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A Helping Hand for Students Who Learn Differently

February 23, 2019

Story and photographs ©2019 Robin Rayne/ZUMA 

Marietta, Georgia —  Mindy Elkan knew her speech therapy clients with learning challenges and developmental disabilities needed more than what public school special education programs provide.

“The public schools can only do so much,” the Marietta speech therapist said, remembering the time ten years ago when she decided to start a small private school herself. “I always wanted to open a school for children with communication disorders.”

Elkan, 62, opened the MDE school in 2009, named to honor her late husband Mark David Elkan.  “I was inspired to keep his legacy and his memory alive by establishing a school for children who learn differently. He loved children and was always there to help at the clinic,” she said. Mark Elkan, who died in 2009, often volunteered at hippotherapy sessions at area stables as well as community walks to raise public awareness of autism, she said. “His heart was always open to any individuals who needed help — especially children.”

Elkan’s school started small, with classes held in her Marietta speech therapy office.

“We began with three students and one part-time teacher. Our goal was to help families who were home-schooling their children with learning disabilities. It was like home-school away from home,” she said. The school added four more students the next year, with 17 students and a third teacher added in the school’s third year, she said.

Ten years later, MDE School has 49 students and a full-time staff of 19, tucked into quiet office park in east Cobb County. The school prides itself on providing a loving and nurturing environment.

“It’s what Mark would have expected,” Elkan said.

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Tuition is $21,000 per school year, but financial assistance vouchers and scholarships are available from the state and county, Elkan said.

The students’ challenges range from autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and other developmental disabilities to language and communication disorders. Several students are non-verbal, and a few experience seizure disorders. Student works at their own pace. Teachers work closely with parents to create individualized educational plans designed to meet each child’s exact needs. The school is accredited from kindergarten through eighth grade. Life skills and prevocational training are offered for high school-age students.

Elkan received her master’s degree in speech and language pathology from Hofstra University in New York before relocating to Georgia in 1990.

With a ration of four students to every teacher, the school provides smaller classrooms, flexibility and one-on-one instruction. Teachers recognize the value of enrichment programs and coordinate with the community to bring yoga and dance sessions into their schedules, as well as golf, cooking and Lego clubs. Students are also integrated into the community with regular visits to restaurants and a variety of local businesses.

While the school focuses on academics, art, music, life and social skills and prevocational training are considered equally important parts of the school day, she said.

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“Students are taught basic life skills – simple things like brushing their teeth, setting a table, making coffee and doing their laundry to ordering food at restaurants and interacting with people.

“Social skills are very important,” Elkan stressed. “We are preparing them for life.”

Anita Newby’s son John Michael, 16, is in his fifth year at the school. “He had a very difficult time in the public schools because he has complicated language and processing problems and needed a very focused type of instruction.

“John Michael didn’t speak until he was eight years old,” she said.    “It’s still difficult to understand him sometimes, but the tiny size of the classes and one-on-one time with his teacher helps him a lot. The classes are customized to provide what each child needs. It means so much t to have your child happy and learning in school,” she said.

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