For students with a mental health challenge and/or those on the autism spectrum, enrollment in a therapeutic day school can make all the difference to achieving a positive outcome. The Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School is just such a place. With an internationally recognized therapeutic milieu, the O-School offers a “safe haven and a path to hope” where bright, creative students can build trusting relationships and thrive in a setting that balances academics with strong therapeutic supports.
Parents who are seeking a supportive educational and therapeutic environment for their child in third through 12th grades (plus a transition program) may be curious about the enrollment process at the O-School. Kristin Friesen, LCSW, the Director of Admissions at the O-School, recommends planning ahead. “Many of our admissions occur at the beginning of academic semesters, but we also can accommodate rolling admissions when we have openings,” she says. However, parents who are considering enrolling their child in the O-School in the fall should plan proactively to ensure availability.
Here’s more information about everything to expect when you’re seeking admissions and enrollment at the O-School.
The right fit for enrollment at the O-School
“The O-School is widely known for serving a high-functioning academic student with significant emotional issues. These issues could be the result of neurodiversity or significant attentional issues combined with depression, anxiety, or a mood disorder,” Friesen describes. Students may also struggle with school refusal due to their mental health needs, but they have a strong capacity to do well in school with the right supports around them.
The small class sizes — no more than 10 students with two teachers — are often a relief to students who struggle to manage the overwhelming nature of being one of 25 or 30 students in a typical school classroom. “Some students can get lost in the shuffle in a larger school setting, but that doesn’t happen here. We offer individualized attention to each of our students,” Friesen says.
Students come to the O-School through referrals, which could be from a private therapist, psychologist, psychiatrist, educational consultant, or their current school district. “We are fortunate that the O-School is a training site, and there are many faculty members who have completed their professional training on-site and then moved to positions in the community,” Friesen says. “These professionals create a strong network within the field, and because they are so knowledgeable about the school, they make referrals when they recognize that the O-School can be helpful.”
Public school districts in and around Chicago also provide referrals, but more and more families are learning about the school on their own, too. O-School candidates have strong cognitive abilities and typically perform at or above-average level with the proper balance of academic and mental health support. “Over 90% of our high school graduates attend college,” Friesen says.
Following a thorough review of the potential student’s clinical and academic documents, which typically include psychological testing reports, social history, hospital discharge summaries, and the student’s IEP (Individualized Education Plan), Friesen invites the family for an in-person interview.
“If we know our school isn’t appropriate for a student, we recommend two or three other programs that may be able to help. We want to be part of the process in getting the student to the right support,” she says.
Meeting and touring
The professionals at the O-School recognize that every individual is unique, and so is their story. It is important to meet face-to-face to discuss what families are looking for in a school and to get to know a student beyond their clinical and academic reports.
“When families come in person, we meet them in a comfortable living room setting. Members of our Leadership Team meet with prospective families from the beginning. This sets the tone for our strong relational approach,” Friesen explains.
Then, the family takes a tour of the school — including the art room, gym, and therapy suites — often led by a student tour guide who can share information and answer questions from a student’s perspective.
Parents often ask about their own involvement. Because therapy is such an important aspect of the O-School experience, parents are expected to attend family therapy twice each month, Friesen says. There are also family events throughout the year, including parent support and connection groups, a Winding Path educational series, spaghetti lunches, and an annual Prom that parents attend with their children.
“We are always looking to partner with parents, and this is a huge key to success. Each child feels that collaboration between home and the O-School and knows that everyone is working together to address the same goals,” she says.
Life at the O-School
Prior to the first day of school, a clinician or therapist will meet with the family to build important connections. “Relationships are critical at the O-School, and we want all of our families to make a connection to a member of the clinical team, even before the first day,” Friesen says.
After a robust greeting at the front door on the first day of school, a team member or a student ambassador will walk each new student through their schedule, picking them up at the end of each class and accompanying them to the next class.
“Most of our faculty members know that there is generally a honeymoon period for new students when they understandably feel anxious. However, once they know where they are going and get into a consistent school routine, the anxiety subsides, and they feel relief that they are functioning again in this part of their life,” Friesen says. “The friendly welcome they receive at the O-School and the structure and routine of school help to allow space to address the longer-standing mental health pieces.”
As students settle in, they realize there is hard work to be done academically, but also in individual, group, and family therapy. Their problems haven’t dissolved, but now the student is surrounded by the right type of support so they can take on that hard work, Friesen adds.
It’s never too early or late to address issues and build coping skills, so Friesen recommends exploring your family’s options at the O-School, no matter your child’s age. Find out if it’s a good fit for your family by reaching out and asking questions.
“When parents call me, I know it takes courage for them to pick up the phone and discuss their child’s challenges. I encourage them to reach out because every question is a good question. It’s a difficult situation for many parents, and their journey to find the right school for their child is respected,” Friesen says.
To learn more about the Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School and if it is a good fit for your child, visit oschool.org/parents.