a range of needs. If that school has a hands-on and community-based outlook on learning, all the better.

Plant Seeds for Long-Term Success

What long-term goals does the private school have for its students, and how does its diligent staff help them achieve those goals for a productive life? Search for schools that have transition programs, which aid students in building a bridge toward a life beyond the classroom. Often, these programs will help employ students and give them hands-on experience to succeed after graduation.

Offer Clear Communication

Especially during this troubling time, having clear communication from the school to your home is paramount. As the pandemic continues to evolve, staying in the know is crucial. An offshoot of this idea is a vital one: how does the school build community? Events and programs that incorporate parents are helpful in keeping families informed and involved. Explore a potential school’s website to see how it disseminates information and fosters community, and, as always, ask how the safety of your child is prioritized on campus each day.

Your School District Can Partner with You

As per a study at ASAH, “when a student with disabilities needs intensive, specialized services in a self-contained setting, the full cost to taxpayers is actually lower when those services are provided by an approved private school than when provided by either a local public school district.”  So sending districts work closely with families to ensure the right level, frequency, depth, and breadth of services for that particular student.  

Often, depending on a student’s level of need, private receiving special needs schools with varied programs, modalities, and specialties can be a better fit for your child. NJDOE-approved private receiving schools’ tuitions are paid by the sending district.  Be sure to check into the school’s tuition model, that the school is NJDOE-approved, what accreditations they have, and what they do to prepare students for life beyond the classroom. It is important to work collaboratively with your school district.

And as NJ Spotlight reported recently, Senate President Steve Sweeney is “pressing the state to do more to help districts pay for students with severe disabilities.”

Your child’s education is personal: work with your district and advisors to best understand what resources they can offer you to help you make as informed a decision as possible. And when you get close to making a decision, be sure to take a look at the school with your student. The more you can acclimate yourself, and your child, the more proactively you will be able to pave the way toward success.

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