By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published July 19, 2007
Eight Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Atlanta are among the 114 schools participating in the new Georgia scholarship program for students with disabilities.
The Georgia Board of Education approved the school list July 12 in time for parents to register students for the upcoming school year. Faith-based educational programs, including Christian, Jewish and Islamic schools, make up a large share of approved schools.
Archdiocesan school Superintendent Diane Starkovich said Catholic schools are participating because of a belief that parents should be the decision-makers for their child’s education.
“As the first educators, they know what’s best for their children,” she said.
Seven of the North Georgia Catholic schools in the scholarship program are in the archdiocesan school system. The eighth school is Notre Dame Academy of Duluth, an independent Catholic school. Remaining archdiocesan schools either already have waiting lists or principals chose to wait and see how the program unfolds, the superintendent said.
Debra Orr, founder of Notre Dame Academy, believes participation in the voucher program is a moral obligation.
“It is one of the beatitudes. We take care of those most in need,” she said.
The voucher program is untested. It only became law in the spring. The archdiocese was active in lobbying lawmakers for its passage. It has proven very popular already. More than 3,000 families have expressed interest in receiving the school vouchers.
The scholarship is available to special needs students who attended public schools in Georgia last year. The payment can be used to pay tuition at either a private school or another public school.
State education leaders are cautioning parents that the approved private schools do not need to meet strict guidelines for educating special needs students. For example, schools are under no obligation to hire certified teachers for special education.
Starkovich said the Catholic schools participating in the scholarship program are experienced in educating the special needs of these students. Some 12 percent of the students in the system are identified as having learning disabilities, from mild to moderate, Starkovich said.
“We have resource teachers. We have counselors,” she said.
Parents of existing students should not worry that their children will receive less attention since the staff is experienced, she said.
However, the system is not equipped to handle students with a severe learning disability. There are no plans at this time to hire additional teachers in response to the voucher program.
How does the state program work?
The law makes a student with one of 11 disabilities, from autism and blindness to behavioral disorder and traumatic brain injury, eligible for the scholarship. Parents apply for the voucher from the state Education Department. The dollar amount will vary from student to student.
The tuition scholarship can help parents afford private school costs, but at the same time, they will have to shoulder additional responsibility. For instance, parents are responsible for transporting the student to the new school.
Orr, an experienced learning disability teacher herself, said the vouchers ease the financial squeeze for parents facing tuition costs and payment for extra services necessary for a disabled student.
“That affords the parents an opportunity to keep the child in a Catholic school,” Orr said about the vouchers.
She is confident that testing after a few years will show students with disabilities get a better education in private schools than they receive in public schools.
At Fairburn’s Our Lady of Mercy High School, principal Danny Dorsel said the school’s small class sizes would help students with learning disabilities get the proper attention.
“Our goal is to have successful graduates,” he said.
The school, with 203 students, does not have the resources to accept students with severe disabilities, he said. However, the staff has experience helping young people with moderate learning disabilities, Dorsel said.
The annual tuition to attend an archdiocesan school ranges from $5,500 for grade school to less than $10,000 for high school. Notre Dame Academy tuition runs from $3,250 for its pre-kindergarten program to $9,200 for its middle school.
Other Catholic schools in North Georgia participating in the state’s new scholarship program for students are: Queen of Angels School, Roswell; St. Catherine of Siena School, Kennesaw; St. John Neumann Regional School, Lilburn; St. John the Evangelist School, Hapeville; St. Joseph School, Marietta; and St. Peter Claver Regional School, Decatur.