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August 2011

Filling the Void

Parenting school-age children is hard enough; when your child has learning differences, navigating the educational landscape can be downright mind-boggling. What many parents may not realize is that one of Denver’s most venerable special-needs educators might also be one of its best-kept secrets.

The nonprofit Sewall Child Development Center (sewall.org) evaluates and provides schooling and therapeutic services to kids—about 500 students per year, from birth to six years old—who have a variety of learning styles and special-needs requirements. Despite Sewall's specialties in handling everything from autism to cerebral palsy to ADHD, only about half its students have special needs. “They’re here because their families like the school and want a high-quality early childhood environment,” says Sewall CEO Heidi Heissenbuttel. “We have a better teacher-child ratio [1:5] than most preschools, higher education levels of our staff, and strong parental involvement.”

What Sewall doesn’t have is a consistent source of income, largely because of the Byzantine way special-needs families and programs get funded. Depending on the child’s age and condition, finances can come from city, county, state, or federal programs, or from private donors—a situation that leaves Sewall in a constant state of transition. “It gets to be a pileup of financial issues,” Heissenbuttel says.

Even so, with a three- to six-month wait-list to get new students evaluated and an ever-broadening definition of what defines a “special” need, Sewall is expanding. As it maintains its expertise with atypical students, the center will open a transitional kindergarten this fall, for kids who may not have special needs but may not be ready for traditional kindergarten, either. “Parents might wonder why their ‘typically developing’ kids would attend a special-needs school,” says Pat Smith, Sewall’s development director. “It’s because they’ll thrive not only academically, but even more socially and emotionally, all of which are huge foundations for antibullying behavior.”(See “Comfort Zone,” page 118.)

By destigmatizing special needs, the 67-year-old Sewall has become a model for all types of educators—which hopefully will make it easier over time for the school to do what it does best. “People are starting to see learning differences more positively instead of as a disability that will be with the child for his or her whole life,” Heissenbuttel says. “The good thing about the limited space we have is that it forces you to be resourceful. But it would be nice to not have to be so resourceful all the time.”

-Luc Hatlestad