In 1975, the federal government enacted the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, mandating that every student in America was entitled to a "free and appropriate public education" in the "least restrictive environment." Congress passed the act in response to discriminatory practices aimed at learning disabled students by states and local school districts.

In essence, it means that children possessing any of a number of emotional, learning and physical disabilities are required to be schooled, free of charge, by their districts. This can be three times as costly as educating a child who is not disabled (depending on location), and while the federal government originally provided a percentage of the funding necessary to implement its mandate, that amount has not kept up with state and local district expenses.

Depending on how many disabled students live within a district, those costs can be crippling. Therefore, any imaginative course that might result in reducing such expenses is welcome. Fortunately for Berkshire County, three school district superintendents — Barbara Malkas of North Adams Public Schools, Jon Lev of the North Berkshire School Union and Robert Putnam of the Adams-Cheshire Regional School District — got together and came up with the concept of the North Berkshire Academy, an independently-run special education collaborative. After months of planning, the Academy was launched last Thursday in a ribbon-cutting ceremony in its home structure, the revitalized North Adams Armory. (Eagle, March 16)

North Berkshire Academy accepts any students between seventh and 10th grade who have been "referred" — a complicated and codified process involving evaluation by the child's home district designed to ensure his or her eligibility for special education. Funding from the home district accompanies the child sent to the Academy. The project was launched with the help of a special "Efficiencies in Regionalization" grant from the governor's office, a competitive program open to any county to help with any project it might be considering. A requirement of the grant program is that any funded project be up and running within a year, which the Academy was able to fulfill.

It is easy to see how the centralization of specialized educational services can spare districts enormous amounts of funding that is already hard to come by in the current straitened educational circumstances. For example, if all hearing-impaired students in Berkshire County were able to convene in one locale with a teacher capable of signing, it would eliminate the need for each individual district to hire its own teachers.

Paradoxically, the Academy's goal is to "lose" as many students as possible. According to Thomas Simon, director of student support services for the North Adams Public Schools, the Academy's program is designed to provide each special education student with the skills needed to be able to succeed in a conventional educational setting. "We hope to have them graduate from their home high school," he told The Eagle.

The Academy's faculty and staff are self-contained and completely independent of the Berkshire school districts to whose superintendents it owes its existence. In fact, it functions under the aegis of the Collaborative for Educational Services in Northampton, headed by William Diehl, who was actively involved with the North Berkshire project from its inception.

The newly launched centralized project elegantly addresses two important goals: to provide the best possible education for special needs students and to ease the financial burden on local districts required to educate them. Time will tell if it's successful. As for imagination, it gets an A+.