Cheryl Swope, an educator who has created an entire curriculum designed for children with special needs (available through Memoria Press), used to receive one to two emails a week from families curious to know if providing a classical education for their special needs child was possible. Now, following the upheaval of COVID-19, she's receiving at least one to two emails a day from parents seeking an alternative to public school or distance learning.
Swope and her husband adopted a set of twins with multiple diagnoses, many unknown at the time of placement, and despite a background in education, she chose to homeschool them in a classical tradition. Her experience and advice differs wildly from what most special needs children will experience in the classroom, but what Swope shares in her book Simply Classical, and her curriculum, is exactly what many special needs parents are looking for in their child's education.
I came across Swope's work while searching for alternatives for my own 12-year-old son after his three years in public school. Months of distance learning solidified the conviction of my husband and I that our son was not getting what he needed in the classroom despite a wonderful teacher and many dedicated aides and staff. Having homeschooled him for almost four years previously, and having homeschooled my other children, I knew I could do it, but I wanted confirmation that yes, a classical education full of what is true, good, and beautiful is obtainable for any child, regardless of diagnosis. Swope's book and program do a wonderful job breaking down what some may consider to be the big, scary parts of a classical education (logic, latin, advanced literature) into manageable chunks any child can work with. Not every child will progress through every level of the curriculum, but wherever your child winds up, his exposure to these concepts will equip him with a love of learning that lasts a lifetime.
"The education offered to kids with special needs in a school setting is often uninspired, utterly remedial, and overly focused on hands-on practical skills," Swope said. "It's not addressing souls. I thought there has to be more. We need to teach more than just basics, and more that will enrich lives." Swope said that when it came time to educate her own children, she found herself asking, "If [a classical education] was best for everyone, can it be best for my children?"
Tossing aside much of what she learned acquiring both Bachelors and Masters degrees in Special Education, Swope homeschooled her own son and daughter using classical methods she picked up from her own studying and from Sr. Marita Anne, a nun and language therapist at the local children's hospital who worked with Swope's daughter.
"Our local classical school said 'No, we can’t take your kids.' The parochial school wasn’t equipped. Only then did I say I would homeschool," Swope shared. "I didn’t think I could. I wanted to, but I didn't have confidence. I still bought into idea that experts would be better....I told myself if I could find someone who could do better, then I would enroll them. We took it one year at a time, and it never happened."
Despite her children's diagnosis which include autism, schizophrenia, mild cerebral palsy, and ADHD, to name only a few, they both learned to read at an early age and both can play the piano. Her daughter eventually excelled in oral expression and writing fluency and continues to write poetry. Her son loves history, volunteers at a museum, helps at his church, and tested above grade level in math concepts.
"I was told, you’ve got to stop aiming so high for these children," Swope recalled. "My son was 13 and they told me, 'You are attaching your goals to his program. It needs to be focused on what he wants.' I thought, well, he wants to eat a lot and play video games. I can’t let that happen. So we pressed on. And then their test scores started blowing me away."
Swope's book and curriculum came to be when her daughter wanted her story shared publicly, so that other special needs children could benefit from the same education she received. Simply Classical is broken into four parts, along with several appendices of additional resources. Readers will find an explanation of what a classical education entails, information on assessment and how to determine where to start, plus stories of hope and encouragement.
Swope also shared during our interview (and in her book), about the joy of purposeful leisure time for children who may still need to attend school but whose parents want more of what is true, good, and beautiful infused into their daily lives.
"Leisure is our secret weapon, " she said."What we do in leisure time is almost as powerful as what we're doing during our academic time. If you can, reduce electronic things and replace them with something wholesome and old-fashioned. Take advantage of leisure and spruce it up. It doesn’t need to be astounding. The single greatest thing you can do to enrich your family and child's mind is read aloud together. For our family it was unifying. The days are long with our kids and the language we sometimes use is not eloquent and edifying, while the language of these writers washes away our cares."
For more information on Simply Classical, the book and curriculum, visit Memoria Press. For more information on Swope, visit her website at cherylswope.com.