School administrators insisted that my son’s struggles in the classroom were because he had not been disciplined enough, even though they were aware that Hayden had been diagnosed with autism. They waged war against him as a “bad child” — shutting my little second grader in a mop closet, putting him through physical and emotional abuse in the Alternative Learning Environment program, and forcing hospitalization at Pinnacle Point Behavioral Healthcare in Little Rock.
I tried several times to get him an IEP, and some teachers tried to help, but there was only so much they could do. I pulled him out of school to do virtual learning and was finally able to get his IEP through his virtual school. By this point, though, Hayden had suffered so much that we had to take a year off to get his emotional health on track.
Then, I enrolled Hayden at Compass Academy using the Succeed Scholarship, and everything changed. The Succeed Scholarship in Arkansas is a K-12 scholarship program, often called a voucher program, that gives students with learning disabilities the opportunity to attend a state-approved private school. We used the Succeed Scholarship for Hayden to attend Compass Academy, a nonprofit school specializing in helping students with disabilities.
At Compass, they know how to help students with autism and learning disabilities cope with their conditions. They don’t punish Hayden — they help him. When he has a stimming episode, they know how to help him calm down and then let him return to his desk. They understand when he has a hard day with autism and don’t hold it against him later. Every day is a new day.
As a result, Hayden’s behavior has improved drastically, and he is finally progressing academically. He works alongside his peers, but his classwork is catered specifically to his level, which is really important to us.
Hayden’s brother, William, is also making great strides thanks to the Succeed Scholarship. William has ADHD, short-term memory delay, acute anxiety disorder, and executive function disorder. His public school provided him an IEP, but his academics continued to decline as he attended middle school. They tried to keep him on an inclusion track, where he was supposed to get support in class so that he could stay on track with his peers. It failed miserably. They dropped his speech services three months into the school year and remarked regularly about having to redirect him.
At Compass, he gets more one-on-one attention, and they are comfortable and compassionate about addressing his anxiety, redirecting him and helping with whatever else he needs. His academic scores have improved, and he has made progress toward getting on grade level. He isn’t afraid to get a question wrong, and he reaches out to teachers for help. He is making friends. The school is helping with his executive function delays and building his short-term memory delays.
I have two other children, Joshua and Shawn, who still attend public school, so I’m not writing this to condemn all public schools. Hayden and William needed a different learning environment, though, and it was not something that we could afford without help. They needed to be in a school with leaders and teachers trained specifically for how to help them succeed despite their disabilities and in a school with the capacity for the one-on-one attention they need.
Hayden and William aren’t alone. I know of many other students who were denied IEPs and put in the Alternative Learning Environment as if they were just misbehaving. Alternative Learning is run by an outside education service cooperative with no accountability to parents, such as not having a contact person to discuss our concerns, so this rarely, if ever, solves the problem.
No one wins when kids get trapped in schools that aren’t the right fit for them. Parents feel helpless, schools get overwhelmed and frustrated, and students get left behind. We have been so blessed that our children found a solution through the Succeed Scholarship Program, and we hope the program, and others like it, will continue to grow to help more students and families in need.