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Special Education Series - Asbury Park Press 'Special Care-Unkown Costs'

Sunday, November 14th

 

 

PRESS INVESTIGATION

SPECIAL CARE UNKNOWN COSTS


New Jersey spends $3 billion a year on special education. Untold millions are lost because of fraud, lax oversight and unproven programs. In the first part of a six-day series, the Asbury Park Press investigates what is going wrong.


jJ
ohnny Falotico always loved going to class. But his first two years of high school were so mis­erable, the disabled teen used to pick his lip raw and pretend to be sick.

What had changed was his spe­cial-education program. His par­ents believed it wasn’t addressing the gaps in his basic life skills — how to cross the street, read a sign or write his name.

They complained, but got no­where. They sued the Central Re­gional School District in Berke­ley, and eventually Johnny got the extra help he needed. But for the Faloticos, the price was steep: $35,000 in legal fees, a nearly shat­tered marriage and the loss of two critical developmental years for their son, now 16.

Although relatively few New Jersey parents file lawsuits against their local school districts, the Faloticos’ experience high­lights severe problems within New Jersey’s special-education system. There is little doubt that special education and dedicated teachers help thousands of chil­dren each year deal with, and even overcome, their disabilities.

Yet at the same time, the pro­grams are hampered by fiscal and educational dysfunction.

“It’s just not working,” John­ny’s mother, Patricia Carter-Falo­tico, 41, of Berkeley said of special education. “The people in charge are the roadblocks to your child’s education. They are there to save the district money, not to provide your child with what he or she needs.” An eight-month Asbury Park Press investigation found that the system is a $3 billion a year bu­reaucracy plagued by unchecked costs, lax oversight, racial bias and unproven programs.

Key findings from the investi­gation:

J Hundreds of millions of dol­lars for private schools. Tax­payers support a state-sanctioned network of 176 private special-ed­ucation schools, some of which pay their top employees more than the governor. More than $580 million a year is spent by public schools on private tuition alone. See Critics, Page A14

Visit www.DataUniverse.com for a searchable list of special-education tuition costs by district. Look under “What’s New” for the link.

Story by SHANNON MULLEN

STAFF WRITER

 




Pat Mayer, an aide at the Academy Learning Center in Monroe, works with John Herrera, a 15-year-old student from Matawan. The school provides instruction for students with autism and related disorders. New Jersey’s special-education system serves approximately 200,000 students statewide.



No one, not even the state Education Department, keeps track of how much money is actually spent on special education every year. One 2005 estimate pegged the total at $3.3 billion — meaning 18 cents of every dollar that schools spent that year went to special education.

Critics fault lack of accountability



FROM PAGE A1
T
he private-school tuition bills in some low-income urban districts are spiraling out of control, thwarting efforts to turn around failing public schools.

J A criminal probe and lax oversight of money. Au­thorities are investigating charges that the Trenton pub­lic school system misspent millions of dollars in special­education funds — right under the nose of a New Jersey Department of Education monitor. Bogus time sheets, questionable money transfers and unauthorized pay­ments to private schools that students never attended, were found by the state auditor. He said he now suspects such abuses many be more commonplace than anyone realizes.

No one, not even the state Education Department, keeps track of how much money is actually spent on spe­cial education every year. One 2005 estimate pegged the total at $3.3 billion — meaning 18 cents of every dollar that schools spent that year went to special education.

J Racial disparity. Black students who aren’t truly dis­abled routinely have been placed in special-education programs, a form of segregation that has been tolerated for decades, critics say. They say it has become a way for schools to deal with hard-to-teach students — and snag more state and federal aid.

A Press analysis of education data found that money played a significant role in determining whether a spe­cial-education student attended a private day school or was schooled within the district’s own buildings. Upper­income districts and the lowest-income districts — which are mostly funded with state tax dollars and have a higher percentage of minority students — were almost twice as likely to send a child to a private school than middle-income districts, the Press found.

J Lack of standards. Parents and policymakers have no way of knowing whether special-education programs are effective or not because schools aren’t required to re­port or even collect such performance data. Teachers who work with autistic students aren’t required to know how to educate students with the complex disorder.

Rose Valendo, a special-education teacher at Academy Learning Center, a regional public school in Monroe that specializes in autism, said her college education classes didn’t cover autism.

Had Academy Learning not provided her with training when she was hired, she said, “I would have walked in here completely blind about what this program was all about and what this (autistic) population needed.”

J Parental distress. The lack of consistent standards creates a crazy quilt of good and bad programs across the state, forcing some parents to move from district to district to get the services their children need, or to spend thousands of dollars on tutoring and therapies their local schools won’t provide. Some parents lie about where they live to ensure their child gets into the best school.

J Questionable choices. To trim spending, some dis­tricts have pulled students out of private schools to send them to special-education programs in other districts.

Yet one Ocean County public school now charges more than most private schools — defeating the original intent of the move and disrupting the lives of disabled students. Many other states share similar problems. New Jersey is part of a national special education system that was created in 1975 by a federal law that’s now called the In­dividuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA.

“It’s a very big problem. It’s like it’s got tentacles all over the place,” said Nancy Saling, the Faloticos’ special­education advocate, who was a special-education teacher in the Barnegat public schools for 30 years.

“I don’t know how you could disentangle them,” she said. “The saddest thing is that there are children stuck in the middle who are just not getting the education that’s promised to them in IDEA.” Triantafillos Parlapanides, the Central Regional schools superintendent, says the district “bent over backwards” to try to satisfy the Faloticos.

Johnny has multiple disorders that affect his ability to swallow, move and learn.

At the time, Parlapanides said, the high school didn’t have the type of life skills program that the family wanted for their son. This year, for the first time, there is such a program, he said.

But Johnny has moved on. To settle the case, Central Regional agreed to send him to a $50,000-a-year private day school in Eatontown. The district also reimbursed the Faloticos for their legal expenses.

Today, Johnny is a changed teenager. Now he loves going to school and has made significant strides.

“It makes me feel great that he’s making progress, but it also makes me feel bad, because if he was placed there earlier in his life then maybe he would be further along than he is now,” Carter-Falotico said. “It shouldn’t be as hard as it is.” It is not merely a few disgruntled parents who feel that way. A presidential commission warned in 2002 that the special-education system had veered off course and re­quired “fundamental rethinking.” Yet at a time when “accountability” is the watchword in public education, special education continues to fly under the radar. The Race to the Top reform plan New Jersey unveiled earlier this year calls for no major changes in special education beyond hiring more quali­fied teachers.

That puts the onus on parents to hold the system ac­countable.

“Unless a parent takes it on their own initiative, these kids get swept under the carpet,” said William Robinson, 48, of Union Beach, whose 11-year-old son has dyslexia, a developmental reading disorder.

Robinson says he spent $250,000 on attorney and ex­pert fees in the past three years, trying to get his son’s school to use a shelved reading program that could bene­fit the boy immensely.

Union Beach Schools Superintendent Arthur J. Waltz declined comment on the case, which is still working its way through the federal court system.

“You see the money pouring into special education, but we’re not looking at getting the best return on the money we’re spending,” Robinson said. “There’s no ac­countability, or should I say, the accountability is so low, it’s really not a true standard.”


‘Much to be proud of’


S
upporters of New Jersey’s special-education system, which serves some 200,000 students statewide, say such criticisms are unfair.

They say New Jersey, which was one of the first states in the country to mandate special education classes for the handicapped a century ago, has made steady pro­gress in the decade since federal monitors criticized the state’s “ineffective” oversight of special-education pro­grams in public and private schools.

Barbara Gantwerk, director of the state Education De­partment’s Office of Special Education Programs, said the department’s monitoring efforts, which zero in on districts that don’t show enough progress toward meet­ing federal benchmarks, are far more robust today.

Moreover, she said, with help from tens of millions of dollars in state grants, many districts have made strides toward reducing the segregation of disabled students in costly specialized schools, and raising academic perform­ance to meet the demands of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Also, she said, parental survey results and the fact that fewer than 100 special-education disputes per year wind up in court suggest that the vast majority of spe­cial-education parents are satisfied with the services their children are receiving.

“I think we have much to be proud of,” Gantwerk said.


Costly private schools
U
nder the federal law, students with disabilities are supposed to be educated in the least restrictive en­vironment possible, ideally in regular-education class­rooms.

New Jersey, however, has a long history of placing its disabled students in separate public and private schools.

In fact, it relies on these schools more than any other state, by a wide margin.

The practice of sending disabled students to schools outside their home districts is so engrained in New Jer­sey that decades of regulatory pressure have done little to reduce it.

“It’s a very complex operation to change the way peo­ple think and the way school districts operate,” observed Paula Lieb, who heads the New Jersey Coalition for In­clusive Education, a nonprofit group that opposes educa­ting disabled students in segregated settings.

