Pennsylvania Charter School laws are intended to “improve pupil learning” and “encourage the use of different and innovative teaching methods,” according to state law. One Wyncote resident is set to do just that with a new charter school he hopes to open in fall 2012. A public hearing is scheduled Dec. 14 at 2 p.m. at the Springfield High School in the small auditorium to determine if the Gary Sobolow will get his charter for Whole Life Charter School.
“It’s generally very difficult to open charter schools in anything other than a really big district, he said. “Small districts are scared to death of us. They don’t want anybody to draw their students away. Commonwealth wide, small districts are getting together and casting huge shadows on charters."
If students attend the charter school rather than the public school, the tax dollars set aside to pay their tuition are funneled to the charter.
Sobolow said many Upper Dublin, Abington and Cheltenham parents have expressed interested in the school.
“We get about 80 percent, and the district withholds 20 percent for administration fees,” he said.
If granted, Sobolow would enroll 108 students in grades four through six for the first year in its Springfield building at 1200 Mermaid Lane. The school would be geared toward helping children who have been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and who are on the spectrum of Asperger’s syndrome.
“Our goal is to create kids that are really savvy on real life skills, real world skills,” Sobolow said.
It would be the only school in the state aimed at children with these three diagnoses, which have similar symptoms, Sobolow said. Its no-cost tuition would set it apart from most schools that are designed to help children with learning disabilities.
“ADHD and Asperger’s have language-based learning disabilities. ADHD is very potentially on the Asperger’s, spectrum and researchers have been looking into it and certain elements, such as social skills that both ADD and Asperger’s folks generally find difficult,” he said.
The school would add more grade levels each year, catering to the original class until they graduate 12th grade and add a fresh class of fourth graders. Sobolow doesn’t hope to start children any younger.
“A lot of parents start to notice that their children are a little different in the first grade and hope that public schools will be able to solve their issues, and usually that doesn’t occur to the degree that parents hope. We generally find that parents are ready to move students out of schools in the fourth grade,” he said.
Sobolow has ADHD, as does his daughter, so he said he understands what’s lacking in traditional schools in educating that disorder. His school would use a modeling method for children to work with mentors and in intern programs to learn social skills, something that’s missing in other schools, he said.
According to Charter School law, all schools are required to meet state curriculum and “shall not unlawfully discriminate in admissions, hiring or operation.”
That means that children with no disabilities could also attend the Whole Life Charter School, and all teachers must have special education certifications. However, all students would be treated to a teacher student ratio of 10 to 1.
“The biggest difference is the methods to teach the same subject matter, and it’s the methods that make a difference,” said a parent who wished to remain unnamed. He gave his middle name, Marc, because of the delicacy of discussing his daughter’s problems.
Marc’s daughter is eight-years-old and attends Friends Select, a private school in Center City. Marc, his wife and their two children reside in Philadelphia, but hope to send their daughter, who has been diagnosed with ADHD, to Whole Life Charter School.
“The difference will be they will get targeted help for their social skills,” Marc said. “The charter school, for those children who have the need, they just learn differently than most children, and that’s not something any schools I know of are willing or able to do.”
Children with ADHD are generally three years behind their peers in social development, which can cause emotional problems that may linger in adulthood, according to www.adhdsupport.com.
It’s also a very emotional point to parents. Marc began crying when he discussed his daughter’s lack of friends.
“It’s hard to see that she doesn’t get invited to birthday parties and she doesn’t have playdates, while her brother, who attends the same school does,” he said.
Sobolow shared a story about his daughter when she was in middle school. She gave out dozens of Valentine’s Day cards with candy attached to each one. At the end of the day, all the cards were shoved back into her locker, but the candy had been eaten.
These parents want to try to prevent these same social situations from occurring, and they want to try to teach their children how to cope with them.
“We want her to be a happy and productive adult one day. We believe strongly in the [Whole Life] school and hope to see it happen,” Marc said.