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Wednesday, October 01, 2014, 5:34 a.m.
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Group talking to Conway Christian about K-12 school for special-needs children

By Tammy Keith

This article was published July 27, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.

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Parent Shannon Milam, from left, and Kirsten Kravitz stand with Conway Christian School President and CEO Richard Henley. The women are members of the Committee for Options in Education, which is exploring the possibility of a K-12 school in Conway for developmentally disabled children. They have asked Conway Christian School to partner in some way with the proposed school.

CONWAY — About a dozen parents and professionals have formed a committee to explore creating a K-12 school for children with developmental disabilities, and the committee has found an ally in Conway Christian School.

Conway Christian School President and CEO Richard Henley said he has discussed with the board what role the school might play and is working with the committee.

“I have yet to find anyone with a negative opinion,” Henley said. “This is just so clearly a need.”

Henley, who was hired in June, said he heard about a need. Then “out of the blue,” he received an email from the Committee for Options in Education.

“One of the first conversations I had with a teacher — another with a parent, another with a community person — said, ‘Hey, we have an opportunity to improve our efforts with kids with learning challenges.’ All of a sudden, we get contacted by this outside group, COE. They see a big, big gap in the services to these kids,” Henley said. “So, when you keep hearing similar-type comments from multiple directions, that’s a tip that you need to open your eyes up.”

Henley said he doesn’t know what role Conway Christian might play.

“One could be a separate school under separate direction; it could be a separate school on its own that Conway Christian just partners with,” Henley said. “That’s probably the two things I can really see occurring.”

Conway Christian, a private school, does not have a special-education program.

However, Henley said, the school has made progress in that area.

“In any school, you’re going to have 10, 15, 20 percent of kids that have some type of learning disabilities,” Henley said. “What we have learned is that with training of the teachers, you can, No. 1, better recognize it and address it in a way that doesn’t negatively affect the other kids and gives the ones with a problem a better boost where they can handle it.”

Kirsten Kravitz, a nurse practitioner at Conway Children’s Clinic, is a member of the committee. She has two children who attend Conway Christian, but they do not have learning problems, she said.

She has a nephew with autism, and she has a master’s degree in nursing with an emphasis in children with special needs.

“I worked at Dennis Developmental Center at Arkansas Children’s Hospital, specializing in diagnostics for developmental and behavioral disabilities,” she said.

“I see in my practice right now — I kind of get the referrals for autism [and developmental disabilities],” she said. “I have patients on a weekly basis who say, ‘Now, what do I do past kindergarten?’”

Kravitz said Conway has at least two good preschool programs for children with special needs, but the idea is to have an autonomous K-12 Christian school for children with developmental disabilities.

Kravitz said she and other mothers started “spirited discussions,” and the committee was formed in May.

One of those mothers is Shannon Milam, 34, of Conway, a mother of three. She said her 3 1/2-year-old son, Jackson, is developmentally delayed and has a speech delay. His twin sister, Lainey, is developing typically, Milam said. Milam has a daughter Claire, who will start first grade this fall in the Conway School District.

Jackson receives occupational and speech therapies at Pediatrics Plus Therapy Services in Conway.

“Some of us who are part of the committee have already been thinking about our children who are going to start kindergarten in one or two years,” Milam said. “Public school is not an option for everybody.

“[Jackson] needs specific help in certain areas to achieve and meet certain goals.”

“We feel like at this point and time, he might thrive better in an environment where the student-to-teacher ratio is smaller, the 1-to-6 ratio, with therapy directed directly to his delays,” she said.

Conway School District Superintendent Greg Murry said he had only seen the press release on the committee.

He said children with special needs, whether developmentally delayed or autistic, are served in the public school.

“Absolutely. There’s not a question of if we can serve them. There may be a question about whether the parents feel like we’re serving them appropriately to the fullest extent they would want,” Murry said.

Murry said he doesn’t know if enrollment in the Conway School District would be impacted if the school were to get off the ground.

“Anything I would say would be speculation,” Murry said. “I don’t think it would significantly impact our enrollment, but it may. They may start doing things that would cause other parents to enroll in that school, I suppose.”

Milam said she and other parents started talking about the possibilities, which led to the committee forming.

“We started talking, and that’s kind of how everything evolved — do you want to try to start a school? Do we really think there is that much of a need here in Conway?

“We think there is an uncapped market here because I’m not sure that this has ever been talked about,” Milam said.

Kravitz said committee members did research on other schools.

“When we started brainstorming this idea for a developmental school, we just did exploratory research everywhere,” Kravitz said.

The members looked at the possibility of a Little Rock school opening a satellite school in Conway, she said, but that isn’t likely.

Kravitz said the educational model closest to what she envisions is a school called All Children’s Academy in Little Rock.

At that school, she said, students have a devotional every day, creationism is taught, and the school offers a multisensory curriculum.

Kravitz said that when Henley came on board at Conway Christian, it made her think about a possible partnership, although that role hasn’t been decided.

“No. 1, ideally this group would like it to be a Christ-centered environment, so who better to partner with than Conway Christian, which uses solid biblical principles?” she said.

“We are housed under Conway Christian, metaphorically, and, … if we are at an off-site, would love to know we would have some of the administrative support,” she said.

“It has momentum,” Kravitz said. “We did not expect it to get this level of interest and Conway Christian to be so excited about it early on. That was a huge answer to prayer.

“We don’t look at it as a competition with public schools,” the Faulkner County Day School or Pediatrics Plus Therapy Services.

“We know there are people who are driving past and through Faulkner County to go to developmental schools in Little Rock,” Kravitz said.

“What we’re talking about is a subset of kiddos in this county who are not going to be mainstreamed, and that is not the goal. It’s … meeting them at their ability level.”

Milam said the classrooms might be created by ability level, not age, for example.

“We all feel strongly about something that’s ability-based. Not because you’re 5 years old, but this is how you read, so you’re going here,” she said.

Kravitz said the teachers are vital to the proposed school.

“What we know is, we need certified, specialized teachers who are running the show in there. We need therapists who are at our disposal and not coming in … and leaving,” Kravitz said.

“We have to decide what is the level of ability and disability that we can properly serve in a school,” she said. “If we can immerse them in a therapeutic setting and a setting where everyone is specially trained in these areas, we are bound to make some substantial progress with these kiddos.”

Murry said one drawback of a private school to serve this population of students is funding.

“The cost of special education is significantly greater than the cost for a regular-education child. Because of that, not everybody’s willing to tap into that portion of education because it’s so costly,” Murry said. “I don’t know if there’s a whole lot of folks out there willing to money up outside of the public schools.”

The proposed school would rely on fundraising and donations, committee members said.

“It’s called a private-pay option, which means you are not governed by state and federal school regulations,” Kravitz said.

“This does not get off the ground without fundraising, and it doesn’t sustain itself without enrollment.”

She said the committee and Conway Christian are “gauging a community level of interest and seeing how that will translate into a financial backing.”

“It’s great to have moms say, ‘Keep me posted,’ but we need people to get behind this and get us some dollars,” she said.

Anyone who would like to have input on the issue may contact Dee Dee Cain at cain@conwaycorp.net or Kravitz at kirstenkravitz@gmail.com.

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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