In 2007, frustrated by a lack of progress on the issue, a coalition of disability-rights groups, led by the Education Law Center, filed a federal lawsuit against the state De­partment of Education, seeking wholesale changes in staff training, program development and the state’s mon­itoring of special-education programs. The case is still in the early stages of litigation.

In total, 14,556 students, or 7.5 percent of the state’s total special-education population, were educated in sep­arate public or private schools in 2009, according to state figures. That percentage is down from just over 9 percent in 2007.

Out-of-district school placements cost districts $1.3 bil­lion in tuition and transportation expenditures in 2005, nearly 40 percent of the $3.3 billion spent on special edu­cation that year, according to a report by the New Jersey School Boards Association. The total amount did not in­clude staff benefits, estimated at more than $400 million.

The vast majority of these students, more than 12,000 per year, wind up in the state’s 176 private day schools for the disabled. There are 14 such schools in Monmouth County and seven in Ocean County.

“These schools have good reputations,” said Gerard M. Thiers, executive director of ASAH, a nonprofit group that represents 135 private special-education schools across the state. “Our outcome studies show these kids perform very well when they get out of school and in school.” In effect, though, school districts have created a sepa­rate school system that is privately operated but tax­payer-funded.

Districts sent more than $580 million to these schools in 2008-09, the latest year available on record. Most of the state’s private schools for the disabled charge more than $51,000 per student, more than a year’s tuition at Har­vard University Medical School.

Three schools charge more than $110,000 per year.

Concordia Learning Center at St. Joseph’s School for the Blind, in Jersey City, has the highest tuition, $114,457 per student, according to tentative 2010-11 rates.

The private schools are regulated by the state Educa­tion Department, which certifies their tuition rates, based on their operating expenses over the prior two years.

The state also stipulates what private schools can pay their employees.

The private payrolls are supposed to be on par with the public-sector jobs. For the 2009-10 school year, for ex­ample, the state capped compensation for administrators at just over $215,000.

But some of those administrators run schools with just a few dozen students.

See Special, Page A15

 



 

Diane Misak, a teacher at the Academy Learning Center in Monroe, works with Mark Zeluff, a 16-year-old stu­dent from Old Bridge, on his reading. New Jersey spends an estimated $3 billion a year on special education.

Special



FROM PAGE A14
R
obert E. White, executive director of the Oakwood School, a nonprofit private school for the neurolog­ically impaired in Tinton Falls, was paid $168,721 in base pay plus another $74,413 in additional compensation in 2008, the school’s tax records show. The school had an average daily enrollment of 43 students in the 2008-09 school year, according to state enrollment data. New Jer­sey’s governor is paid $175,000 a year.

The Somerset Hills Learning Institute, a nonprofit pri­vate autism school in Bedminster that had an average daily enrollment of 26 students in 2008-09, paid its execu­tive director, Kevin Brothers, a salary of $165,385 in 2008, the school’s tax records show. The school spent nearly $300,000 on fundraising that year.

“The clinical demands on us on a daily basis are sig­nificant,” Brothers said. “It’s not just providing an edu­cation, it’s providing treatment services as well.” Other examples of private school salaries:

J The director of the Learning Center for Exceptional Children in Clifton in Bergen County, Linda Buonauro, received $203,654 in base pay in 2008, the school’s tax re­cords show. She said she has held the job for 38 years.

The school’s average daily attendance that year was 94 students.

J A speech therapist at the Forum School in Waldwick in Bergen County was paid $223,700 in base pay and re­ceived another $89,526 in benefits and other compensa­tion in 2007, according to the school’s tax records. The therapist has worked at the school for more than 30 years.

J In 2007, the top five highest-paid employees at the Alle­gro School, a private autism school in Cedar Knolls in Morris County, included the custodian, who made $85,715, and a teaching assistant, whose base pay was $84,004, the school’s tax records show. The school had fewer than 100 students enrolled in 2008-09.

Thiers, of the private-schools group, said the average private-school administrator is paid about $150,000.

“It’s a different job than a public school,” he said. “Ba­sically, you’re dealing with kids who are very difficult to educate.” Private schools also offer “significantly lower” health and retirement benefits than public school employees re­ceive, Thiers said, and many schools operate year-round. Teachers at the Search Day Program, a private school in Ocean Township that specializes in autism, frequently visit their students’ homes on their off hours to help par­ents with problems they may be experiencing, without any compensation, said Katherine Solana, the school’s executive director.

She cited an example where staff members worked with an autistic student’s family after school to de­termine why the boy was having tantrums on the school bus. It turned out that he felt overheated in the back of the bus, but he didn’t have the verbal skills to let the driver know. The staff gave the student a note pad, word­picture cards and juice for the ride home, and the prob­lems ceased, she said.

“Sometimes, a simple thing like that keeps a child’s life from being turned upside down,” Solana said. “We keep an eye on things like that.”


Wealth disparity


I
n New Jersey, the lowest-income urban districts, which are largely subsidized by the state, are the top users of private schools for special education, according to a Press analysis of 2007 placement data. These dis­tricts include Asbury Park, Keansburg and New Bruns­wick.

The second-highest users of private schools are upper­middle-class suburban districts, such as Wall, Middle­town and Freehold Regional, the Press found.

Peg Kinsell, public policy director for the Statewide Parents Advocacy Network of New Jersey, a nonprofit disability-rights group, said urban districts often lack the teachers and physical infrastructure needed to ac­commodate students with more serious disabilities. At the same time, parents in the wealthier suburban dis­tricts are better able to afford attorneys and push for a private-school placement.

“It becomes an administrative convenience to just write a check to send kids to an out-of-district placement,” she said.

In the urban districts, that means millions of dollars in state aid that’s flowing into these districts every year, ostensibly to improve the public schools, is winding up in the coffers of private schools instead.

The practice has come under fresh scrutiny because of the unfolding criminal probe in the Trenton district.

“Nobody was minding the store,” said state Sen. Shir­ley K. Turner, D-Mercer.

“My greatest concern is, of course, that this is not unique to the city of Trenton,” Turner said. “I’m sure there are other districts around the state that are in a similar situation, but it hasn’t been uncovered because nobody is providing the necessary oversight.” While Trenton placed 12 percent of its special-educa­tion students in private schools in 2007, the private­school placement rate in Irvington, another low-income and mostly state-funded district, was nearly 30 percent, the Press found.

That was the highest rate in the state among the 286 districts with at least 160 special-education students.

That minimum enrollment figure, just above the median for the state, was used to screen out smaller districts whose placement rates were skewed by having relatively few disabled students.

Irvington spent more than $18 million in tuition alone to send 328 students, at an average of $54,800 each, to pri­vate schools in 2008-09, its budget shows. Irvington’s schools chief, E.J. Hasty, did not return telephone calls seeking comment.

Franklin Township in Somerset County had the state’s second-highest placement rate, 21 percent, followed by Asbury Park, at 19 percent. In Ocean County, Lakewood had the top rate, 11 percent.

“It’s one of the things we’re trying to change,” said Denise Lowe, the schools superintendent in Asbury Park.

This year, the district opened an alternative high school that made it possible to bring at least seven spe­cial-education students back in the district, she said.

Matawan-Aberdeen’s rate was 14 percent in 2007, ninth-highest in the state.

“It doesn’t surprise me,” said Richard O’Malley, who was hired as the district’s superintendent in 2007. “One of the things I recognized right away was the number of students we were sending to private schools. We have completely reversed that trend, but prior to that, that was the mindset.”


‘Black box’ standards
S
o little is known about the true costs and effective­ness of these programs, not just in New Jersey but nationwide, that some have likened special education to a “black box.” No one knows what’s inside or even how it works, exactly.

While IDEA, the federal law regulating special educa­tion, requires schools to collect reams of data on their disabled students, it provides few benchmarks that par­ents and policymakers can use to gauge how effective a special-education program is in a given school, district or state.

In its 2002 report, the President’s Commission on Ex­cellence in Special Education noted that schools are ex­pected to comply with more than 814 different proce­dural requirements, few of which relate directly to student performance.

“Ironically,” the report stated, “even if a school com­plied with the more than 814 requirements, families and Congress would have no assurance children were mak­ing progress.” Another study found that teachers spend more time filling out paperwork related to all these rules than they do actually working with students.

“If we want to measure cost and effectiveness, we need cost and effect,” said Tammy Kolbe, an assistant re­search professor at the University of Connecticut’s Cen­ter for Education Policy Analysis.

There is little available data on either, she said.

Kolbe said New Jersey isn’t alone in this regard. In fact, she has yet to come across a state that has this kind of cost and performance data.

While New Jersey spends an estimated $3.3 billion a year on special education, there is no way to determine if that amount is higher or lower than the per-student costs in other states. There are no recent national stud­ies comparing expenses.

