Sunday, June 07
Since age 3, Pittsfield High School sophomore Katie Jodoin has been classified as a special-needs student.

A generation ago, Jodoin, who has a genetic learning disorder, might have been educated in a classroom only with other children identified as needing extra help, students with afflictions ranging from vision or hearing impairments to autism.

But thanks to her school's policy of inclusion — weaving students such as Jodoin into classes with the general student population — she takes both regular and special-education classes and participates in Pittsfield High's culinary arts program.

Her mother, Michell, said her daughter's success is due in part to being welcomed as just one of the kids.

"They have always accepted Katie in the classroom," Michell said. "Kids have always wanted to help her. She just wants to be like everyone else."

Special education for school districts, however, is a tricky and costly proposition, especially when it comes to students who don't integrate into the classroom as well as Katie has and who require more intensive learning environments.

In Massachusetts, about 17 percent of the nearly 1 million students have been identified as special-ed students, and budgets for their education account for 10 to 20 percent of a local school district's expenditures.

In Berkshire County, administrators are grappling with how to best educate special-needs students with their current resources as they design programs and collaborate in an effort to minimize the number of costlier out-of-district placements.

'Part of the public schools'

It is a school system's responsibility to educate all students, but sometimes, a youngster's needs go beyond programs offered by a local district. Occasionally, a student's educational challenges might be so great that he or she would best be served living in a school designed for such students.

And when the cost of special education in the Lee Public Schools jumped nearly $500,000 last year — primarily due to three students being placed in private schools outside of the district — Superintendent Jason "Jake" McCandless feared such a large increase would create taxpayer resentment toward those students.

McCandless said that wasn't the case.

"The feeling in town seems to be that all kids living in Lee belong to Lee and should be part of the public schools," he said.

The same opinion might not hold true everywhere.

Pamela Kenyon, the director of special education in the Southern Berkshire Regional School District, said there's "most certainly" a few people with harsh feelings.

"(But) would they openly (admit) it? Maybe not," she said.

Education officials say in-district programs are beneficial because they lower costs and keep higher numbers of special-needs students in a regular school setting.

In Berkshire County this school year, more than 3,000 of the nearly 16,800 public-school students are in the special-education category, according to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), formerly the Department of Education.

Those special-needs students have one or more of the following conditions: autism; development delay; communication, health, intellectual, neurological, physical, sensory or emotional impairments; or a specific learning disability.

Out-of-district increases

As of Oct. 1, 2008, only 50 special-needs students in the county's public schools were in residential programs, according to the DESE. But that number is up from 31 in 2006 and 42 in 2007.

Public school officials cite two main reasons for the increase:

  • Students once educated locally require more services than school districts can offer;

  • Parents of special-ed students already in private schools have moved to the Berkshires, making the local districts legally and financially responsible for those students.

    Officials from several local school districts said it costs between $100,000 and $150,000 a year to educate each special-ed student out of district. The DESE said the average cost statewide is $164,000 to $186,000.

    McCandless said that if Lee didn't invest more in local programs and services, the number of students sent away would increase, and the cost "would be more like $750,000 to $1 million."

    "Any one kid could end up going out of district," he said.

    Meanwhile, the Pittsfield Public Schools are developing a public day program that could significantly reduce the number of students placed outside the district by educating them within the city's school system.

    Pittsfield Superintendent Howard "Jake" Eberwein III said 28 special-needs students are enrolled in private residential or group home settings. He said he initially expects 12 of those students to participate in the day program, scheduled to start in the fall of 2010.

    Eberwein said federal stimulus money will pay for the program initially; eventually it will become a local taxpayer expense. The cost of the program will be worked out over the next year, he said.

    Despite adding the expenses of staff, equipment and a place for the program to the school budget, Eberwein said the long-term savings will more than offset the yearly expenses.

    "The goal is to keep kids in the community — even if in local group homes," said Stephanie Case, the director of special education for the Pittsfield schools.

    Rising autism rates

    One of the fastest-growing segments of special education in the state is autistic children who are educated in public schools. The percentage of those students rose from 3 percent in 2003 to 5 percent in 2007, according to the Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy in Cambridge.

    Case said the increase is due to a better diagnosis of the affliction, especially of high-functioning autistic students.

    The number of autistic students in the Pittsfield public schools has risen from 50 to 63 in the past four years, requiring expanded programs, such as three added in the middle schools. Those programs serve autistic children moving up from the elementary grades.

    An increase in Lee, from three to 15 autistic students in the past three years — primarily in the elementary school — prompted the Lee School Committee in December 2007 to hire a second full-time special-ed teacher.

    Lee Special Education Director Alice Taverna said the rare mid-school-year hire freed up a staff member to work with non-autistic students.

    Because Lee's autism program is based on inclusion, Taverna said, having well-trained teachers is important to "keeping (autistic) kids as much in the classroom as possible."

    To enhance those students' education and to possibly save money, the Lee, Southern Berkshire, Lenox and Berkshire Hills Regional school districts will team up this summer to offer a pilot program for autistic children.

    The Southern Berkshire Educational Collaborative is sponsoring the program, which will accommodate 17 students from the four school districts. The districts will share the $34,000 cost, SBEC director Peter Kopcha said.

    While it's too early to calculate the savings, Kopcha said the program is worthwhile because it provides students with summer instruction, preventing them from falling back in their development.

    Kopcha said the program could be a starting point for further collaborations. Although such efforts might not save the school districts money, he said joint participation can provide better services and programs for the same amount.

    Early intervention, public school officials said, also is key to keeping special-ed costs in check.

    "The most important thing is to intervene at the pre-school level," said Kenyon, the Southern Berkshire Regional's special-ed director. "If you get to (students) then, they are less likely to need special education in later years."

    Case in point is the 7-year-old autistic son of Jennifer — she requested that her last name not be published — who found that the special-education services her son began receiving in pre-school have allowed him to thrive in first grade.

    "Working with people who knew what they were doing made all the difference," Jennifer said.

    She noted that after four years, her son no longer needs as many services and can forgo a summer-school program designed to bridge the gap between the school years.

    "This summer," she said, "he gets to be a kid."

    To reach Dick Lindsay: rlindsay@berkshireeagle.com, or (413) 496-6233.