Middlesex County taxpayers could save millions on special education services

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On March 4, the community came together to “Move for Midland,” an effort to raise funds to support the special education programs and services offered at The Midland School and Midland Adult Services in Branchburg. COURTESY OF MIDLAND

PISCATAWAY – Middlesex County taxpayers would save $15 to $20 million annually if more special education students attended Educational Services Commission of New Jersey (ESCNJ) public schools, according to an ESCNJ study last summer.

That finding was among several issues discussed during a recent ESCNJ Better Together podcast https://www.teachertube.com/audio/10800,  focused on factors influencing the school placement of special education students.

Based on 2016 private school tuition rates published by the New Jersey Department of Education’s Division of Administration and Finance, private school tuitions average approximately $70,000 per student. Average tuitions for ESCNJ students are approximately $50,000. Private school costs rises approximately 25 percent more per student when out of district transportation costs are included.

Given the huge disparity in taxpayer dollars, the ESCNJ convened individual meetings with Middlesex County School Districts that account for half of the 1,000 students placed in out-of-district private special education schools. Participants included ESCNJ officials, Middlesex County Supervisor of Child Study Teams Mark Lanzi, and superintendents, case managers and child study team members from several Middlesex County public school districts.

READ: New class for students with multiple disabilities at PRDS

READ: Change to composition of ESCNJ Board Of Directors

READ: ESCNJ offering new robotics elective for special-needs students

Referring to the ESCNJ’s “Factors Influencing Placements To Private Special Education Schools” report, which summarized comments from the meetings, Assistant Superintendent Gary Molenaar, told Better Together Host and ESCNJ Coordinator of Communications David Sandler that some private schools were in the best interest of students and families, particularly those requiring significant medical and clinical support services.

Molenaar, who participated in the meetings, said although the ESCNJ has a full time, onsite medical director/psychiatrist, full time nurses, therapists, and counseling services, it is not designed for students with severe medical issues to the extent that some private schools are.

“Our focus leans more towards the academic area, so placing students in a private school whose primary focus is medical support makes sense,” he said.

Another placement factor was an assumption by some parents that higher tuition rates for private special education schools meant their programs were superior to those offered by the ESCNJ.

“Most people are of the mindset that higher tuitions mean stronger programs, and while that is a reasonable expectation, nothing could be further from the truth in this instance,” Molenaar said, adding that the ESCNJ, and several larger public schools with strong in-house special education, programs “will always be battling that assumption.” Educating case managers and child study teams about services and new programs through open houses, posting relevant information on the ESCNJ website (www.escnj.k12.nj.us), in addition to emailing specific program website links to case managers, is an ongoing effort to further educate the special education student placement decision makers at public schools.

The meetings also explored compliance with the federal Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) law. The ESCNJ’s Bright Beginnings Learning Center (BBLC) Principal Wendy Eaton, said LRE represented a continuum of services including:  specialized services for students remaining in general education classes; placing students in self-contained classrooms in their home district; placing students in a public receiving district like the ESCNJ;  or placing students in a private school or residential treatment facility.

Molenaar added the ESCNJ meets regularly with the home district’s child study team to determine if the student has progressed to the point where he or she could be transitioned to a “less restrictive environment,” including a different ESCNJ program, or returned to their home public school district.

Participants cited ESCNJ’s “outstanding work with lower and moderately functioning students with autism, multiple disabilities and behavior management challenges. However, some believed private schools offered “higher functioning students” more engaging curriculum initiatives and electives.

“That perception was a bit of a surprise, particularly since the ESCNJ, and many larger public school districts have outstanding programs for higher functioning special education students,” Molenaar said.

In fact, both Eaton and Molenaar said the ESCNJ curriculum for higher functioning students has enabled hundreds of former students to return to their home district, or graduate from the ESCNJ prepared to lead independent lives to the greatest extent possible. Nevertheless, given the perception shared by some participants, the ESCNJ immediately strengthened its curriculum for higher functioning students to begin the 2016-2017 school year, Molenaar added.

A major initiative has been the use of programmable robots, an engaging resource for students to use to become familiar with computer coding, a high in-demand workplace skill. The robotics curriculum also further enhances students problem solving, socialization and project collaboration abilities.

“Our students receive cutting edge instruction in terms of employment preparation, functional, and independent living skills,” BBLC Case Manager Kate Johnson said, pointing to the robotics program and Computer Coding Club.

Molenaar said an assertion by some participants that private special education schools provided students greater independent living and functional skill building programs was “totally unfounded.” He said the ESCNJ’s Community-based Instruction (CBI) program was “an extremely successful initiative that continues growing dramatically.”

Eaton said CBI teaches students functional and independent living skills, ranging from: learning to access public transportation, shop for food and clothing, cook, clean, conduct themselves appropriately in public settings like restaurants and movie theaters, and build resume writing and job interviewing capabilities.

Approximately 75 employers have participated  in CBI with the ESCNJ,  ranging from  Rutgers, Robert Wood Johnson, the U.S. Postal Service, Lowes, and TD Bank, to ShopRite, Elijah’s Promise, Jenkinson’s Aquarium, Sam’s Club, TJ Maxx, Burger King and 99 Cent Depot.

Molenaar anticipates increased enrollment in ESCNJ schools given the extra focus on higher functioning students and significant cost disparities with private schools. The ESCNJ schools are currently at 90 percent capacity, and the district plans to open a $20 million, 50,000 square foot addition to BBLC in September 2019, pending Middlesex County Board of Chosen Freeholders approval. The addition will include increased CBI opportunities, culinary kitchen, instruction, horticultural opportunities, a gymnasium and fitness area, and 12 classrooms equipped for comprehensive science and math projects.

The ESCNJ operates six schools with services for students ages 3 to 21 with autism, multiple disabilities, and at-risk behaviors, in addition to shared services to special education students statewide. The ESCNJ also coordinates transportation services for nearly 14,000 students statewide, and manages a 1,100 member Co-op Pricing System, the state’s largest cooperative buying program.

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