Students cope with anxiety while recovering credits

Fairfax County Public Schools' offers therapeutic day program to tackle severe social anxiety
By: | October 21, 2016

Educators in Virginia’s Fairfax County Public Schools intend to remove the obstacles that prevent students who have severe social anxiety from attending school, a phenomenon known as “school refusal behavior.”

The initiative, called Aspire, is housed at Quander Road School, a small district-run-and-funded therapeutic day program designed as an alternative setting for high school students on individualized education plans.

In Fairfax County, Quander Road School takes a comprehensive approach to addressing a wide variety of special needs, including intellectual, physical and behavioral disabilities, says Principal Joseph Thompson. He said the school serves students with attention deficit and hyperactivity disorders, post-traumatic stress, and mood and learning disorders.

Mental health disorders among school-aged children is a growing problem. One child in five has had or will have a “seriously debilitating mental disorder” according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

Credit recovery

The school offers classes of fewer than 10 students and immediate access to clinical staff. Students are referred from their home high school to the Aspire program, Thompson says.

Teacher Richard Brown describes his role as a combination of teacher, facilitator and advocate for his students. He administers an online credit recovery program, and he tutors students who are struggling.

Brown works alongside two social workers and two psychologists who provide clinical treatment to help students, who are otherwise academically capable, cope with their disorders.

The goal is for students to work their way out of the program, Thompson says, noting that those who are enrolled often miss extended periods of school, sometimes years’ worth. Some students stay in Aspire for a few months and transition to mainstream classrooms while others remain in the program for a school year or longer.

Students can move on after they’ve successfully earned academic recovery credits and show themselves to be capable of working through social situations that were previously anxiety-provoking, Thompson says.

Because Fairfax County already has the alternative school, Aspire doesn’t require many additional resources, says Jane Lipp, the district’s assistant superintendent for special services. Fairfax County already has licenses for online learning tools and the staffing needed.

The average cost per student in Aspire is about twice the $14,000 per pupil expenditure in Fairfax County. The alternative to Aspire would be placing students out-of-district with a costly private provider, Lipp says.

Michael Gagne is a freelance writer in Connecticut.