The last time New Jersey commissioned an in-depth analysis of special-education costs was 10 years ago. It found that the cost of educating a student with autism was $32,000, nearly four times the rate for a general-edu­cation student.

It was only in 2004 that the law was amended to re­quire an annual state performance review that includes data about test results, graduation and dropout rates.

Brenda Considine, coordinator of the New Jersey Coa­lition for Special Education Funding Reform, an advo­cacy group, is among those who believe more extensive information is needed. The group, which represents the interests of various disability-rights organizations as well as the private-schools association, said the state Ed­ucation Department needs to conduct a long-term study on special education.

“We keep pumping millions of dollars into a system in which we’re not looking at outcomes,” she said. “Nobody knows what happens to these kids.” However, Alexa Posny, assistant secretary of the U.S.

Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, believes the 2004 law, which was crafted to work in con­junction with No Child Left Behind standards, strikes an appropriate balance.

“There will always be a focus on process” in order to safeguard students’ rights, said Posny, formerly the edu­cation commissioner in Kansas.

Parents have the right to assess their child’s progress based on annual goals and objectives in the student’s In­dividualized Education Plan, or IEP.

While these goals are supposed to be concrete, parents and special-education advocates say some districts use goals that are so nebulous that it’s easy to claim they’re being met.

“I have one client whose goals were repeated for 12 years,” said special-education advocate Bobbie Gallagher of Brick, who specializes in autism cases.

“For 12 years, he worked on the same things,” she said. “Who checks that? Why is he still matching his name to a board?” Shannon Mullen: 732-643-4278; Shannon@app.com


In New Jersey, the lowest-income urban districts, which are largely subsidized by the state, are the top users of private schools for special education, according to a Press analysis of 2007 placement data. These districts include Asbury Park, Keansburg and New Brunswick.

 



 

Jasmine Carolino, a student at the Developmental Learning Center in Aberdeen, gets a hug for good work from paraprofessional Mary Sarich. New Jersey, more than other states, places disabled students in separate schools.

Give Trenton district ‘F’ in fiscal control



By SHANNON MULLEN

STAFF WRITER
T
he misspending of millions of dollars in special-education funds un­covered in the Trenton School District earlier this year might be part of a more pervasive problem, state Auditor Stephen M. Eells said.

“Do I think these per­formance issues are in other districts?” Eells said. “Of course.” In Trenton, which gets about 90 percent of its $238.4 million budget from the state, Eells found that the district was paying the private-school tuition bills of disabled students who either never showed up to class or were chronically absent. Of the 11,000 pu­pils, an estimated 2,000 are classified for special educa­tion.

Teachers were submit­ting bogus time sheets for home-instruction lessons they never taught, he found. In one case, a teacher was cutting and pasting parents’ signatures to time sheets totaling $51,000.

Meanwhile, the district’s accountant was trying to hide out-of-control spend­ing with “misleading” budget figures, Eells re­ported.

The district’s own audit subsequently identified $10 million in out-of-district tuition and employee health-benefit bills that ad­ministrators deliberately kept off the books.

Now a Mercer County grand jury and the state Attorney General’s Office are investigating, and leg­islators are raising ques­tions about the New Jersey Department of Education’s oversight role.

At the time, the depart­ment had a budget supervi­sor working with the dis­trict. But because of home rule, such staff members work only in an advisory capacity, Eells said.

“They can make sugges­tions of correction action, (but) they don’t have the teeth to force change,” Eells said.

In the Trenton audit, Eells looked beyond the district’s budget to see whether sufficient controls were in place to monitor private-school attendance and home-instruction time sheets. In the latter in­stance, in addition to ap­parently fraudulent billing practices, he found that out of 136 students he sam­pled who were supposed to be receiving home instruc­tion, 115 had no lesson plans on file.

“That, to me, is worse,” Eells said. “What are you teaching them? . . . Are we spending money in circles here?” On the heels of the au­dit’s release in March, a state fiscal monitor, Mark Cowell, was appointed to take control of the dis­trict’s finances. Eells, Cow­ell and officials from the district and the state Edu­cation Department were called to testify on Sept. 15 before the state Senate Ed­ucation Committee.

In his testimony, Cowell said the steady flow of state aid into the district, coupled with poor adminis­trative oversight, created “a perfect storm in Tren­ton.” “When you have a lot of money,” he said, “you can cover up a lot of things.” But in the wake of re­cent draconian cuts in state education aid, he added, no amount of ac­counting slight of hand could mask Trenton’s fis­cal mess.

In addition to working with Cowell to address its accounting problems, the district has hired a new ad­ministrator for its special­education program. Mean­while, acting state Educa­tion Commissioner Ro­chelle Hendricks said her department is working to tighten its fiscal oversight procedures.

State Sen. Shirley K. Turner, D-Mercer, a for­mer Trenton school teacher, said she was not satisfied.

“Everybody there was saying: ‘We don’t know. We weren’t there then. It’s not our fault,’ ” she said. “Nobody wanted to accept responsibility for any­thing.”


Teachers were submitting bogus time sheets for home­instruction lessons they never taught, an audit found. In one case, a teacher was cutting and pasting parents’ signatures to time sheets totaling $51,000.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Monday, November 15th

 

Racial disparity continues



NO MINORITIES:


Lakewood sends only white kids to private special-ed school



SECOND OF SIX PARTS

By SHANNON MULLEN

STAFF WRITER

LAKEWOOD — Four years after the state Department of Education said racial bias was the reason the township school district was sending only disabled white students to a local private school, the district has yet to place any minor­ity children there.

The public schools, whose student body is more than 90 percent black and Hispanic, sent 122 students this year to the private School for Children with Hidden Intelligence — all of them white, district offi­cials say. The reason for the racial disparity is that no minority parents have ever sought a placement to the school, officials say.

“I know that there are no children who go to that spe­cific school who are minor­ities. I know that,” school board President Leonard Thomas said. “Nor do I know that any have ap­plied. So there’s that Catch-22, in a sense. If you don’t apply, you can’t go.” But the district is not re­quired to tell parents about every private school option available to them. The local NAACP continues to ques­tion if minority parents are being told about what SCHI can offer their children.

Since its initial investiga­tion, the state Education Department has backed off its demands for sweeping changes in the district’s special-education placement process.

The department, which has since removed its ra­cial bias findings from its official records, now says that the district is following the law.

While the public schools here are failing, SCHI, pro­nounced “shy,” is prosper­ing, thanks to strong back­ing from political leaders and more than $12 million a year in public school money.

Founded in a strip-mall storefront with just a hand­ful of students 15 years ago, SCHI now occupies a $13 million, 64,000-square-foot facility that sits on a 13-acre campus on Oak Street — tax-free land the township gave to the school a decade ago for $1, prop­erty records show.

SCHI now has about 130 special-education students and some 300 employees, according to the school’s tax records and financial re­ports.

“It’s very im­pressive,” said Jonathan Sil­ver, a member of the Lake­wood Board of Education.

“In my opinion, it is a Ca­dillac school for special­needs children.” In three years, the Lake­wood School District’s tui­tion payments to SCHI have doubled, to $12.2 mil­lion. Nearly 10 cents of every dollar the district spends goes to the school, whose tuition rate is more than $84,000 per child.

The story of SCHI’s suc­cess, however, is also a cau­tionary tale about how de­pendent many New Jersey school districts have be­come on such schools and how quickly the costs asso­ciated with these arrange­ments can get out of hand.

As is the case with public schools, such private schools don’t have to show how well their special-edu­cation programs work.

District’s tuition burden growing

Meanwhile, tuition payments to the school con­tinue to climb.

“Twelve million per year? It is not sustainable,” said township resident James Waters, president of the Lake­wood-Ocean County Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. “Your public schools are the ones that are suffering.” Because of a lack of adequate facilities, many children in the public schools have to be taught in trailers. All six of Lakewood’s public schools failed to make adequate yearly progress on this year’s state assessment tests.

Each is classified by the state Education Department as “in need of improvement.” The district’s annual budget this year is $132 million.

But school officials say the district is in a bind.

While they acknowledge the district can ill-afford to pay a total of $16 million to SCHI and a handful of other private schools every year, they say Lakewood doesn’t have the resources to expand its in-house special-educa­tion program to meet the significant needs of these stu­dents.

Under federal law, if a district can’t provide a disabled student with an appropriate education, it’s obligated to send the child to a suitable school outside the district that can — at taxpayers’ expense.

“We can’t even pass regular school budgets, let alone a referendum to build a building for our current unhoused children, let alone create a program in our already overly crowded district to bring children back in,” school board President Thomas said.

“It sounds good. It’s just not a reality,” he said. “Even if we had the ability to build a building, they’ve created something over there (at SCHI) that’s basically state-of­the-art. It’s very difficult to compete with.” Lakewood’s total private school tuition tab in 2008-09 was $14.2 million — the fifth highest in New Jersey, even though it ranks 65th highest in enrollment with 5,200 pu­pils. Only the larger districts of Newark, Jersey City, Passaic and Irvington - which range from 39,000 to 7,000 students - paid more to private schools that year, state budget figures show.


