Lately I’ve been looking at NPSs, which is special-needs-parents-speak for Non-Public-Schools. For some reason, it’s better to say “non-public” than “private,” because the latter implies something that might not fit the needs of a kid like Dar.

One does not simply walk into an NPS. One calls first and makes an appointment, sometimes more than a month in advance. There’s at least one NPS in Berkeley where I’m considering walking up and ringing the doorbell, because no one answers its listed number and you can’t leave a message. But I don’t want to violate anyone’s safe space, especially someone who might be responsible for raising my child.

Among the things I’ve learned:

NPSs are small. They tend to have fewer than 40 students ranging in age from six to 22. Yes, 22. That’s how long a kid like Dar can be eligible for school services. Then…well, let’s not get to then yet.

NPSs don’t tend to have a lot of kids Dar’s age. He’s on the young side. One teacher told me, “Oh, it would be great to have a seven-year-old running around here.” That same teacher lamented that by the time they get a kid, his/her bad habits are hard to adjust.

Relatedly, the kids at NPSs sometimes blow my mind, because they’re all over the place like Dar, but they’re six feet tall. It’s like I’m time traveling. I keep wondering how I’m going to deal with Dar when I can’t physically overpower him.

NPSs are sometimes called “the end of the line”: the final option for kids who can’t go anywhere else. This has negative and positive connotations, and sometimes that depends on who you are. If you’re the school district, a good NPS is a negative, because it’s the most expensive possible option, but if you’re the parent, sometimes that money means your kid is getting the most possible attention and care.

Are NPSs depressing? Sometimes! Surrounded by the severely disabled, one can feel a profound sense of empathy. Or “wow I’m lucky this person isn’t me.” Or the old Talking Heads lyrics: “This is not my beautiful house. This is not my beautiful wife!”

They always want to ask me about Dar. I wind up bringing out photos on my phone, and they wind up telling me how adorable he is (duh). I guess it’s a mutual job interview, even if I think of it as me grilling them. Or maybe they’re just trying to be nice. If it’s the latter, I don’t really enjoy going over and over what Dar can and can’t do. I do that enough here! Ha ha. It’s actually easier to type than to say.

When I ask the director, “how much will this cost?” the director tends to laugh. That’s not a question that needs an answer, apparently, because the district has to pay. I have heard, however, that things are not always so cut and dried. At least in the case of the Berkeley Unified School District, sometimes the district agrees to pay only part of the tuition. Other times, the transportation costs become a bone of contention. Right now, we (okay, usually I) drive Dar back and forth to school. One Berkeley parent advised me to stop doing that and include school-provided transport in my next IEP, so that if and when the district authorized Dar’s attendance at another school, it would have to pay for the transport. Considering we’re talking an easy four figures a month, I really ought to think about this.

I knew this already, but visiting NPSs drives home the point that NPSs are no automatic panacea. There’s no way to know if Dar would thrive in a place where every kid was more like him. There’s no control in this experiment. What I wouldn’t give for less experiment, more control.