At the end of Girard Road in sits a school with which you may not be familiar. It’s called , which caters to a very particular population of students from 45 school districts across Allegheny, Washington, Beaver, Butler, Westmoreland and Fayette counties, and it starts its 2011-12 school year on Tuesday.
The Association for Children and Adults with Learning Disabilities, or the ACLD for short, is the parent organization under which The Tillotson School was established.
Named after Katharine Tillotson, one of the people who founded the ACLD in 1974, the school is a not-for-profit, approved private organization that receives government funding because of the special needs of the student body that it serves.
According to ACLD President Tom Fogarty, Tillotson is one of 34 schools across Pennsylvania that serves individuals who fall in any of the 14 disability categories recognized under the federal government’s Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004 (IDEA), each of which is licensed and approved to accommodate anywhere from one to four IDEA disability categories.
Specifically, Fogarty said, Tillotson is licensed and approved to accommodate children with neurological impairments and other health impairments—such as attention deficit disorder, epilepsy and Tourette syndrome, among others. Though, its primary focus is on children with specific learning disabilities, or SLDs.
Fogarty made a careful distinction.
“The term ‘specific learning disability’ is not a vanilla or generic term for learning problems,” he said.
To further distinguish the term, Fogarty explained that SLDs are not a product of an “intellectual disability,” which is the current term for what was once referred to as “mental retardation.”
He also said that SLDs are not the result of visual or hearing impairments; physical and motor impairments; attention deficit disorders; emotional disorders; or environmental, cultural or economic disadvantages.
Having laid out what an SLD is not, Fogarty went on to describe what it is.
“The term refers to a family of specific and certain brain dysfunctions, or neurobiological deficits, that are displayed in specific problematic ways,” he said. “SLDs are chronic, lifelong, disabling conditions that vary from person to person and can negatively impact educational success, self-esteem and daily living.”
Some of the ways that SLDs can be displayed include diminished skills in reasoning; memory; communication; written language; basic reading; mathematical calculations and reasoning; and social competence and/or emotional maturity.
Often, SLDs cluster together with other disabilities. In fact, Fogarty said, most of Tillotson’s body of approximately 100 students has at least one or two secondary diagnoses in addition to their primary diagnosis of having an SLD.
Hypothetical examples that Fogarty provided included a child with an SLD, diabetes and Tourette syndrome, and a child with an SLD and speech and language impairments, each of which are disability categories under IDEA.
Noting that approximately 15 percent of the U.S. population, or one in seven Americans, has one or more types of SLDs, Fogarty said, “Not everyone who has SLD needs special treatment.”
He remarked that many students with SLDs can be appropriately served in public or private schools, whether in mainstream or special education classes. It is only when those students with SLDs cannot be appropriately served in public and private schools that they can turn to Tillotson for help.
When a student does turn to Tillotson, the school, unlike public schools, has the right not only to accept him or her but also the right to reject him or her should the nature of his or her condition not warrant the highly specialized programs that the school administers.
Once admitted to Tillotson, students enjoy a 3-1 student-to-teacher ratio with no more than 12 students in each homeroom.
Fogarty said that instruction throughout the day involves a lot of pre-teaching, preparation and review in addition to regular course instruction. An individual education program, or IEP, is developed for each student as both a plan for his or her instruction and a tool to measure his or her progress.
Teachers communicate with parents via daily progress books that are sent home with each student and weekly phone calls or emails regarding IEP progress.
There are no study hall periods at Tillotson. Instead, students are given extra reading periods, many of which employ the uniform, sequential and regimented WILSON Reading System. According to the WILSON Language Training website, the WILSON Reading System “is a highly structured remedial program that directly teaches the structure of the language to students and adults who have been unable to learn with other teaching strategies or who may require multisensory language instruction.”
Much of what goes on at any other school also goes on at Tillotson. Art and gym classes entertain and activate the students, and upper and lower school student councils regularly meet to rule on matters of student interest.
Indeed, Fogarty said that the school’s administrators, teachers and staff work very hard to make sure that the Tillotson experience is as similar to the public school experience as possible, with the only difference being the specialized instruction provided at Tillotson.
For more information on The ACLD Tillotson School, visit www.acldonline.org, where you can also find valuable and reliable information on childhood SLDs and adult SLDs, guidelines for obtaining services, and the laws governing the rights of people with these and other disabilities.
For visually impaired people or those with difficulty reading, the site has a feature that will read its text to users.