On a recent morning at Wings Learning Center in Redwood City, a young boy navigated his school's hallways lying on his stomach on a bright red, wheeled scooter board, using his arms to pull himself down a carpeted walkway, like a surfer paddling into a wave. He reached the front desk, where he stood up and asked a staff member for a key to a bathroom. An occupational therapist followed closed behind.
While it's unimaginable that a student would move through a traditional public school in such a manner, it's the norm at Wings, a nonpublic school for students on the autism spectrum. The student was taking a needed break from class in a way that was specifically designed to regulate him while working on his motor skills (using his full body instead of simply walking) and communication (talking to the staff member and making a request).
Wings is one of about 20 nonpublic schools in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties that serve some of the education system's most vulnerable students when their public school districts can no longer do so. Nonpublic schools function as extensions of public districts, but offer smaller, specialized environments designed specifically to support struggling students, rather than fitting them into the sometimes limiting structure of a traditional school.
These are students on the moderate to severe end of the autism spectrum, including some who are nonverbal and rely on assistive technology to communicate. Others have emotional disturbances, depression, anxiety or disabilities that have become insurmountable barriers to their learning. Many of their disabilities manifested in extreme behavior at traditional schools — acting out, biting, harming one's self or others, refusing to go to school all together — that made it near impossible for them to exercise their right to a public education.
After exhausting all options at a public school, districts can refer students to nonpublic schools. The district must pay in full for the placement, which is meant to be temporary but can last several years, including transportation to farther-flung schools. Federal law requires public schools to provide students with disabilities free and appropriate public education, or FAPE, even if that "appropriate" public education program is not available within their schools.
Nonpublic school students make up just 1.6% of the state's special-education population, according to the California Department of Education. In Palo Alto Unified, there are currently 52 students enrolled in nonpublic schools (including one through a settlement agreement, rather than the district's special education process) at a cost of $2.4 million.
Nonpublic schools are often families' last resort, and their quality varies. Nonpublic schools made headlines in 2018 when a special-needs student on the autism spectrum died after being placed in a face-down restraint at a now-closed El Dorado Hills school. The incident prompted new state legislation that increased oversight of nonpublic schools.
But locally, parents said nonpublic schools' flexibility, specialized staff, individualized attention and deep understanding of specific disabilities was a saving grace for their children.
"We joke that EBC is not the school that when your child is born you hope that they get into but you are really happy it exists," said Kira Sabot, whose son attends the Esther B. Clark (EBC) School, a nonpublic school at the Children's Health Council in Palo Alto. "It's like they gave us our child back."
Nonpublic school students make up a small percentage of the state's overall special-education population. There are about 300 nonpublic schools in California, which are overseen by the state Department of Education. School districts contract with nonpublic schools, some of which are nonprofits and some of which are private, to provide services to special-education students. Nonpublic schools are subject to the same federal and state education statutes as public schools, including for staff qualifications and curriculum, and must go through a detailed process to get certified by the state.
Because they are typically small schools with low staff-to-student ratios and specialized services, such as occupational therapy or psychological counseling, nonpublic school tuition is costly, as much as $15,000 per month. Most nonpublic schools only take referrals from school districts; private placements by parents are rare. (Without a referral, a parent is on the hook for the school's full cost, unless a district agrees to a partial reimbursement.) Some Palo Alto Unified students attend residential nonpublic schools out of state, including in Utah and Missouri.
Cindy Loleng-Perez, the school district's new director of secondary special education, said when she arrived she was alarmed by the number of students placed in alternative schools for a 12,000-student district. (There are 103 district students in outside placements this year, including at nonpublic schools and other educational institutions.) After a review that she said showed "gaps" in services, the special education department is now working to bring some of those students back by developing new programs, including a more intensive therapeutic program and reconfiguring a specialized "learning center" classroom for students with moderate to severe disabilities at Duveneck Elementary School.
Special-education parent advocates have applauded the plan to improve support within the district. But they're wary it could be executed poorly without sufficient staff, training and careful integration for vulnerable students.