A ‘downward spiral’


Y
ou will hear a similar refrain in districts across the state.

New Jersey historically has placed a greater share of its special-education students in private schools than any other state, by a wide margin. The practice is at odds with state and federal law, which places a premium on keeping disabled students in their neighborhood pub­lic schools, whenever possible.

Proponents of private schools like SCHI say they play an invaluable role in New Jersey’s special-education sys­tem, offering the kind of expertise and intensive services that many public schools can’t match.

Disability-rights groups, however, say such placements unfairly segregate and stigmatize students with disabilities.

Cost also figures into the debate.

Out-of-district placements to both private and public schools for the disabled account for nearly 40 percent of the estimated $3.3 billion spent on special education every year, counting both tuition and transportation costs, according to a 2005 study by the New Jersey School Boards Association.

Districts spent more than $580 million in tuition alone to send fewer than 13,000 students to private schools in 2008-9.

SCHI is one of 176 such schools in New Jersey that are approved by the state Education Department to accept referrals of public school students.

There are a total of seven in Ocean County and 14 in Monmouth County. Of these, SCHI has the highest tui­tion and the 11th highest statewide. The median tuition is about $51,000. The state Education Department sets tu­ition rates, based on certain eligible expenses.

Low-income urban districts are the most reliant on private special-education schools, according to an As­bury Park Press analysis of placement data.

Students with disabilities in these districts are often pushed out of the public schools because of a lack of ade­quate facilities or trained teachers or pulled out at the behest of parents eager to flee failing schools, experts say.

Over time, the practice creates what a 2004 report by the New Jersey Council on Developmental Disabilities called “a downward spiral of decreased capacity” that in­evitably leads to more and more students being sent out of the district at a steadily rising cost to taxpayers.

That kind of momentum can be hard to slow down.

In 2009, for example, as part of the federal stimulus package, Congress doubled the amount of special-educa­tion aid that districts received from the federal govern­ment.

The chief intent was to help districts improve their in­house special-education programs, yet many New Jersey districts, including Lakewood, applied some or all of the windfall to offset their out-of-district tuition bills.

Lakewood used its entire $4.6 million allocation for tu­ition and private preschool services. In its aid applica­tion, the district stated that if it hadn’t done so, it would have had to have laid off staff to pay those bills.

John Hart, a former chief of staff in the state Educa­tion Department who is now involved in a new business venture that aims to help urban districts develop their in-house special education programs, says the problem in particularly acute in low-income urban districts that are heavily subsidized by the state.

“If we do not clearly highlight this as a core issue in improving urban education, we will be having this con­versation again five years, eight years from now,” Hart said.


Unique circumstances
W
hile Lakewood is not a low-income community — its median household income was $41,000 in 2008 — more than one in five families live below the pov­erty line, according to U.S. Census estimates.

Those families account for the vast majority of the 5,200 pupils enrolled in Lakewood’s public schools. More than 90 percent of the study body qualifies for a free or reduced school lunch.

What sets Lakewood apart from other districts in a similar predicament is its unique ethnic and political makeup.

Whites, who account for 80 percent of Lakewood’s pop­ulation, are predominantly Orthodox Jewish. Within that community, there is a strong cultural preference for educating children in private religious schools.

In Lakewood, an estimated 18,000 children attend about 65 such schools, at least three times the number enrolled in public schools. While the district provides free courtesy busing for many of these students, their tu­ition is privately funded.

Special education, though, is a different matter.

Among local Orthodox Jewish families with disabled children, SCHI is the preferred place to get such an edu­cation.

SCHI was founded by township resident Osher Eise­mann, who wanted to create a school that could meet the needs of children, like his son, who have significant disa­bilities, such as autism, Down syndrome or cerebral palsy.

“To be able to help these children is a reward in itself.

I feel honored to do it,” Eisemann told the Press in 1999 when the Ocean County Council of Agencies honored him for his service to the community.

At the time, only 18 students were enrolled in the school.

Within a few years, though, the pace of referrals would pick up dramatically. The turning point came in 2001, when the district either lost or settled 27 separate law­suits filed by local parents seeking to have their child placed at SCHI.

The lawsuits cost the district more than $1 million in attorney and expert fees, on top of the tuition costs it had to pick up.

The victorious attorney was Michael I. Inzelbuch, a local lawyer who specializes in special-education cases.

The following year, Inzelbuch was named school board attorney, a post he holds today. He also was hired to serve as the coordinator of nonpublic special education.

As board attorney, he was paid $387,599 last year. His current salary for the coordinator job, a part-time posi­tion, is $122,655.

Since his appointment, referrals to SCHI have become commonplace, but Inzelbuch said he doesn’t make those decisions.

“I don’t recommend parents go to SCHI. The child study teams do,” he said.


Well-connected school
I
n addition to its relationship with the school district, which accounts for 98 percent of its special education students and virtually all of its revenue, SCHI has bene­fited from strong governmental support at the local, state and federal level.

In 2005, the school received a $297,000 grant for special­education research from the U.S. Department of Educa­tion. It received a $6,500 grant from the Township Com­mittee the following year, on top of the generous land deal it got from the township back in 2000.

In 2008, SCHI was able to refinance the mortgage on its new building with $13.2 million in tax-free bonds from the New Jersey Economic Development Authority. Last year, Rep. Christopher H. Smith, R-N.J., used a legisla­tive earmark to secure a $250,000 construction grant for the school from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

SCHI also has relied on support from private donors, charitable foundations and area businesses, including the parent company of the Press, which bought a piece of physical therapy equipment worth several thousand dol­lars for the school earlier this year.

While the school is nonsectarian, it receives solid backing from the Vaad, Lakewood’s influential council of Orthodox Jewish civic leaders.

In the waning days of last year’s gubernatorial cam­paign, both then-Gov. Jon S. Corzine and Kim Gua­dagno, Republican challenger Chris Christie’s running mate, visited the school to court Orthodox Jewish lead­ers.

The Vaad ultimately endorsed Corzine, citing, among other reasons, “his consistent efforts on behalf of the SCHI School.” In February, then-state Education Com­missioner Bret Schundler was one of the featured speak­ers at SCHI’s 15th anniversary gala.

Photos on the school’s website show two minority chil­dren, but did not indicate what district they were from or what year the photos were taken.

Neither Eisemann nor SCHI’s executive director, for­mer school board member Mark A. Seigel, returned tele­phone calls seeking comment for this story. The Press could not obtain permission to visit the private school.


Biased decisions?


Lakewood’s relationship to SCHI came under scru­tiny in 2005.


That year, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey took issue with the way the child study teams in Lakewood were handling referrals to the school.

By law, parents who believe their child may need spe­cial-education services must go through a district child study team. These teams consist of a school psychologist, a learning-disabilities teacher/consultant, a social worker and sometimes a speech-language therapist. If the team agrees that services are needed, it then crafts a plan of action, in cooperation with the child’s parents, that among other things identifies where the child will be educated.

If parents are dissatisfied with the plan, they can re­quest mediation or file suit against the district.

In a letter to then-State Education Commissioner Lu­cille E. Davy, the ACLU’s legal director, Edward Baro­cas, said that Lakewood’s teams were either showing bias in their evaluations or “simply acceding to the de­sires of the parents of Hasidic students and referring those students to a particular Hasidic-friendly outside placement. . . .” In response to the ACLU’s allegation, the state Educa­tion Department’s Office of Special Education Programs, or OSEP, launched its own investigation. It focused on placements made at the preschool level, because that is where nearly all out-of-district referrals are made.

In its final report, issued on May, 24, 2006, OSEP said those decisions showed a clear pattern of racial discrimi­nation.

The report included a statistical analysis that showed that a white child with special needs was more than 70 percent more likely to be placed in an out-of-district school than a minority child and twice as likely to wind up in a full-day rather than a half-day out-of-district pro­gram.

The district, however, insisted that the analysis was flawed and that other factors, not discrimination, were responsible for the disparity.

The district cited the limited capacity of its own spe­cial-education program, the large influx of white Ortho­dox Jewish families into the district and that communi­ty’s keen grasp of special-education law.

Moreover, the district noted, no minority parent had ever sought a placement at SCHI.

OSEP, however, rejected Lakewood’s explanation and called on the district to make sweeping changes.

Among them was a mandatory review of all placement decisions involving minority preschoolers in the prior three years. Any child found to have been treated inequi­tably was to receive compensatory services.

The ACLU never filed suit against the district. The or­ganization declined comment and referred questions to the state Education Department.


‘A clear win’
T
he district filed an appeal of OSEP’s findings in July 2006. In February 2007, the district and the state Education Department reached a settlement.

