Updated: May 11
REEL recently hosted a private school panel featuring three parents, Abby Kirigin, Carmen O’Shea, and Callie Turk, who shared their journeys to find a strong educational fit for their twice-exceptional (2e) children and families. The event also featured new resources from REEL on private schools in Silicon Valley. We present below the first of three blog posts that summarize the key takeaways from the session. (See our 2e Fact Sheet for more info on what 2e/twice-exceptionality is all about.)
In a traditional year, the private school admissions process starts in the early fall; despite the daily disruption that the pandemic has wrought, fall 2020 is like any other—the private school exploration begins. In a year when many children have spent the majority of “school” learning from home, parents have observed and noticed more about their children than ever before. Many have wondered for the first time whether a private school might be a better choice for their 2e learners.
To help parents navigate their options, REEL gathered a panel of three parents—Abby, Carmen, and Callie—with twice-exceptional and neurotypical children who have attended a range of private and public schools in Silicon Valley. All three families researched and switched schools when they realized that their current schools couldn’t address their children’s learning needs. In Abby’s case, a dyslexia diagnosis prompted her to look for schools that could better address her son’s challenges while also encouraging his gifts and strengths. Carmen searched for schools that kept her son engaged and active in learning, with more flexibility from teachers. Callie sought schools that gave her 2e, autistic daughter a greater sense of purpose in learning while also providing flexibility to help her manage her anxiety, which had started to present itself through skin-picking and school refusal. The speakers launched the panel with three key pieces of advice to help parents navigate whether a school—public or private—provides a supportive learning environment:
1. Fit. No one school will work for every child; it’s all about finding a school that is a good fit for your child and your family. Carmen shared, “At the beginning of all of this, we said, ‘Oh, we'll put the kids in the same school.’ We learned that wasn’t necessarily something that was going to work for our family. We really had to meet each child where they were and figure out what the best fit environment would be for them.”
Callie, who has three children, including twin daughters, highlighted that when her girls were 8th graders looking at high school options, her 2e daughter initially felt like she should go to the same school as her brother and sister; however, “It just was not the right place for her. She even said to us, ‘Don’t you think I should go there? Wouldn’t that be easier for you all?’ And I said, ‘It won’t be easier for me if you’re not happy. It will be harder for me if you’re unhappy.’”
Abby raised another consideration: “Commuting was definitely a factor. Does a school stand out enough to justify an extreme commute? How will you integrate commute time into your family?”
2. Flex. What works for your child this year may not be what works in the long-term; it’s okay to keep exploring to find what works for different stages of your child’s life.
Abby switched her son to a new school that could offer more comprehensive support after his dyslexia diagnosis. Carmen moved her son several times to address teacher inflexibility. Callie told the story of realizing halfway through 7th grade that the school her 2e daughter attended might not be the best place for 8th grade. After looking at other options, the family decided to stick with their current school, which ended up working out because “The teacher that she had had so much trouble with really did change. She opened her heart to who Katie is as a person and a learner. And the year went much better. But we were glad we knew our options in case we needed to make a switch midyear.”
3. Fluid. Some of the schools that serve 2e children well are relatively new; others were founded just in the last five to ten years. School cultures change over time as they grow and mature. It can seem risky to join a school if you’re uncertain about its long-term funding and leadership.
Every parent on the panel looked at start up schools and their children attended some of these smaller schools; their views on the risks of small schools changed over time. Carmen’s family did have to change schools a couple of times due to either teacher turnover or school closure. Reflecting back on start-up schools that Abby’s family didn’t consider initially, she remarked, “Knowing everything I know and having three children through so many schools, I would be comfortable with those environments now. But at the time, with a four-year old and no private school experience, we just felt those were too untested for us.” In addition, because young, small schools evolve, the perspectives shared by any one parent that has been part of the school’s community may not be representative of the school’s current situation. Talk to as many parents, staff, and faculty as you can to get a broad perspective on where the school has been, is, and may be going.
All in all, the parents on the panel found that school culture and teaching approach have been the most important factors for supporting their 2e children.
Teacher “fit.” Individual teacher interactions made a huge difference to the panelists’ kids year to year. Kind, patient, enthusiastic, and accepting teachers are the key to success—honoring the children as full people is critical. And this echoes back to the challenge of fit, flexibility, and fluidity—even within a school, the fit between the student and the teacher from year to year impacts the child’s ability to learn and grow. Carmen shared that her son attended a school with a Reggio Emilia approach that was more flexible in the earlier grades, “But started to get a little bit trickier as things got much more structured and traditional. He had a teacher who just wasn’t able to meet the needs of kids who were different. Our son’s self esteem plummeted rapidly.” After landing at two other private schools with teachers who varied in their abilities to flex with her son, the family had a positive experience at their local public school (see below).
School culture and flexibility. Small classes, a close-knit community, access to teachers, and a whole child orientation are other key factors that panelists found helpful for their children and families. The panelists appreciated schools that have a culture of openness with easy access to communicate with teachers. Also, it’s important to look at schools that really honor children and who they are as people and learners. Look at how the school feels about the kids: Are the kids there to be molded and made? Pushed and driven? Or are the kids seen as people and as learners and as worth investing in?
Ability to address specific needs. Panelists valued schools where the learning supports are built in, part of the culture and not something parents fight for. For instance, dyslexia requires specific approaches and should be well matched to the child’s particular needs. When Abby learned her 2e son is dyslexic, she explored several schools in the area that address the needs of dyslexic learners and was able to find one that could focus both on the remediation he needed as well as allow him to explore his strengths and interests. Carmen commented “My ADHD son needs a different kind of environment, more inclusive and accepting of his differences where he can talk and there are opportunities for collaboration.” The best schools for 2e learners also have flexibility built into their cultures, so that children can accelerate in areas of strength and receive support in more challenging areas.
When public school works. It’s possible to find a good fit with teachers in public school as well. Sometimes, the public school really is the right place for a child; they are required to support kids with their learning differences. As Carmen noted, after a string of up and down experiences with teachers in private schools, her son switched to public school for part of third and all of fourth grades. Her son’s fourth grade teacher “blew away my stereotypes about public school not necessarily being a fit for a kid like this.” However, while the public school was better able to address her son’s ADHD challenges, “They weren’t as well-equipped to differentiate. With private schools, the differentiation potential is generally better.” One attendee mentioned that “even though there are plenty of stories about negative experiences in public schools, positive experiences are possible, you just may not be hearing about them. People who are in this field do care; they may be constrained by the resources available, but most do genuinely want to serve the kids.”
With so many things to consider, Abby summed up the panelists’ shared experience: “Smaller schools often make more sense for 2e learners, or at least a school where you’ve got a strong community. Whether you choose public or private, it’s important to find a school that emphasizes kindness and empathy as their core values.”
Learn about the panelists’ advice regarding the admissions process in the second blog post.