Workforce Development

More Opportunities for Special-Needs Students in Oklahoma

By: Melissa Sullivan

Phylicia is seemingly a normal teenager at Oklahoma’s Town & Country School: she interacts with other students, participates in class, and, as her mother notes, she “wakes up wanting to go to school.” However, Phylicia has not always been this energetic about learning.

Phylicia is a teenage special-needs student with Asperger’s Syndrome. In an article written by Brandon Dutcher, vice president of policy at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (OCPA), Phylicia’s mother shared that her daughter was bullied in her public school to the point where “she would literally crawl in a ball because she did not want to go to school.” Upon discovering the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship for Students with Disabilities Program, Phylicia’s mother moved her to a school that assists students with learning disabilities and attention disorders.

Throughout the state of Oklahoma, there are 96,000 children like Phylicia in the public school system with disabilities (about 15 percent of the student population). To assist these students, Oklahoma enacted the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship Program in 2010. According to the OCPA, a Henry Scholarship “allows any Oklahoma parent or guardian of a public school student with a disability to enroll their child in private school.” The scholarship expands the options available to special-needs students and allows parents, who best understand the specific needs of their children, to determine the optimal learning environment for their kids.

After one year in the scholarship program, a video released by OCPA shows Phylicia and two other recipients of the Henry Scholarship thriving in their new schools. Through integration in small school classrooms and individualized tutoring, the participants in the video have seen strong improvements in their academic and social skills. The scholarship also allows for interaction between students with disabilities and students without, creating a classroom environment of acceptance and awareness.

Despite only 10 scholarship recipients in its first year, the scholarship program has gradually expanded. For the 2012-2013 academic year, the program has awarded a total of 197 scholarships to students to attend any of 44 participating schools. While the scholarship program is still small, there is no cap on enrollment, allowing for the possibility of the scholarship to continue expanding and replicate the success of other larger special-needs programs around the country.

Likewise, the Georgia Special Needs Scholarship—one of the largest special-needs programs in the United States—has reported high satisfaction rates. The Center for an Educated Georgia recently conducted a survey on a sample of 2,965 participants of the scholarship and found that “20 percent of surveyed parents were ‘very satisfied’ or ‘satisfied’ with the academic progress their child with special needs was making in their former public school, while 98 percent are ‘very satisfied’ or ‘satisfied’ with academic progress in their current private school.” Parents are not only satisfied with these programs, but they are helping close achievement gaps between special-needs students and their peers. According to the 18th edition of the American Legislative Exchange Council’s Report Card on American Education, Florida’s John M. McKay Scholarship for Students with Disabilities Program has helped close the achievement gap between students with disabilities and students without: “The McKay Scholarship program has helped increase scores in Florida public schools that are now facing higher levels of competition while directly aiding 25,000 students enrolled in the program.”

These studies demonstrate special-needs scholarships are improving academic performance and empowering parents to play a greater role in determining their child’s future. For Phylicia’s mother, the Henry Scholarship provided her with the means to give her child a brighter future. Phylicia notes that without the scholarship, “I would probably feel hopeless…because school was a daily challenge for me every day, and now it’s not anymore and I’m glad.”

In Depth: Workforce Development

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