After 36 years in Silver Spring, a well-known school for children with learning disabilities has moved to Hyattsville, a change officials said allows the school to be located where demand has been the greatest: Prince George’s County.
Chelsea School, a nonpublic school that serves grades 5 through 12, consists mostly of publicly funded students — children whose tuition is paid by their local school system because they need more specialized help than a public school can provide, according to Head of School Kate Fedalen. Nonpublic schools, which are approved by the Maryland State Department of Education, are independent from the school system, but provide some publicly funded services.
Enrollment at the school has declined over the years — the school has about 70 students now compared to 100 about a decade ago — and the students are now predominantly from Prince George’s County, Chelsea officials said. Prince George’s funded tuition for 33 students at the school last year, while Montgomery funded three, according to school data.
“The move will enable the school system to work closely with the Chelsea School to align curriculum demands and foster efforts to return students to their neighborhood schools, as ready,” said ShaVon McConnell, a Prince George’s County schools spokeswoman.
The shift coincides with the expansion of special education programs in Montgomery and Prince George’s County public schools. Montgomery increased its special education budget from $182 million in 2004 to $279 million in 2013, according to Brian Edwards, chief of communications for the Montgomery County school system. Last year, Montgomery funded 513 nonpublic students — down from 657 in 2004.
“We’ve become much better over the last 10 years in being able to meet a broader array of needs of our students,” he said, explaining the decrease in the number of students who get funding for private schools.
Similarly, Prince George’s has increased its special education budget while reducing nonpublic enrollment by about 300 students in the last five years, to approximately 900 students, said Mary Bell, a coordinating supervisor of special education for Prince George’s County public schools.
“We try to build and sustain as many students as we can in their neighborhood schools,” she said.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires schools to provide special-education students a free and appropriate education. Under Maryland law, parents must prove the school system cannot provide an appropriate education in order to receive county funding for use at a private school.
Parents in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties said getting county funding can be challenging.
Nancy Doumchick of Greenbelt, who has a son with a language-based learning disorder at Chelsea School, said her child was underserved in the Prince George’s school system, but the county would not provide reimbursement.
“It’s a very frustrating process, and I understand why some people don’t want to through with it,” Doumchick said.
Montgomery County resident Sherry Lamper enrolled her daughter in Chelsea School, but will send her to public school in the fall after trying for three years to get Montgomery County to provide private school funding.
“You’re not entitled to the best education. You’re entitled to a free and appropriate education,” Lamper said. “But what parent is going to say they don’t want the best for their child?”
Chelsea School’s new building is located at 2970 Belcrest Center Drive, adjacent to the Prince George’s Plaza Metro station.
The facility will feature state-of-the-art classrooms and a student lounge, Fedalen said.
“We’re using this as an opportunity to make upgrades to what has been a pretty archaic wireless and technology system,” said Frank Mills, director of education.
Doumchick said she will continue paying tuition for her son to stay at Chelsea School.
“Bottom line is, he’s where he needs to be now, and we’re grateful for that,” she said.