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11-7-11 Northjersey.com- The Record - More districts bringing special ed in house
North Jersey school districts are increasingly confronting soaring special-education costs by starting in-house classes that are cheaper alternatives to pricey out-of-district programs.

Northjersey.com - More districts bringing special ed in house

Monday, November 7, 2011 Last updated: Monday November 7, 2011, 8:08 AM


North Jersey school districts are increasingly confronting soaring special-education costs by starting in-house classes that are cheaper alternatives to pricey out-of-district programs.

But the programs have sparked worries among parents, special-needs advocates and private school administrators who assert the districts are motivated primarily by money and cannot provide the small class sizes, low student-teacher ratios and individualized attention by trained staff offered at out-of-district placements.

Among districts that have launched such programs are River Edge, Wayne, Cresskill, Bergenfield, Hackensack, Teaneck, Oradell, Norwood, Closter, Ridgefield Park, New Milford, Mahwah, Paterson and, most recently, Tenafly. Many of the programs have recently expanded to meet growing need.

Most school officials surveyed deny their prime impetus was cost. They tout the benefits of keeping students in their hometowns. Bringing students back is a trend, said Maureen Kerne, director of Region V, comprising 12 districts in Bergen County.

"At a neighborhood school, they will be five minutes away and don't have to spend time on a bus every day," she said. "They are in school with their siblings and kids from the neighborhood."

Barbara Gantwerk, assistant commissioner of program and operations with the state Department of Education, said New Jersey traditionally has had a high percentage of such students educated in private settings.

But since 2006, there's been a steady drop as more were placed in-house, she said.

"We believe it's beneficial for students with disabilities to be educated with their peers," Gantwerk said. "They will have access to a challenging curriculum and peers who are good role models."

'Do what's right for them'

Laws require districts to provide education appropriate for each child, but budgets are not growing to accommodate the rising number of children diagnosed every year with disabilities. Out-of-district placement tuition can cost $35,000 to $100,000 per student, not including transportation. The crisis has forced public schools to develop their own programs.

For example, the Tenafly district is saving about $250,000 through its new programs for developmentally delayed and learning-disabled preschoolers and elementary students, officials said.

"There is a financial benefit, but that's not the motivation," said Suzanne Bassett, assistant to the superintendent for special services. "The motivation is to bring the kids back and do what's right for them."

But critics raise specific questions about services, support and flexibility in in-house programs. In the rush to save dollars, some districts have neglected to provide the supports to help students succeed, said Martha Brecher, co-director of the Parent Training and Information Center at the Statewide Parent Advocacy Network in Newark. Many children aren't being given occupational therapy, speech and other services because of staff vacancies, she said.

Another problem is that smaller district programs lump a broad spectrum of students into one class, where a teacher must find ways to meet everyone's needs, said parent advocate Susan Vericho of Rochelle Park. Placing students of different ages together also can have a negative impact, she said.

Carole Ann Geronimo, a Midland Park attorney who specializes in special needs children, argues that "the teacher has a class of 25 students and is asked to individualize for an extra youngster. The odds of that happening are not high. The child will get labeled as a kid with problems."

But Kerne, in response to such arguments, said any services students are entitled to are outlined in their IEP the individualized education program mandated for disabled children. "The IEP dictates whether you get private instruction or therapy," she said.

As for staff vacancies, they can happen at a public or private school, she noted. Most of Bergen County's public school programs have backup staff, she said.

"There are some really good private schools and really good public schools," Kerne said, suggesting parents question programs when seeking placements.

'A moral victory'

River Edge has earned acclaim from outside educators for its program, which serves 124 students.

"It's a moral victory for the district to be able to accommodate all of our students regardless of who they are. But it's also a financial victory because of the tremendous savings," district Superintendent Tova Ben-Dov said, adding that a private out-of-district placement can cost up to $100,000.

River Edge has four self-contained classrooms for students with autism and other disabilities, a therapy room and an integrated preschool. Some children are mainstreamed with peers for lunch, recess and academics; others remain in their self-contained class. "The IEP is individualized for everyone," Ben-Dov said.

Paul Perkins, an attorney whose son, Christopher, is in River Edge's self-contained program because he is on the autism spectrum, noted great progress over the past year.

"He's a different kid now," Perkins said. "He was solitary and not always socially appropriate. Now his reactions are more normal. He's making friends. He's much more expressive." Perkins, initially prepared to pay for a private program, said the program impressed him.

"I sleep better at night now," he said.

Goal: success in life

The Wayne school district recently created a high school program for students with behavioral problems and has expanded its inclusion program for early childhood, said Mary Rose Scalo, director of special services. Out-of-district placements generally cost around $55,000, compared with $15,000 to $19,000 in-house. The cost for a mainstream student is around $11,000 a year.

"Every year, the number of students being sent to out-of-district special education programs decreases as we improve our services and increase our options," Scalo said. "The end goal is to have all students become successful in life. You have to prepare them for an environment that is inclusive if they are to be successful in an inclusive world."

E-mail: yellin@northjersey.com


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