Patrick B. McGuigan
OKLAHOMA CITY – Since emergence of a strong school choice movement in Oklahoma, some in the public education mainstream have vigorously opposed each incremental step toward system flexibility, beginning with creation of public charter schools in the late 1990s.
As steps were taken over the past decade to create choice mechanisms that allow access to non-government programs, opposition intensified, up to and including use of school district resources to oppose scholarships for children with special needs.
However, there is a private program in north Oklahoma City with children who are now participating in the Lindsey Nicole Henry (LNH) Scholarships, created in 2010.
Even ferocious anti-choice administrators like Oklahoma City Schools Superintendent Robert Neu might find it acceptable.
Oklahoma City's “Special Care” began in 1985.
Amanda, daughter of Oklahoman Pam Newby, was battling childhood leukemia, taking medicines and therapies different from anyone else in her pre-school. As the group's website explains, “To some other parents, that was scary. Because of those fears, the Newbys were asked to leave the school and look for somewhere else for Amanda to attend.”
Newby collaborated with Joe Dan Trigg to establish Special Care, which then and now provides “specialized direct care, education and therapy services to children with and without special needs.”
In a conclusion not debated even by foes of parental choice, Special Care is, in the words of its online narrative, “the only inclusive program of its kind in the Oklahoma City metropolitan area.”
Founders, staff and teachers “understand that children and families with enormous, overwhelming challenges to face deserve the same opportunities as typically developing children and their families.”
Over the winter, a few Special Care students became eligible for LNH scholarships that can be used to attend the institution. According to Kelli P. Dupuy, director or marketing and development for the group, “this will be a huge help to these families.”
In a briefing three months ago at the Devon Energy Auditorium on the Special Care Campus, a crowd of around 20 parents listened as Newby and Anita Eccard, who works on special education services at the Oklahoma Department of Education, explained the process through which Special Care patrons might access the LNH resources.
Although there has been opposition to the Henry Scholarships at every step since they were first proposed five years ago, the program now includes a few hundred children. Last year, it was amended to include special needs children in the “Sooner Start” program. Youngsters under 36 months of age with an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) in place can now apply for the program and, if accepted, enter immediately.
Older children must spend time in a public school program before becoming eligible, Eccard explained. As a practical matter, for most older children application and acceptance will take about a year. In the parlance of administrators, “funding must be triggered” for them.
Despite the challenges in the process, Eccard said, “the idea was and is to give parents another choice.”
The explained, “the bottom line is that parents now have a right to decide they can access the program at a place like Special Care if it meets their child's needs.”
State Rep. Jason Nelson, R-Oklahoma City, whose vision led to the LNH program and who attended the Special Care meeting, says that “one size does not fit all” when it comes to education of children with special needs. He participated in a November 2014 briefing speaking from Special Care's Vince Gill stage.
Among parents in attendance, the phrase often heards was they are “grateful for this, a first step” for their children. An often expressed concern is that a child might “age out” before they can access LNH scholarships. However, if the process is completed, Eccard explained, after a year there is an assumption of eligibility for services.
Speaking to a broader audience than the Special Care parents, Eccard encouraged parents to “be a good detective for the sake of your child.
Check out the private schools to create confidence that one of them could be a place for your child.”
Special Care's Early Childhood Education program now serves some 135 children.
An after-school care program and summer programs provide “help with homework” and snacks, socialization and exercise. The program reaches children from 6 to 21.
A teen board at Special Care raises “awareness about our mission and organization while also forming peer to peer relationships with other students from surrounding areas.”
Through the years, over 6,000 children have received direct care from the institution. In all, with family members and parents included, about 17,000 people have benefited at Special Care.
According to the group's staff, 400-500 high school, college and community volunteers contribute “time and energy” to help each year. Additionally, 5,000 “childcare professionals” have been trained at or through Special Care, thus far.
The program is named for the daughter of Brad and Kim Henry, who died of a rare neuromuscular disease as an infant.
Concerning the near-term future of the program, under attack by public school administrators, Rep. Nelson told CapitolBeatOK the state's governing rules for the program “are far out of date. That situation must be corrected by the state Board of Education. Many of the issues now facing LNH parents could be corrected with proper administrative rules and implementation of the same.”
NOTE: A veteran journalist and educator, McGuigan is editor of CapitolBeatOK, publisher of The City Sentinel newspaper, and a teacher at a public charter alternative school in north Oklahoma City.