School Choice Enables Special-Needs Students, too
A School Profile of LUMIN
By: Libby Sobic and Cori Petersen
A common attack from school choice opponents is that private schools in the school voucher programs do not educate special needs students, unlike public schools. They say this even though a comprehensive study by academics at the University of Arkansas and University of Wisconsin concluded that between 7–14% of students in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program were disabled.
Don’t believe their study? Then you should just walk into a LUMIN School and it will be clear that private schools educate special needs students and that the new Special Needs Scholarship Program (SNSP) is working.
LUMIN, which stands for Lutheran Urban Mission Initiative, is a network of private Lutheran schools across southeastern Wisconsin that prides itself on admitting all different types of children, regardless of their abilities, and giving them an excellent education. LUMIN has four schools in Milwaukee, one in Racine, and will open its first campus in Beloit next year. Across southeastern Wisconsin, LUMIN educates 1,260 students, with 98% qualifying for a school choice program.
Most notably, LUMIN was one of the very first schools to enroll in Wisconsin’s SNSP. The SNSP, signed into law in 2015, allows special needs children to receive a taxpayer funded school voucher to attend a private school. The voucher is worth $12,431 and is bigger than a voucher in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program to account for the increased costs of educating special needs children.
Even though LUMIN was educating special needs students prior to the SNSP, the new program enabled the school to hire one full-time special education teacher to pull students out of the classroom for additional support.
“We have always been joyfully nonselective in our admissions,” said Shaun Luehring, President and CEO of LUMIN. “This SNSP program has enabled us to provide a deeper level of services to students most in need.”
Today LUMIN has 16 students in the SNSP and provides a number of other students with less intensive special needs services.
Sixteen students may sound like a small number, but according to Caroline Horn, LUMIN’s Vice President of Student & Family Services, LUMIN is growing the program slowly on purpose. “We want to make sure that our program maintains its integrity. It’s tempting to say well here it is, let’s just keep enrolling students,” she said. “We won’t enroll students unless we are confident we can execute a plan that truly meets their needs to the best of our ability.”
According to Horn, now that the program is more established and LUMIN has had time to fine-tune its service model, next year they will focus on growing the program at a faster clip.
Parents with special needs children at LUMIN say the school is having a positive impact. Monique Hudson has two children at LUMIN School Granville Lutheran. Her daughter, who is in second grade, is part of the SNSP and receives additional support for reading, math and writing. According to Hudson, the one-on-one time that the SNSP has provided for her daughter has helped her immensely. “Her reading is getting better and she is starting to recognize words she couldn’t before. Her teacher is very patient and kind.”
Emmett O’Malley is a middle school math teacher at Granville Lutheran and he says that he can personally relate to some of the students who struggle to focus on learning because he struggled with ADHD in grade school. He says that the SNSP has helped these students to succeed. “I experienced the difficulty first-hand of having a learning disability, and now I get to see the benefits of pulling students out of the classroom for additional services,” he said. “They are able to work in a quiet and more focused environment with additional support. Some kids need that extra little push and it helps them.”
Not only does LUMIN accept special needs students, but the network is succeeding. Granville Lutheran, where Hudson’s children attend school, “significantly exceeded expectations” according to the Wisconsin Department of Instruction report cards last year, even though 85% of their students are economically disadvantaged.
The SNSP is the unsung hero of Wisconsin’s many school choice programs. Even though it’s only been around for a few years, it’s used by 692 students and 76 private schools are in the program. As we celebrate National School Choice Week, the SNSP is a reminder that all students — especially those with a disability — deserve the ability to attend a school that best fits their unique needs and circumstances.