"We are in full support of inclusion, and it is heartening to see this fuller continuum for our moderate-to-severe students," Kimberly Eng Lee, co-chair of special-education advocacy group Community Advisory Committee, told district staff after they presented their proposals to the school board in December. "But inclusion considers a person, not just a place.
"With out-of-district placement being three times more than the norm, this report might come across as only expense control. We hope not," she said.
Connor Kitayama was diagnosed with autism shortly before his third birthday. He attended public schools in San Mateo, where he had access to special day classes and an aide trained in applied behavioral analysis, known as ABA, a therapy that focuses on improving language, attention, memory, social and other skills for people on the autism spectrum. His family was largely satisfied with the education he received, though teacher expertise varied from year to year, said his mother, La Donna Ford.
Then, in high school, the rug was pulled out from under them. Kitayama pulled an aide's hair during class and the teacher said he could no longer be in the classroom, his mother said. The district's special-education director suggested Wings as a smaller environment that could be beneficial to him. Ford was devastated.
"I wanted Connor in a more typical school. It seemed like a failure to go to Wings. It seemed like he was doing worse," she said. "But it ended up being the best thing for him."
Nonpublic schools have the ability to structure their classrooms and instruction in ways that larger, traditional schools often cannot, said Wings Executive Director Karen Kaplan. She tightly controls enrollment — capped at 40 students — and places students only when teachers are ready to handle them. Classes have no more than eight students.
"The public schools have stricter rules and policies to adhere to," Kaplan said. "They can't always do what might be exactly what that individual kiddo (needs). The law says a program should be 'of benefit.' That doesn't mean 'the best.'"
Kitayama, now 20 years old, is happy to go to school, his mother said. (State law requires that students receive special education until they're 22 years old.) He's in classrooms that are specifically designed for students with autism, who learn best visually. Pictures of students hang on cubbies as a cue for where to put their belongings away in the morning. Kitayama becomes anxious without routine, so the individualized daily schedules every Wings student receives, which use a mix of words and pictures, give him much-needed predictability. Students with different sensory needs can sit on ball chairs or use standing desks. The brightness of overhead fluorescent lights is filtered by paper to help students who are light-sensitive.
Speech, occupational and assistive technology therapists work on site at Wings, so students don't have to be pulled out of class to access the services. All staff have received autism-specific training, including how to handle aggressive behavior, and they meet before and after the school day to review student progress. On a recent afternoon, when a student started loudly acting out, two staff members quickly erected a portable blue tarp around him — not to block others from seeing him, but to reduce the stimulation in his environment to calm him down.
In contrast with Kitayama's public high school, Wings staff don't get upset or punish him when he has a temper tantrum, his mother said. Instead, they "model calm." They speak softly and use as few words as possible (she was told once that what her son hears when other people talk is akin to the incomprehensible mumbling of the teacher in the Peanuts cartoon) to move him into a separate, quiet room where he can sit on a beanbag and decompress before returning to class.
Compared to the pattern in many public school districts — lucking out with a particular teacher or specialist who understands autism one year, and losing out the next — "they live autism there," said Ford, who now sits on Wings' board of directors.
Wings is "functional based," meaning the program is geared toward giving students real-life skills. On Fridays, Kitayama goes grocery shopping at a local Safeway with his speech therapist. Students volunteer at the San Mateo County History Museum and Savers, a nearby thrift store. In a laundry room down the hall from classrooms, shirts and pants on hangers, a hamper and wooden dresser double as lessons in matching and sorting (which supports students in reading, Kaplan said) as well as fine motor skills. In the school's kitchen, recipes become reading and math lessons. The kitchen and laundry room are also means to teach the students independent living skills.
Nonpublic school students are still the responsibility of their home school district, which remain involved primarily through individualized education plan (IEP) meetings. Required at least annually, the meetings bring together the parents and staff from the district and nonpublic school to review a student's goals, accommodations and potential transition back to public school. The plan determines a student's level of care. Nonpublic schools also send quarterly progress reports to students' home districts.
