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Scholarship can help students with special needs
Deadline for help attending private school is Friday
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For more information about the Georgia Special Needs Scholarship. Students must be enrolled by Friday at an authorized private school in order to receive the funds.

Special needs students in Georgia's schools are able to attend a private school to better meet their needs, but they only have a few days left to enroll.

Under the Georgia Special Needs Scholarship, local parents can send their students to one of 13 private schools in Hall, Forsyth, Gwinnett and Habersham counties. As long as the student attends school in Georgia and is served by an individualized education program, parents can request a transfer to an accredited school.

Students must be attending an authorized private school by the Friday deadline to be eligible for the scholarship.

As the deadline quickly approaches, schools are trying to get the word out to families.

"I've talked to parents who are disappointed and frustrated because they feel like their hands are tied," said Ava White of Ava White Academy in downtown Gainesville. "The resources are available but they can't get to them for their children."

She said parents have approached her after the deadline in November or February, but the application window is only between May and August each year.

"The door shuts Aug. 27 and if students are in trouble at school, they have to wait a whole year for the state money, which is even more critical this year with bigger classes and fewer resources," White said. "It's nobody's fault, but kids with special needs this year are going to have a tougher time."

The scholarship helps students gain access to opportunities they wouldn't have otherwise, especially specific programs such as Riverside Military Academy in Gainesville.

"Obviously, it assists the family in paying the tuition," academic dean Jim Robison said. "And once a student is here, the cadet has the complete range of opportunities in the classroom and then fine arts, sports and the military program."

More schools are joining the list of those accredited for the scholarship. North Georgia Children's Center, renamed in 2009 from the North Georgia Autism Center, recently became an accredited school and already serves one child.

"It really gives families a choice for where they want their child to go," said Jessica Pugh, the center's executive director. "With our low staff to student ratio, the cost is very high and our tuition is $30,000 per year, which most families can't access without scholarship help."

Pugh said although many parents with special needs children know about the scholarship, many don't understand how to apply for it and use the funds.

"We work with the parents on that, and we're working with other scholarships as well to offset the costs even more," she said.

State legislators created a bill in the spring to expand eligibility to children with a parent in the military, students who are in foster care and students who have disabilities that limit life activity but not necessarily learning, such as students in a wheelchair or with a chronic illness.

Sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers, R-Woodstock, the bill also defined a quarterly payment plan and publicity requirements, such as sending letters home about the scholarship.

The provisions didn't pass through the governor's office, but legislators plan to work on a new draft after election season. This fall, however, state department of education officials are trying to establish a more regular payment plan.

"It's sometimes difficult, and the payments haven't always been prompt," Robison said. "Some administrative time is lost to validating and reminding the state about the payments."

White said she hopes the application time frame will be expanded, also.

"It's depressing for me to watch parents realize they have to wait for the next window, sometimes a year away," White said. "Their child could be getting a smaller setting and individualized instruction."