In the district’s view, the agreement vindicated its po­sition.

“We fought it. They dropped the case like a hot po­tato,” recalled school board member Meir Grunhut. “It was a clear win.” In fact, the state went so far as to agree to immediately and unconditionally withdraw OSEP’s investigatory re­port “in its entirety” and remove it from the depart­ment’s files, as if it had never existed.

The settlement called for the the creation of a 10-member community advisory board. The group was supposed to help the district create “additional opportu­nities for more culturally and racially diverse” special­education preschool programs.

No such board ever was convened.

The group was to be led by Eleanor A. Newton, a West Windsor-based professional facilitator. Newton said she exchanged a few e-mails with the district not long after the settlement was reached, but when she tried to find out when the group would get under way, she never got a response.

“Nothing ever happened,” she said.

Lydia Valencia, the head of the Puerto Rican Con­gress, a local Hispanic advocacy group, was among those who were asked by the state Education Department to serve on the advisory board, but she, too, said she never heard anything more about it. Valencia said her calls to state education officials were not returned.

“I’m very upset because the higher echelons of the state department of ed did nothing to follow up to make sure corrective action was put in place,” she said.

When asked about the advisory board, Thomas, the school board president, said he didn’t recall the settle­ment.

“I really can’t speak to the settlement because I really don’t remember it,” he said.

Inzelbuch, the board attorney, who negotiated and signed the settlement, pointed out language in the settle­ment that says “the parties will create an Advisory Board.” Beyond that, he had no comment on why it never got off the ground.

“What happened was the state never followed through on it,” alleged Waters, the NAACP leader.

In a prepared statement, Barbara Gantwerk, director of the state Office of Special Education Programs, said the state has “fulfilled all of the actions in the settlement agreement for which it was responsible.” She said three monitors from her office visited the dis­trict unannounced to observe several dozen child study team meetings with parents, in accordance with the terms of the settlement.

“The monitors determined that the decision-making was in compliance with the requirements and that a va­riety of placement options were offered,” the statement said.

“We are unaware of any child being denied admission to the SCHI School based on race or religion, nor have we received any complaints,” Gantwerk stated. “Any complaint that we would receive would be vigorously in­vestigated.” Gantwerk didn’t address what happened to the advi­sory board.


A ‘sensitive topic’
I
nzelbuch said that minority parents have been of­fered a placement for their child at SCHI, but none has accepted so far.

Waters, of the NAACP, questions whether the district is making minority parents fully aware of SCHI’s non­sectarian policy and the more intensive services and bet­ter facilities it offers.

“If the school is open to everyone, why aren’t all the kids in Lakewood getting a referral there?” Waters asked.

“It’s almost like a college,” he said. “Why wouldn’t every parent want their child to go to the Cadillac of schools, to any school that provided the best services for any physically challenged or mentally challenged stu­dent?” Antoinette White, whose son, a fifth-grader at Oak Street Elementary School, was in special education for reading problems until last year, said she didn’t realize minority children could attend SCHI.

“I thought it was just for Jewish kids,” she said. White added that she was satisfied with the services her son re­ceived in the public schools.

After voters defeated the school budget referendum in April, the school board voted to trim the amount budg­eted for out-of-district placements by $825,000, but it’s not clear yet how that cut will be achieved.

Beyond that, there appears to be little interest on the school board for altering the district’s relationship with SCHI, however more costly it becomes.

“It’s a very sensitive topic,” acknowledged Silver, the school board member. “It’s sensitive because there’s a lot of religious aspects involved. I can relate to that be­cause I’m part of that (Orthodox Jewish) community.

However, having said that, it’s quite costly, and it’s an enormous burden on the average taxpayer, and it’s a tough issue to tackle. That’s all I can say to you.”




Lakewood placed about 11 percent (95) of its special-education students (960) in private day schools. Of those, 57 were classified as having specific learning disabilities and 34 as having multiple disabilities. In 2008-09, there were 12,331 students in private specialized schools statewide. That included 424 in seven Ocean County schools and 1,503 in 14 Monmouth County schools.


Source: New Jersey Department of Education



STAFF PHOTO: PETER ACKERMAN

The School for Children with Hidden Intelligence, or SCHI, occupies a $13 million, 64,000-square-foot facility that sits on a 13-acre campus on Oak Street in Lakewood — tax-free land the township gave to the school a decade ago for $1, property records show.



STAFF PHOTO: ROBERT WARD

Leonard Thomas, president of the Lakewood Board of Education, acknowledges the financial hardship for the district in having to pay millions for private school tuition for special-education students.

Furious dissent followed earlier report on tuition bill



By SHANNON MULLEN

STAFF WRITER

LAKEWOOD — This isn’t the first time that ques­tions have been raised about the Lakewood School District’s balloon­ing tuition payments to the School for Children with Hidden Intelligence.

In 2002, an ad hoc com­mittee of the Lakewood Board of Education looked at ways to make the dis­trict’s special-education program more cost-effec­tive.

The committee was chaired by Arthur Godt, a local retiree who had spent 13 years as the special-edu­cation director in the Pass­aic school system.

“We made an honest ef­fort to approach some of the problems, and the out­of-district tuition was one of them,” recalled Godt, 72.

The committee’s final re­port, citing the “inordinate number” of Lakewood stu­dents being placed at the privately owned and oper­ated SCHI, said that there was “no valid reason why Lakewood should not de­velop appropriate special­education programs for these children.” At the time, the district was spending approxi­mately $2.5 million to send 53 students to SCHI, at an average tuition of $43,396.

The report called on the district to commit the re­sources to improve and ex­pand its own special-educa­tion programs with a view toward bringing at least some of the students at SCHI back into the district. Doing so, the report stated, would be in keeping with federal and state special­education laws requiring that children with disabili­ties be educated in the “least restrictive environ­ment,” ideally with their nondisabled peers at a local public school.

“The first line is always ‘public education first,’” Godt said. “Well, Lake­wood doesn’t do that. They just automatically go to the private school.” Godt said he wasn’t pre­pared for the reaction the report triggered.

A dissenting member of the committee, Rabbi Moshe Zev Weisberg, a member of Lakewood’s Vaad, the council of reli­gious and community lead­ers that represents the in­terest of the township’s Orthodox Jewish commu­nity, called the report a “major misrepresentation and a complete rewrite” of a draft that had been circu­lated in the committee.

In a memo to the schools superintendent at the time, Ernest Cannava, Weisberg urged that Godt and an­other member of the com­mittee who helped write the report “be sanctioned for a serious breach of pro­fessional behavior.” “Having known both gentleman, I was truly shocked by their gross mis­conduct, especially with such sensitive issues,” Weisberg wrote. “My opin­ion is that they should both be removed from the committee and be barred from future official district committees.” Godt said the school board accepted the report without comment, and he heard nothing more of it.

“To my knowledge, the report was just filed away,” he said.

Since that time, the dis­trict’s tuition payments to SCHI have increased nearly fivefold, to $12.2 million. Godt, for one, is hardly surprised.

“You didn’t have to have a special-education back­ground to figure that one out,” Godt said. “It was going to snowball to what it is now.” Shannon Mullen: 732-643-4278; smullen@app.com

 




FILE PHOTO: 2008

Rabbi Moshe Zev Weis­berg, a member of a 2002 Lakewood Board of Edu­cation committee that ex­amined ways to reduce the district’s special-edu­cation expenses, strongly disputed the panel’s final report.


 

 

 

 

 

 

Black students placed disproportionately in special ed


By SHANNON MULLEN

STAFF WRITER

The federal law that cre­ated the nation’s special­education system grew out of the civil-rights move­ment in the 1960s.

But even when districts follow the law, racial dis­parities can occur.

Nationally, black stu­dents are far more likely to be placed in special educa­tion than white students.

While 15 percent of U.S. students are black, they represent more than 20 percent of students classi­fied with specific learning disabilities, nearly 30 per­cent of those in the emo­tional-disturbance cate­gory and 33 percent of those classified with men­tal retardation, according to 2006 federal education statistics.

In New Jersey, 16 per­cent of the students in the state are black, yet 20 per­cent of black students are in special education. In 2007, the latest year avail­able, there were 236,476 total black students and 46,787 were in special ed.

A study by the New Jer­sey Council on Develop­mental Disabilities in 2004 found that black students with disabilities are more likely than whites to be placed in out-of-district schools. Among students who receive an out-of-dis­trict placement, black stu­dents are more likely to wind up in separate public schools in other districts, while white students are more often sent to private schools.

John Hart, who served as chief of staff of the state Education Department during the administration of Gov. Jon S. Corzine, says the over-classification problem, which is particu­larly acute in the state’s urban districts, has been ignored for decades and is only “getting worse.” The result is that tens of millions of dollars in an­nual state aid and tuition expenditures are being wasted, and thousands of misclassified black stu­dents are being segregated in separate classrooms and schools they do not need to be in, he said.