Wings' ultimate goal, Kaplan said, is that students are "in the best environment for learning," which for some, but not all, will be returning to public school. Last year, three Wings students went back to their home school district.
"Wings' belief is that if they're ready, they need to go back," she said. "If they're ready to interact with typical children, if they're ready to do group learning, if they're ready to make those transitions, let's help them get back."
Todd Collins, the president of the Palo Alto Unified Board of Education, moved to Palo Alto from the East Coast in part because of its reputation as a well-resourced district with more ample special-education funding. His son, Harry, is on the autism spectrum.
Harry started school at Barron Park Elementary School but did not make progress toward his individualized education plan goals. The school would frequently call home if he started crying or acted out, asking his parents to pick him up. The district eventually referred them to the nonpublic Morgan Autism Center in San Jose, where Harry has gone to school ever since.
Two things immediately changed after he moved schools, Collins said. First, the family stopped receiving frequent calls home. The school, which has worked with severely developmentally disabled children and young adults for 50 years, is "equipped to handle whatever comes up," he said.
The second? The first Saturday after Harry started going to Morgan Autism Center, he voluntarily went through the morning routine his parents had been working to adjust him to. He got up, had breakfast and went outside to wait for the bus that on school days would take him to San Jose.
"He liked going to school, which he never had (before). He was a school resister before," Collins said. "Our experience is in lots of ways unique, but a lot of those aspects are not atypical. You use NPS schools because the kid is unique enough and what they need is different enough that they are better off in a segregated environment that is dedicated to their needs than they are in the general education environment in a neighborhood school."
Like Ford, Collins had difficulty accepting that his son wouldn't be able to attend his neighborhood public school. But now, he advises parents of special-needs children who reach out to him to stay open-minded about nonpublic schools.
"Most parents that I run into — and we were in this category — who have their kids in the public schools desperately want to hang on to them, in part because they like public schools, but in part because that represents their hope for their child, just like it represented our hope. You've got to consider every year, what's going to be better? Am I hoping against hope here, and we're actually hurting my child?
"There are all kinds of schools that work for all kinds of kids," he added. "We tend to anchor on the neighborhood school as, 'This is the preferred thing.' I guess for most kids, but not for all kids."
For students with mental health challenges so severe that they become insurmountable barriers to learning and functioning, nonpublic schools can be life-saving.
When Kira Sabot's 13-year-old son, Inshan Thomas, arrived at the Esther B. Clark School three years ago, he was emotionally dysregulated, suicidal and struggling academically. He had been diagnosed with anxiety, depression, a mood disorder and slow processing speed. He would spend more time in the office at his San Carlos public charter school than in class. On two occasions in fifth grade, he was restrained for extended periods of time, Sabot said.
After fighting with his school to provide adequate services, the family eventually turned to legal action and won a placement at Esther B. Clark through a settlement agreement. The first time Sabot toured the Palo Alto nonpublic school, which she found through her own research, she became convinced it was the best option for her son.
"It felt like these people get it. For the first time, after I have been told that I'm the problem, my child is the problem, for years, it was like, 'This is where he needs to be,'" she said.
Esther B. Clark serves students who are considered emotionally disturbed or have other health impairments that adversely affect their ability to learn. Students have diagnoses such as depression, anxiety, attention deficit disorder, disruptive mood dysregulation and oppositional defiant disorder. They may have been chronically truant and are at risk for being placed out of their home due to the severity of their social or emotional challenges.
Many students arrive at the school's doors so emotionally unregulated that the school focuses only on stabilizing their mental health for the first few weeks before introducing academics. There is no homework for the first 30 days after a student enrolls.
"It allows for us to be way more flexible here than you would be able to be in a public school setting where they have specific content that they need to be delivering," said Head of School Jody Miller. "We just don't have those same pressures here." (Students who have completed a year there are required to take the state's annual standardized test, but the school doesn't focus on the results.)
A therapeutic approach — seeing the students' emotional volatility as a symptom of underlying mental health challenges that must be treated — is woven into the structure of the school.
