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Posted at 6:00 PM ET, 01/19/2011

Exceptional school has lesson for charters

By Jay Mathews

I knew my friend and former Post colleague Rick Weintraub had a son with learning disabilities. Rick had told me how Philip worked hard, got an education, and eventually became a productive married adult, just like his parents.

Although Philip is the only member of the family ever to land a full-time job at the White House, as a staff aide in the Clinton administration.

What I didn’t know was the role Ivymount, a Montgomery County school I had never heard of, had played in this story. Now I have read Weintraub’s new book , "No Other Place: Ivymount, the First Fifty Years," and wonder if its history might inspire an end to the useless squabbles we are having in this area about public charter schools.

When we reporters mention schools like Ivymount for students with disabilities, it is usually in connection with fights over money. Public school districts are legally required to pay private school tuition for such students if the districts can’t meet their needs. Some public school officials suggest that aggressive parents are ripping them off. Lawyers get involved. It is not a friendly environment.

But the book, edited by Weintraub with assistance from Bonnie Beers and Stephanie deSibour, reveals a different dynamic at the beginning of the era of special education.

When what became Ivymount began in 1960 there were no federal laws requiring schooling that suited the needs of kids with disabilities. Private and public school educators were just beginning to see the untapped potential of many children who up to then had been sent off institutions that were, despite their best efforts, often no better than warehouses.

Public school districts did not then resist, as they often do now, paying for something better. They were delighted to discover the resourceful teachers at Ivymount. They gratefully assigned the children to the assortment of innovative programs then called the Christ Church Child Center, or CCCC. It was and is a private school, but its budget must be approved by government officials.

Weintraub said Ivymount “is a 50-year example of how to start, nurture and build a highly successful quasi-public school. Probably 99 percent of the thousands of students to have attended did so when they were assigned there by local public schools.”

The two administrators who first ran the enterprise, Shari Gelman and Lillian Davis, like the the current director Jan Wintrol, were natural innovators. There was little research to guide them. Equipment and medications were primitive. They did the best with what they had, using taxpayer dollars.

What does that sound like? “In effect,” Weintraub said, “Ivymount was a charter school before we knew about charter schools.”

The school was a boon to the many children whose disabilities were beyond what standard programs were designed for. In the book, language specialist Judy Smith recalled one needy applicant. “One school that dealt with children with learning disabilities had told the parents that they could not program for him because he was blind,” she said. “A school for blind children had told them they could not program for him because of his learning disabilities.”

Ivymount found specialists who could help him. He now works in community services for Montgomery County and provides translation services in Spanish.

The book is full stories of students introduced to productive lives by Ivymount teachers. Weintraub said he sees it as a study of “the value of having dynamic programs outside of, yet intimately linked to, public systems,” not only to help the children but to be “a laboratory for effective programming.”

Montgomery County recently rejected another attempt to start a charter school. Like other suburban districts it seems irked by innovation without county control.

But if the relationship between counties and charter schools was closer, as it has been with Ivymount, maybe creative solutions for other problems, such as education for the gifted, or immigrants, or those who misbehave, could be found.

Read Jay's blog every day, and follow all of The Post's Education coverage on Twitter, Facebook and our Education Web page.

By Jay Mathews  | January 19, 2011; 6:00 PM ET
Categories:  Local Living  | Tags:  Ivymount, Jan Wintrol, Lillian Davis, No Other Place,, Shari Gelman, education of children with disabilities  
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If the traditional public schools and the charter schools were under the auspices of the school district or the county, I wouldn't object. What I object to is the fact that so many of these charters are being opened, not by teachers looking for innovative ways of teaching, but by "operators" who are siphoning huge amounts of school tax dollars into their own pockets. We are crazy if we continue to allow our schools to be privatized in this way. Crazy.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | January 19, 2011 7:10 PM | Report abuse

Private schools were around at the Revolution, although many were in Europe. The difference here as I recall stems from the student plan that describes where the student will be in two week, two months, or at some checkpoint in the year.

Sound impossible? As long as the government hires outside testing agencies to develop measuring devices while leaving local educators out of the planning we will have gaps. Students such as those at Ivymount are not tested, but rather have a plan established providing parents with check points and growth stages (learning stages.)

Until we share those plans, or work with parents to establish those plans, we will miss the very thing we hope to see...growth.

Posted by: jbeeler | January 20, 2011 7:20 AM | Report abuse

If the traditional public schools and the charter schools were under the auspices of the school district or the county, I wouldn't object. What I object to is the fact that so many of these charters are being opened, not by teachers looking for innovative ways of teaching, but by "operators" who are siphoning huge amounts of school tax dollars into their own pockets. We are crazy if we continue to allow our schools to be privatized in this way. Crazy.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher |

Like the "Educational Entrepreneurs" earning salaries and "bonuses" well into the 6-figure range? Who are they REALLY working for?

Posted by: mcstowy | January 20, 2011 2:55 PM | Report abuse

Although, Ivymount serves a purpose for certain students. I am concerned that your statement about Ivymount being a model for charters could be interpreted to support using charters to segregate students with disabilities as well as other groups you mention, such as immigrants and kids who misbehave. Instead, many parents have been encouraging MCPS to use initiatives like Universal Design for Learning to build the capacity to educate all these students in regular schools and general education classrooms by designing curricula (including goals, materials, teaching methods and assessments) which provides both supports and challenge for diverse abilities, learning styles and cultural backgrounds. Charter schools may have their purpose, but hopefully not as a vehicle to segregate certain groups of students from their peers. A model charter school should educate a natural proportion of students with disabilities and English language learners together with all the other students.

Posted by: rsabiandss | January 21, 2011 5:45 PM | Report abuse

Are you missing a key point, Jay? In the dozens of years since Ivymount began, schools around the nation have been steadily *keeping* their special needs population. This is also the law of the land under FAPE and LRE. I would not compare private schools that operate to serve special ed students that a district *refuses* to educate with a parental choice for a charter school. They are and should be two different things.

As an Autistic Support teacher k-2 in the Philadelphia Public school system, I'm proud of the investment that our district is making in educating some of the most challenging students. While private settings may be necessary for a small segment of students, most can and should be educated in public schools. Traditional public schools may struggle to meet the needs of some children, but there is an advantage. Teachers, admin and families get a very accurate picture of how the child functions in the *real world* and can address those needs more completely. Sometimes, the intense supports in private facilities can limit a child's growth by not presenting enough daily challenge.

I personally see this process in Early Intervention (EI) students entering Philly public schools in kindergarten. In Philadelphia, these specialized early education programs are contracted out and they are quite successful in some ways. One notable failure is a lack of behavioral programming and not enough emphasis on academic skills. I have quite high functioning children coming into my class and they can't write their names, numbers or any letters of the alphabet. Why??? The fact is that the bar is too low in some of these EI classrooms. Yes, these children would probably not last in traditional preschool programs due to behavioral and communication needs. However, there needs to be a closer fit to the public school model that emphasizes academic skills, particularly for those student who are *capable.*

The bottom line is that most students should and can have their needs met in public schools. We should not look to the bad old days of special ed for help in dealing with challenging populations.

Posted by: Nikki1231 | January 22, 2011 7:13 AM | Report abuse

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