“You’re getting rid of those kids who are hardest to teach because the pro­cess allows you to almost game the system,” Hart said.

Hart acknowledged that he “should have done something” to address the issue during his tenure in the state Education Depart­ment.

Since leaving the depart­ment, he has partnered with a group of private schools in a new business venture that aims to help urban districts reform their special-education pro­grams. Hart also co-chairs the education task force of the New Jersey Black Is­sues Leadership Conven­tion.

“I can’t think of another civil rights issue in New Jersey that it is more im­portant,” he said, “yet it doesn’t get the attention that it’s due.” Shannon Mullen: 732-643-4278; smullen@app.com


Tuesday, November 16, 2010

 

 


STAFF PHOTO: PETER ACKERMAN

Christopher Weitzen, 16, and his father, Gary, look at a train display at The Hobby Shop in Matawan, one of their favorite places to go together. Gary Weitzen said his son, who has autism, has thrived in the Brick school system, but that other school districts do not have the same accountability.

 

PRESS INVESTIGATION

Standards lacking in N.J. autism education

IN PUBLIC SCHOOLS: Teachers not requiredTeachers not required to have formal training in the complex disorder


Third in a six-part series
i
n New Jersey, one in every 94 chil­dren has an autism spectrum disor­der, the highest incidence rate among the 16 states surveyed by the federal government.

Among New Jersey boys, the rate is one in 70, according to the U.S. Cen­ters for Disease Control and Preven­tion in Atlanta.

The phenomenon is one of the greatest challenges facing New Jer­sey’s special-education system today.

Not only because of the sheer number of autistic students — which has more than doubled in the past decade, to nearly 12,000 — but also because of the very nature of autism.

Autism is a complex biological con­dition that, to varying degrees, affects a child’s ability to communicate and develop social relationships — skills that are at the very core of the educa­tional process.

That means that autistic students often must be taught in a completely different way than other children. Yet as many parents soon discover, the way that happens in New Jersey — curriculum standards for autism pro­grams or any special training require­ments for teachers who work with au­tistic students — can be as confounding as autism itself.

“There is no uniformity across the state. It’s a problem we constantly run into,” said Gary Weitzen, executive di­rector of POAC Autism Services, a par­ent-run, grass-roots autism education group based in Brick. “Districts very often right next door are doing radi­cally different things.” To be sure, there are many teachers around the state who are doing heroic, life-changing work, often under ex­tremely trying circumstances, to which Weitzen can attest.

As a young boy, Weitzen’s son Christopher, now 16, who is autistic, used to bang his head with such force that doctors feared he would suffer a permanent brain injury. But his father said Christopher has thrived in the Brick public school system.

“My son has gone from an extremely low-functioning, nonverbal, self-injurious child to a kid that’s a dream today,” said Weitzen, 46, of Brick.

“If I could spend 24 hours a day with Chris, I would be the happiest man you will ever meet. He reads. He writes. He talks. He shops on eBay. He plays with his brother and sister. He does his homework indepen­dently. He’s a great, great kid,” Weitzen said.

But what has worked with Christopher in Brick, which was at the forefront of developing an autism pro­gram more than a decade ago, is not necessarily what is being done in other school districts.

“I guess it depends on where you land,” observed Si­mone Tellini, POAC’s training director, whose teenage son, Peter, has had a much more difficult journey through the special-education system.

“What passes for appropriate education for autistic kids varies, depending on what town you live in, even what teacher you get within the school district you’re in,” said Tellini, of Matawan.


An uneven approach


T
he state Department of Education requires that schools use scientifically based methods to teach children with disabilities.

With autism, the most extensively tested and widely used approach is called Applied Behavior Analysis, or ABA. It breaks down specific skills into small, measura­ble units that are taught systematically.

In a typical ABA classroom, teachers and aides can be seen working one on one with students. The approach in­corporates concrete rewards, be it pretzels or tokens, to keep students motivated.

But there are no state standards for what an ABA pro­gram ought to consist of, so districts can tell parents they have an “ABA-based” program or boast that their teachers are “ABA-trained” without having to meet any minimum requirements.

Even when teachers are well versed in the principles of ABA or another autism methodology, their supervi­sors rarely are, at least not in the public school system.

Autism experts say a credible ABA-based program should be overseen by a board-certified behavior analyst, or BCBA, a certification that requires extensive course work and closely supervised field experience. But nei­ther the job title of behavior analyst nor the BCBA certi­fication process is recognized by the state Department of Education, so few districts have such an expert on staff.

Some districts hire BCBAs in private practice as part­time consultants. Others rely on full-time “behaviorists,” who are not required to have any formal training in au­tism.

The result is an uneven patchwork of autism pro­grams of across the state — none of which are required to meet any performance standards.

Weitzen, of POAC, said some districts say they have an “eclectic” program that incorporates a variety of dif­ferent methodologies — “which tends to scare me,” he added.

“I’m not saying an eclectic program cannot work.

However, some towns with an eclectic approach, there’s no system, there’s no set curriculum, there’s no account­ability,” he said. “Accountability is the key.” Research has shown that when properly implemented, ABA programs can help children make “significant gains,” said Suzanne Buchanan, clinical director of Au­tism New Jersey, a statewide advocacy group.

“Somewhere around 25 percent, on average, go on to be ‘behaviorally cured,’ or indistinguishable from their peers,” she said. “So there’s an amazing measure of out­come: Up to 25 percent of those kids no longer exhibit the symptoms of autism. So to the extent that a public or pri­vate school is using intensive ABA, you can pretty accu­rately predict that many of those kids will do very well.”


Doing the ‘minimum’?


T
here’s the rub for parents: How can they tell if their child’s teachers are using ABA correctly?

In 2004, the state Department of Education convened a task force of experts to identify the various components of an effective autism program, but its recommendations never were mandated and were issued as guidelines only.

“I think there are a lot of parents who are willing to say, ‘Well, they’re doing their best,’ ” said Bobbie Gal­lagher of Brick, an autism advocate who served on the task force and is the mother of two autistic teenagers.

“That kills me because they’re not.” “Districts know what good programs are, (but) they are just starting their programs with minimal effort, to save money. . . . You just open up a room, put a special­education teacher in it, and you’re ready. That’s crazy,” she said. “Some of our children are actually learning de­spite the teaching.” One encouraging sign, Weitzen said, is that in the past 11 years, thousands of teachers from hundreds of school districts across the state voluntarily have attended POAC’s workshops. While a good start, he noted, a half­day workshop is not sufficient to ensure that autism pro­grams are being run effectively.

“We stress that you need consistency, you need follow­up, you need BCBAs in the school,” Weitzen said.

Some parents desperate to find a good program for their child are not content to wait for their districts to get up to speed.

One Ocean County parent told the Asbury Park Press that she is using a phony address to keep her child in a district where her family does not actually live.

“I’m not the only one who does it,” she said.

Shannon Mullen: 732-643-4278; shannon@app.com

Shopping trips, cafeteria duty serve up real-life skills


By SHANNON MULLEN

STAFF WRITER

It’s the start of another lively lunch period at Brick Township High School.

While many students grab cafeteria trays and get in line for some hot food, others head to the snack bar for lighter fare.

Behind the counter, Tim Doyle and Eric Long, both 16, are taking care of a steady stream of customers, fielding orders and working the cash register.

“Can I have a Yoo-hoo?” “Can I have the blue Sun Chips?” “Can I have a red Gator­ade?” The students know to use colors when they’re order­ing because Tim and Eric have limited language and reading abilities.

Both boys have autism, and working in the store is an important part of their education.

Each customer they serve is another opportunity to use what they’re learning in class: social skills, math, reading, fine-motor skills, following directions, being responsible.

“So how many muffins do we have?” asks Sherri Ryan, who co-teaches the high school’s boys class with Cheryl Vizino-Glancy. “We had 44 muffins, and we sold 26.” “Eighteen,” one of the boys answers.

A study in 2007 by re­searchers at the Indiana Re­source Center for Autism, in Bloomington, Ind., found that school programs aimed at improving autistic chil­dren’s social skills appeared only “minimally effective.” Most of the schools offered far fewer than the 30-plus hours of weekly instruction that experts generally rec­ommend, the study found.

Brick is trying to buck that trend. The district was one of the first in the state to develop a program for au­tistic students, more than a decade ago, in response to a surge in the number of local children diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. In fact, Brick was the focus of two separate federal stud­ies that looked into the pos­sibility that there was an autism “cluster” in the township. The studies, com­pleted in 2000, were incon­clusive.

Tim and Eric were in the first wave of autistic stu­dents entering the district then. That wave has now hit the high school, where a new program was launched a year ago to help these stu­dents prepare for life after they leave school, at age 21 in most cases.

