Gillian Barclay-Smith, headmaster at a South Carolina school for special-needs students, wanted to be done with administrative work.
“My intention was when I left there, I’d write,” she said. “Then, one parent called me and said, ‘This is my kid,’ and another parent called and said, ‘Can you work with my kid?'”
Then, Columbia College, where she had taught some classes, called her.
“They said, ‘We hear you’re going to start a school,’ and I said, ‘That’s news to me.’ They said, ‘If you were, what about a house on our campus?'”
And the Barclay School was founded.
At Barclay, the two teachers’ aides and their five students, all with special needs from Down Syndrome to dyslexia, do as much hands-on, real-life learning as Barclay-Smith, head of the school, and Edith Bailey, assistant head, can fit into the day.
Learning from Life
Academic learning is tied to a purpose. Writing lessons include letters to invite speakers to the school—and follow-up thank-you notes. Science lessons take place in the school’s garden. The students go on frequent field trips.
Droppings from the school’s rabbits turned into fertilizer provided math lessons and a lucrative fundraiser.
“It gives him more than the typical school, sit at a desk seven hours and go home,” said W.C. Hoecke of his son Karl, a 19-year-old with Down’s syndrome. “They get a lot more hands-on and to see what the rest of the world is like.”
The school runs “organically,” Barclay-Smith said, with a focus on the children and freedom from burdensome regulations.
“We wanted somewhere where we could move at the pace of the children, a school that was entirely child-focused and the social, emotional and academic came into play,” she said.
Need for Funds
Tuition at the Barclay School is $15,000, but in 2013-2014 the average family receives enough financial aid from the school to pay just under half the tuition cost.
Salaries are the first to go when money gets tight, Barclay-Smith said, even though she and Bailey have advanced degrees.
“We are vastly underemployed in the eyes of the economy,” Bailey said. “We feel like what we’re doing is really critical for these kids, and we feel like the money is better spent when the child is young than to pay for disability on the other end.”
South Carolina recently passed a budget proviso permitting tax-credit scholarships, a school choice program in which people and businesses can receive tax credits for donations to scholarship granting organizations. Those organizations, in turn, provide financial support for families of special needs children if they choose a private school.
The scholarship program will be available for the first part of 2014, but it’s expected to be renewed for another year, or enshrined in law.
Those scholarships would reduce the financial burden on the school by freeing some of the funds the school had been directing toward financial aid.
School Choice ‘Will Impact Us Hugely’
“Oh my word, it will impact us hugely,” Barclay-Smith said. “We’re worrying about money every day, how to keep doing this. If the money part of everything were to be taken out of the equation, it would be wonderful, because then we could just focus entirely on the kids.”
“We turned away probably five kids since school started,” Bailey said. “Even though we’ve given parents enormous financial aid, we can’t take any of them for nothing.”
Some parents are working two jobs, she said, and they are already working on the tax-credit scholarship paperwork for next year.
“To have extra scholarship money, it would help us keep going, but it would take a lot of the burden off the special needs folk who are already stretched,” Barclay-Smith said. “If you have special-needs kids, you need therapy, you need medication. It would impact all of us in the special-needs community.”
Her hopes for the school include expanding “Bunnies Brew,” the fertilizer fundraiser, into a small business in which adults with special needs could work and still participate in the school’s activities.
Results for Less
Barclay-Smith said her school’s model would be easy to reproduce, as long as the school is run by teachers who care about their students.
“You talk about public education is failing and what to do, and the solution is often to pour tons of money into it,” she said. “We do need the money. God knows we need the money, but I don’t think we need quite that amount. We set this up in a little house.”
“What’s important is the teachers. You have to be passionately interested in what you’re doing, and everything else goes from there,” she said. “This model is reproducible. We have a very high dropout rate in South Carolina, and I truly believe if more kids had a model whereby it wasn’t just their academic needs were met, but their social and emotional, too, I think it’s a model that just works.”