Special needs scholarships rise

Jennifer Gibson said she just wanted her daughter to have a chance.

 

That's something she didn't feel she had at Evans Elementary School, where her child with special needs was in the most restrictive setting, Ms. Gibson said.

As soon as she could, she enrolled her at Hope Christian School of Augusta under the new Georgia Special Needs Scholarship, a program approved by lawmakers last year to allow special needs children in public schools to receive scholarships to attend private ones.

"A lot of times you can't make these changes because of the financial obligations," Ms. Gibson said. But she could, with the scholarship.

Friday was the deadline for parents to apply for the scholarships under Senate Bill 10 and final numbers aren't in yet, but the Rev. Ron Burton, headmaster of the small Martinez school, said the program fueled a "significant" increase in enrollment.

About 30 scholarship students pushed enrollment just past 70, he said, and his staff has nearly doubled.

"It's almost as though the Senate bill was written looking specifically at our school," the Rev. Burton said. Hope Christian's "main ministry" is educating children with special needs.

The staff specializes in teaching students with greater challenges and each teacher welcomes the opportunity to work with them, he said.

The personal attention enables students who "weren't academically living up to their full potential" to show their abilities.

"I think it's this approach that attracts parents," the headmaster said.

Ms. Gibson said she chose Hope Christian because it best met the needs of her daughter.

Before Senate Bill 10, she had no choices. Because she was in the psychoeducational program, it was "one room and one room only."

"When I heard that the Senate bill passed, I jumped on it," she said. "I can tell you her behavior has completely changed."

Her daughter is performing well in the more stringent setting with its higher expectations.

"Children are amazing," Ms. Gibson said. "They will do what you put in front of them."

Senate President Pro Tem Eric Johnson, sponsor of the legislation, said he is pleased with the program and hopes to see other voucher programs adopted.

"At some point, at failing schools, vouchers ought to be an option," Mr. Johnson said. "The only true accountability measure is to allow students to leave."

When fully implemented, he expects to see 5 percent of eligible students on scholarship, he said.

The Georgia Department of Education approved three other area private schools to participate in the program.

Westminster Schools of Augusta accepted two students, and Episcopal Day School didn't accept any. A message left for C.H. Terrell Academy seeking comment wasn't immediately returned.

Reach Greg Gelpi at (706) 828-3851 or greg.gelpi@augustachronicle.com.