There were 170 students in the district last year who were classified as being au­tistic. Brick had the most autistic students among dis­tricts in Monmouth and Ocean counties in 2008, the latest year for which com­parative figures are avail­able.

There are 11 students in the high school class. The class is staffed by five aides in addition to the two teach­ers.

In addition to academic subjects, there is a strong emphasis on basic life skills.

For example, children with autism tend to have very narrow food prefer­ences, Ryan explained, and many lack the social and behavior skills to sit down at a table and share a meal with their families.

So there is a kitchen in the back of her classroom, where the students are taught to cook, and a com­munal table where they eat the meals they prepare to­gether. The school also has a washer and dryer that students use.

The students take turns working in the cafeteria snack bar, which is opened two to three times per week. They also go on weekly group outings to the local A&P supermarket, where they shop for any groceries their families might need. Those trips are important because many parents of autistic children often run into enormous dif­ficulties when they take their children to such pub­lic places, due to any num­ber of autism-related behav­ior issues.

“It’s all training, from the moment they get on the bus to the moment they come back to school,” explained Julie Wolff, a board-certi­fied behavior analyst who monitors the high school program on a consultant basis. “It’s taking every­thing they’ve learned — so­cial, academic, language, behavior, all of that — and putting it into a real-life set­ting.” Tim’s mother, Sherry Doyle, said the program is paying dividends at home.

She says Tim now helps her with the laundry, makes his bed and even does some cooking. As soon as the weekly A & P circu­lar comes out, she says, he wants to sit down with her and make a shopping list for the following week.

“I love it,” Doyle said. “It’s a great big help at home.” Doyle said Tim, a hand­some, dark-haired boy, has done “a complete turn­around” in the past eight years, when he came back into the district after sev­eral years in a private school.

She was leery about the move, because at the time, Brick was just setting up its new verbal behavior pro­gram, but she agreed to it because she wanted her son to be “part of the commu­nity.” As a youngster, Tim com­pulsively injured himself, as some children with au­tism are prone to do. His be­haviors progressed from head banging to wrist biting to hitting himself in the jaw with terrifying force, his mother said.

Doyle’s younger son, Shawn, 10, also has a form of autism, though he is much higher functioning than his brother.

“I have both ends of the spectrum,” Doyle quipped.

Back at Brick High, Tim has another customer.

“This is blueberry, right?” asks a pretty blond­haired girl, eyeing a giant muffin on the counter.

Tim doesn’t answer.

“Tim, is that blueberry?” Ryan prompts.

“Yes,” Tim replies softly.

His mother says he rarely speaks except in one-word answers. While he does well restocking the shelves and working the register, so­cially, she says, he still has a long way to go.

“I wish he would say, ‘Hi.’ ”



Shopping trips, cafeteria duty serve up real-life skills



By SHANNON MULLEN

STAFF WRITER

It’s the start of another lively lunch period at Brick Township High School.

While many students grab cafeteria trays and get in line for some hot food, others head to the snack bar for lighter fare.

Behind the counter, Tim Doyle and Eric Long, both 16, are taking care of a steady stream of customers, fielding orders and working the cash register.

“Can I have a Yoo-hoo?” “Can I have the blue Sun Chips?” “Can I have a red Gator­ade?” The students know to use colors when they’re order­ing because Tim and Eric have limited language and reading abilities.

Both boys have autism, and working in the store is an important part of their education.

Each customer they serve is another opportunity to use what they’re learning in class: social skills, math, reading, fine-motor skills, following directions, being responsible.

“So how many muffins do we have?” asks Sherri Ryan, who co-teaches the high school’s boys class with Cheryl Vizino-Glancy. “We had 44 muffins, and we sold 26.” “Eighteen,” one of the boys answers.

A study in 2007 by re­searchers at the Indiana Re­source Center for Autism, in Bloomington, Ind., found that school programs aimed at improving autistic chil­dren’s social skills appeared only “minimally effective.” Most of the schools offered far fewer than the 30-plus hours of weekly instruction that experts generally rec­ommend, the study found.

Brick is trying to buck that trend. The district was one of the first in the state to develop a program for au­tistic students, more than a decade ago, in response to a surge in the number of local children diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. In fact, Brick was the focus of two separate federal stud­ies that looked into the pos­sibility that there was an autism “cluster” in the township. The studies, com­pleted in 2000, were incon­clusive.

Tim and Eric were in the first wave of autistic stu­dents entering the district then. That wave has now hit the high school, where a new program was launched a year ago to help these stu­dents prepare for life after they leave school, at age 21 in most cases.

There were 170 students in the district last year who were classified as being au­tistic. Brick had the most autistic students among dis­tricts in Monmouth and Ocean counties in 2008, the latest year for which com­parative figures are avail­able.

There are 11 students in the high school class. The class is staffed by five aides in addition to the two teach­ers.

In addition to academic subjects, there is a strong emphasis on basic life skills.

For example, children with autism tend to have very narrow food prefer­ences, Ryan explained, and many lack the social and behavior skills to sit down at a table and share a meal with their families.

So there is a kitchen in the back of her classroom, where the students are taught to cook, and a com­munal table where they eat the meals they prepare to­gether. The school also has a washer and dryer that students use.

The students take turns working in the cafeteria snack bar, which is opened two to three times per week. They also go on weekly group outings to the local A&P supermarket, where they shop for any groceries their families might need. Those trips are important because many parents of autistic children often run into enormous dif­ficulties when they take their children to such pub­lic places, due to any num­ber of autism-related behav­ior issues.

“It’s all training, from the moment they get on the bus to the moment they come back to school,” explained Julie Wolff, a board-certi­fied behavior analyst who monitors the high school program on a consultant basis. “It’s taking every­thing they’ve learned — so­cial, academic, language, behavior, all of that — and putting it into a real-life set­ting.” Tim’s mother, Sherry Doyle, said the program is paying dividends at home.

She says Tim now helps her with the laundry, makes his bed and even does some cooking. As soon as the weekly A & P circu­lar comes out, she says, he wants to sit down with her and make a shopping list for the following week.

“I love it,” Doyle said. “It’s a great big help at home.” Doyle said Tim, a hand­some, dark-haired boy, has done “a complete turn­around” in the past eight years, when he came back into the district after sev­eral years in a private school.

She was leery about the move, because at the time, Brick was just setting up its new verbal behavior pro­gram, but she agreed to it because she wanted her son to be “part of the commu­nity.” As a youngster, Tim com­pulsively injured himself, as some children with au­tism are prone to do. His be­haviors progressed from head banging to wrist biting to hitting himself in the jaw with terrifying force, his mother said.

Doyle’s younger son, Shawn, 10, also has a form of autism, though he is much higher functioning than his brother.

“I have both ends of the spectrum,” Doyle quipped.

Back at Brick High, Tim has another customer.

“This is blueberry, right?” asks a pretty blond­haired girl, eyeing a giant muffin on the counter.

Tim doesn’t answer.

“Tim, is that blueberry?” Ryan prompts.

“Yes,” Tim replies softly.

His mother says he rarely speaks except in one-word answers. While he does well restocking the shelves and working the register, so­cially, she says, he still has a long way to go.

“I wish he would say, ‘Hi.’ ”

 

 

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Specialized care comes at a price

$59,000 A YEAR:


Tuition at autism school in Ocean Twp.



Fourth in a six-part series

By SHANNON MULLEN

STAFF WRITER

What does a $59,000-a-year education look like?

At the Search Day Program, a non­profit private autism school in Ocean Township, it looks a lot different than what you would see at most public schools.

There is nearly one staff member to every student in most classrooms.

There is not one, but three board-certi­fied behavior analysts — a highly trained autism expert that few districts, let alone public schools, have on staff — and five other staff members who are in the pro­cess of completing their course work and getting the required 1,500 hours of super­vised field experience.

There is an outdoor pool where every child is taught to swim.

There is a 12-month school year, a sib­ling support group and a Saturday morn­ing recreation program — overseen by the school’s gym teacher and a physical and occupational therapist — that gives harried parents a few hours of free time to start the weekend.

Every staff member is trained in first aid and nonviolent techniques for diffus­ing dangerous behavior, and teachers and therapists frequently make house calls after school to work with students and their families.

 

They will even accom­pany parents and students to the mall, the barber shop, a doctor’s appoint­ment — anywhere an au­tistic student might run into difficulties.

“If you took my hundred employees and put us all together, we’d literally have thousands of years of experience and training in autism,” said Katherine Solana, Search Day’s exec­utive director. Solana, a former teacher and occa­sional bus driver for the school, has worked at the school for 34 years.

Search Day opened its doors in 1971, at a time when many doctors blamed mothers for their children’s autistic behav­ior. Some were advised to take medication — the mothers, not the children.