Students meet weekly with therapists whose offices are across the hall from classrooms to work on coping and communication skills, changing unhealthy behavior patterns and building self-confidence. (Parents are also required to attend weekly therapy.) Weekly group and art therapy is meant to teach sometimes rigid and isolated students teamwork, flexibility, empathy and problem solving.
Each of the school's seven classrooms is staffed by a special education teacher, classroom assistant, licensed therapist and behavioral specialist. Classes are kept small, with fewer than 12 students. A student support counselor trained in de-escalation techniques is always on campus in case of a crisis. A schoolwide scoring system reinforces positive behavior through daily feedback between teachers, students and their parents.
The school focuses on building relationships with students for whom connection at school has proved difficult in the past.
"We know the root of the issue is not the behavior. It is the mental health challenge that the student is having," Miller said. "If we can help to repair that to give them skills, then those behaviors dissolve."
Inshan said he feels more heard at the Esther B. Clark School than at his public school, where he felt dismissed by staff and was bullied by peers. At the nonpublic school, academic and behavioral missteps have become a chance to ask for help rather than be punished, he said.
"They actually help. They say, 'If you don't understand something, then ask,'" the eighth grader said.
He still doesn't like going to school, he said, but Esther B. Clark has made it easier to overcome that hurdle.
Over three years Sabot has watched her son's mental health improve to the point that he's able to sit through 50-minute class periods, earn and B's and participate in PE.
"He feels confident, not all the time of course because he's still a work in progress, but he's comfortable there. He's comfortable in his own skin and while he's always going to be a kid that is glass-half-empty," in terms of his attitude, she said, "he smiles."
Before nonpublic school, Pauline Navarro's family was stuck in a "failing spiral" trying to support their son. Then a junior at Palo Alto High School, he had significant emotional disturbances that led to frequent, sometimes violent, crises at school and home. They had tried private school, counseling, hospitalization and other treatment programs, of little to no avail. The school district eventually suggested nonpublic schools, including TLC Journey Academy, a residential school in Sebastopol. Navarro was reluctant to move her son away from home at first. She now credits the nonpublic school with saving his life.
"TLC was clearly from the beginning all about connection, and that was clearly what was driving our son down," she said.
Like many nonpublic schools, TLC Journey Academy offers a small, individualized setting for students who are struggling with anxiety, depression, trauma, school avoidance and withdrawal. Because it's a residential school, there is 24-hour support and care, as well as art and equine therapy, yoga, volunteer opportunities, prom and a LGBTQ support group. While he was there, Navarro's son found emotional connections through group therapy and grew more tolerant of other people's behaviors. With more targeted support, his grades — and self-confidence — improved.
"He could possibly not be here today if the school hadn't been so supportive and sent him to TLC," Navarro said. "It saved his life. It certainly saved our relationship and ... it certainly saved his ability to start making better choices."
Her son ultimately graduated from Journey Academy rather than returning to the Palo Alto school district. The district paid for the full cost of the program, which is now about $15,000 per month. (He declined to be interviewed or use his name for this story, but asked that his mother use hers to "help other kids get the help they need.")
A notable contrast between the public and nonpublic school experience for many parents is nonpublic schools' collaborative approach to working with families. Many require intensive parent involvement and have liaisons who work with families at their homes. The Navarros, for example, drove from their home in Los Altos to Sebastopol weekly and participated in therapy with their son.
Sabot now feels like a partner with her son's school rather than an adversary. Esther B. Clark School staff are in frequent communication with her, as much as about Inshan's challenges as positive progress. Parents who feel isolated from their public school communities often find their tribe at nonpublic schools: other parents who understand the unique challenges of raising a child with special needs.
"The emotional impact for the family is enormous and may include fear and worry about the child's well-being, safety, and suffering, as well as what the future will bring for your child," said Christina Schmidt, a Palo Alto special-education advocate and parent of a nonpublic school student. "NPS is not a panacea ... Our schools are a bedrock of our community, the places where so much of our community's social life occurs. When your child leaves the district, both the parents and the child suffer social isolation."
