Meredith Mayo, MSW
On Tuesday morning, I attended a hearing at the Statehouse on South Carolina’s only private school choice initiative, Exceptional SC, a program giving thousands of children who have exceptional learning needs the opportunity to attend private schools that specialize in meeting those needs.
The term ‘exceptional learning needs’ as I use it here runs the gamut of challenges faced by children with Individualized Learning Plans (IEPs) that range from Dyslexia, Autism, Asperger’s, ADHD, and Visual Processing Disorder. Defined more broadly, these kids struggle with reading, writing, listening, speaking, reasoning or calculating (math) or a combination of several of those difficulties.
The purpose of Tuesday’s hearing before a SC House Ways & Means Subcommittee was to provide the parents of these students time to share their experiences as recipients of Exceptional SC funds with state legislators in order to help the General Assembly determine if Exceptional SC should remain a temporary “proviso” or become a part of permanent statute (law).
Their testimony was powerful:
- There was the mother from Charleston whose child with Asperger’s experienced social isolation. She told the committee how she sent out birthday party invitations to his classmates every year, and every year no one came to his party. He was beginning to emotionally retreat even further when his family decided to make the switch to a school that would optimize his strengths, a school with teachers who knew how to meet his needs. Now, he has plenty of friends and is thriving academically. The reason? He has a teacher with over 30 years of experience with Autistic kids. The sense of relief his mother articulated touched everyone in the room.
- Then there was the mom from Andrews who drives 2-3 hours each way to Charleston to take her son to school. A child who once struggled ardently is now in a learning environment that capitalizes on his learning style. He is flourishing, making straight A’s for the first time in his life. For his mother, a single mom and small business owner, his success is worth the 4-6 hours round trip.
- Another mother recounted how her dyslexic son spent his entire elementary school years hiding his work in embarrassment and staunchly guarding it from her. Now, after only five months in his new setting, his mother testified how her son can’t wait to show off his work; how she can barely get out of the school’s parking lot without his ecstatic display of the day’s accomplishments. What a transformation. He was a boy who went from shame to pride.
What we heard this week about Exceptional SC were not merely stories of education success, although academics were of great importance to these parents. We heard about children experiencing joy– a decloaking of confusion, isolation, and shame. We heard about parents who once lived with the unbearable stress of their child battling in school, who now watch their kids come alive; who witness their child finally receiving the support they need.
Exceptional SC is a gift of opportunity for these bright, beautiful students, and a gift of hope to their parents.
It is our hope that the full House Ways & Means Committee will see fit to pass this legislation out to the floor of the House and on to the Senate. Too many parents worry if the current year-to-year budget proviso will be renewed or if they will face the decision of whether to work extra jobs or remove their children from the school they love.
To quote our former Governor, it will be “a great day in South Carolina” when ExceptionalSC is permanent—also relieved of the stress of its future. Freed to continue its vital work, Exceptional SC can ensure that more and more students shed the shame, guilt, and loneliness of being an exceptional learner and garner the ability to walk with newfound confidence, knowing that their full potential is tapped and there is no going back.