In the late 1960s, several of those mothers, who So­lana says “were bright enough to know that the doctors and the therapists who were saying this were the crazy ones,” started meeting to compare notes about their children’s un­usual social and language deficits. Those conversa­tions led to an ambitious, grass-roots undertaking: the creation of New Jer­sey’s first year-round pri­vate school focused exclu­sively on educating children with autism.

The group purchased four acres off Wickapecko Drive that had once be­longed to J. Lyle Kin­month, the longtime owner and publisher of the As­bury Park Press. Classes were held in Ivy Hedge, Kinmonth’s sprawling, gray-block mansion.

Today, Search Day, so named because its found­ing parents had searched in vain for a school that was capable of educating their children, is approved by the New Jersey Depart­ment of Education to ac­cept students from school districts around the state.

The 71 students, ages 3 to 21, who attend Search Day come from 33 different school districts, mostly in Monmouth and Ocean counties. The state Educa­tion Department certifies the school’s tuition rate, now about $59,000 per stu­dent, based on its operat­ing expenses over the prior two years.

In 2008, the school generated $4.8 million in tuition revenue, tax re­cords show. Search Day also operates an adult vo­cational program and a group home for seven adults, funded with $1 mil­lion in government grants.

With another $122,000 in donations and other contri­butions, its total revenue came to $6.1 million. It spent about $6 million on program services, with nearly 80 percent going to pay employee salaries, benefits and payroll taxes.

The state also regulates the salaries of its employ­ees, which are capped at the maximum rate for equivalent positions in the county’s public schools. This year, Solana’s base pay is about $160,000.

Search Day has two principals, who spend much of their day working directly with teachers and parents.

“There’s a lot of case management involved,” ex­plained Michael Carpino, one of the principals.

Most public schools can­not offer the level of exper­tise and the amount of in­tensive services that Search Day provides, So­lana said. On a regular basis, students go on field trips off campus to practice the communication and be­havior skills they are learning at school.

The younger the stu­dents are when they arrive at Search Day, the more likely they are to make suf­ficient progress to return to their local public schools after only a few years, Solana said.

In Search Day’s early years, autism was an ob­scure disorder. Today, it is rare a person does not know of someone “on the spectrum.” In just the past five years, the number of New Jersey students clas­sified with autism has dou­bled to nearly 12,000.

Frank and Karen Galano of Jackson worked with their district to get their son Nicholas placed at Search Day when he was 3 years old.

At the time, their son was aggressive, completely nonverbal and still not potty trained.

“One of the first things I learned is that if you didn’t get him talking before he was 7, that was it, that was your window,” said Karen Galano, 46. “There is that pressure that you’ve got to get him fixed, and you’ve got to get him fixed right now, or he’s going to fall into this hole that you’re never going to get him out of.” The couple briefly had tried Nicholas at two other private schools, neither of which they were happy with. The staff at Search Day impressed them from the start.

“It was just a totally dif­ferent experience, how they dealt with the kids, how they talked to me,” Galano said. “It was an in­stant feeling of knowing that they would take the best care of my son.” Galano said the staff quickly began teaching Nicholas by using pictures and had him using the toi­let within two hours.

She said Nicholas, now 12 and still at Search Day, has made steady progress ever since. His tuition is paid by the Jackson School District.

Today, he interacts with his parents and older brother and sister, his be­havior problems have eased, and his vocabulary is growing by the day, his mother says.

“He will tell me, ‘Go Great Adventure.’ He will tell me, ‘beach,’ ‘pool,’ any food he likes,” she said. “This is something I dreamed about seven years ago.” Despite the fact that many school districts today are curtailing placements to private schools because of budget­ary constraints, Search Day, which only a few years ago moved students to a larger, modern, 17,000-square-foot school building a short walk from the mansion, is filled to ca­pacity.

Earlier this year, Search Day purchased an adjoin­ing nine-acre property, which also had been part of the Kinmonth estate, and a 23,000-square-foot school building, formerly St. Mary of the Assump­tion School. Search Day bought the property from St. Mary, which the school hopes to pay off through a $4 million fundraising campaign.

Search Day is using the building to house its adult vocational program, which had operated out of leased space in Wall. There also are plans to develop a ca­reer and life skills center there, Solana said.

“We know the numbers are coming. We know there are going to be large gradu­ating classes,” Solana said. “To me, that building is the future, because these kids will need some place to go.” Shannon Mullen: 732-643-4278; shannon@app.com

Critics: Law created a ‘bounty’ for special-ed students



By SHANNON MULLEN

STAFF WRITER

When President Gerald R. Ford signed the Educa­tion for All Handicapped Children Act into law in 1975, he created a massive entitlement program.

Since then, the number and percentage of U.S. stu­dents who receive special­education services have steadily increased.

Critics of the law say the system has created a “bounty” system in many states that base special-ed­ucation aid on the number of disabled students in each district, as New Jer­sey did until two years ago.

A 2002 study found that states with such funding policies had higher special­education enrollment rates than those that didn’t.

“A good deal of the stu­dents in those programs don’t really have a disabil­ity, meaning a processing problem in their brain,” said Marcus A. Winters, a senior fellow specializing in K-12 education issues at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, the nonpartisan think tank based in New York City that conducted the study. “They’re low achievers the school system sees as fi­nancially beneficial to label as special ed.” Virtually all of the growth in special educa­tion has come in a single disability category: spe­cific learning disabilities. In the past 35 years, the total number of U.S. stu­dents in this group has in­creased by about 300 per­cent.

As defined by the law, which was succeeded by the Individuals with Disa­bilities Education Act, or IDEA, the category encom­passes a broad range of learning problems that can cause students of at least average intelligence to do poorly in school.

Critics say it’s an ambig­uous category that’s ripe for exploitation. Of the stu­dents in this group, “80 percent are there simply because they haven’t learned to read,” according to a 2002 presidential com­mission’s report.

New Jersey mirrors the national profile: Forty per­cent of all special-educa­tion students in the state are classified with specific learning disabilities. While the number of students in that group has dropped 20 percent since 2002, New Jersey still has one of the highest classification rates for special learning disa­bilities in the country, according to 2007 federal data.

All told, nearly 80 per­cent of New Jersey’s school-age special-educa­tion students are receiving special-education services for reasons other than a cognitive or physical disa­bility.

Traditionally in New Jersey, about one-third of special-education funding comes from the state. Last year, that amounted to about $800 million in state aid. Another 10 percent or less comes from the federal government. Local prop­erty taxpayers pick up the rest.

Barbara Gantwerk, di­rector of the state Educa­tion Department’s Office of Special Education Pro­grams, rejected the notion that districts in the past may have inflated their special-education enroll­ments to maximize their state aid allocation.

“For the most part, the people who determine whether a student is classi­fied haven’t the vaguest idea what our state fund­ing formula is,” she said.

But a 2007 report by the New Jersey School Boards Association stated other­wise.

In 1996, the state changed its special-educa­tion funding formula to a system based on four fund­ing tiers. Students were grouped into these tiers according to the severity of their disability or the amount of services they re­ceived.

Between 2000 and 2004, the number of students as­signed to Tiers III and IV, which received the great­est amount of aid, in­creased by 47.5 percent and 66 percent, respectively, according to the school boards association.

“When different funding levels are defined, there is a tendency to try to maxi­mize the aid received by shifting to categories that yield a higher return,” the group’s report states.

In 2008, the state switched to a flat-rate funding approach, as many states have done in recent years, to remove any unin­tended incentives.

Now, state aid is based on a district’s total student enrollment, not the num­ber of students in special ed.

Critics of that approach say it’s a heavy-handed at­tempt to drive down the state’s classification rate that has no basis what­soever — neither on the need for special-education services nor the true costs of providing those serv­ices.

“It came out of a cook­book,” said Brenda Consi­dine, coordinator of the New Jersey Coalition for Special Education Funding Reform, an advocacy group. “It wasn’t based on any data.” The new formula uses a benchmark classification rate of 14.69 percent. As a result, it penalizes districts that classify a higher per­centage of students for spe­cial education and benefits districts whose rate is lower than the state’s.

Brick, for example, had an overall classification rate of nearly 23 percent percent in 2007, the latest year for which comparable district data is available. Since the formula change, its annual special-educa­tion aid allocation from the state has been cut by more than a third, from $8 million to $5 million, the district says.

In the first year after the funding change went into effect, the state’s classifica­tion rate fell from 17 per­cent to 16 percent. How­ever, Gantwerk said, it’s too soon to tell what may have caused the drop or if it’s anything more than a one-year aberration. The legislation that changed the funding formula also obligated the state Educa­tion Department to con­duct an analysis of its im­pact, which is being done now, she said.

“I would say we’re cau­tiously optimistic,” Gant­werk said. “I would like another year or two to be absolutely certain, but I think the trend is down.” Shannon Mullen: 732-643-4278; shannon@app.com
  

 

 


Garden State Coalition of Schools
160 W. State Street, Trenton New Jersey 08608
609-394-2828



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