Inshan is preparing to transfer out of Esther B. Clark School this year, his mother hopes to the nonpublic Palo Alto Preparatory School in Mountain View. Students typically stay at Esther B. Clark School for three to four years, said Chief Schools Officer Chris Harris. About 75% of students return to their public schools and are most successful, Harris said, if they can transition into a smaller therapeutic day class. (Palo Alto Unified has one each at Duveneck, Frank S. Greene Middle School and both high schools.) Other Esther B. Clark School students go on to less restrictive nonpublic schools, charter or private schools.
Demand for Esther B. Clark's program has increased over the years, Harris said. There are 75 students enrolled at the school's Palo Alto campus and 50 at a San Jose campus. He attributed the rise to a one-size-fits-all focus on state standards and academic rigor in public schools that makes it difficult for youth with emotional and learning disabilities to "partake at a level that makes them feel like they're being successful at all."
Ford, for her part, agreed.
"I think the traditional school system has failed the kid. I don't think the kid has failed," she said. "We think all our kids ought to go to Yale. Public schools aren't right for all kids."
A national rise in youth mental illness could also be driving the demand, Miller said. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 13 to 20% of children in the U.S. experience a mental disorder in a given year. The suicide rate among people ages 10 to 24 years old shot up 56% between 2007 and 2017.
Esther B. Clark School is seeing students with more severe mental illness and has had to transfer a record number to more intensive support, including residential treatment, Miller said.
The existence of nonpublic schools raises the question: Is there more that traditional public schools can and should be doing to support students with disabilities?
Yes, nonpublic school leaders and parents said.
While there will always be some students who require specialized treatment, some aspects of the nonpublic school environment — small class sizes, targeted training, more time for staff collaboration, support for families — could be replicated at traditional public schools.
"If they just added a bit more time (for staff), would they need us? If they did a little more training, would they need us?" asked Kaplan. "I don't want us to go out of business because there's always going to be the kiddos that just can't get in the public schools. But I feel badly because I turn away kids right and left."
She suggested school districts create dedicated classrooms with full-time specialists, such as for occupational and speech therapy, rather than have part-time staff travel among different campuses who have to then pull students away from instructional time.
There's also potential for partnership between nonpublic schools and their public-school counterparts. Staff from AchieveKids in Palo Alto, a nonpublic school that serves students on the autism spectrum and with emotional disturbances and other developmental disabilities, will visit willing public schools' classrooms to observe teachers and give feedback. One year, when AchieveKids noticed higher-than-typical referrals from a local school district, they worked with a specific teacher who was struggling to support students before transitioning students back.
"If we're not working collaboratively together, there are a lot of kids falling through the cracks," said AchieveKids Executive Director Ryan Eisenberg.
In one example of public-private partnership, AchieveKids partnered with the Campbell Union High School District and Pacific Oaks College in San Jose to launch this year a state-funded teacher residency program. The goal is to address a shortage in special-education teachers in California and expose them to both public and nonpublic settings, with more in-depth training than would be offered in a typical credentialing program.
Other school administrators were more skeptical that traditional public schools can realistically change deeply entrenched structures to mimic the nonpublic environment.
"The kinds of kids that we're working with, unless you're going to take your class sizes down to 10 and ... you're going to have one teacher with an extra adult in the classroom, I don't think you're going to find success," said Sean Haggerty, admissions director for Daniels Academy, a Utah nonpublic high school that Palo Alto Unified students attend. "I don't know that you can completely revamp the educational system to meet this slice of the pie."
One Palo Alto parent described nonpublic schools as the "best-kept secret in this town." Many parents said that until their district referred their child, they were unaware nonpublic schools existed.
Parents and school administrators urged parents of children who fit the nonpublic school profile to be "good consumers" — to ask their district questions, to call local nonpublic schools, to visit them if possible and to educate themselves on their legal rights.
For parents who might feel that leaving their public school district is admitting defeat, Ford urged open-mindedness.
"It's definitely not a failure," Ford said. "It's just giving your kid what they need."