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Special Ed need growsState, federal requirements mean new programs, and spending Planning for a growing Island population of special education students who require more intensive services, superintendent of schools James Weiss recently proposed two program enhancements in his fiscal year 2009 (FY09) budget, presented to the All-Island School Committee (AISC) on Oct. 18. The cost for both adds about $243,000 to the budget. During the 2007-2008 academic year, 496, or 23 percent of the 2120 students in Martha's Vineyard public schools, including the Martha's Vineyard Public Charter School, are receiving special services of some sort. The superintendent's office projects a significant increase in the number of students who will need extensive intervention for 2008-2009.
The AISC agreed to continue discussion and offer the public the opportunity to comment on the budget at a meeting next week on Nov. 8, 7 pm, in the high school library conference room.
What is autism?The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) describes autism as a complex neurobiological developmental disorder that usually starts before age three, causing delays or problems in many different skills, which may arise from infancy to adulthood.
People diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) may exhibit signs and symptoms ranging from mild to severe involving language, social behavior, and behaviors concerning objects and routines.
On Monday, the American Academy of Pediatrics released new guidelines recommending that all children should be screened for autism at age 18 months and again at age two, even if they show no signs of developmental delay, according to an article on WebMD Medical News. The hope is that universal screening will lead to earlier diagnosis, since early intervention has resulted in better outcomes for many children with the disorder.
Boys are three to four times more likely to be affected by autism than girls. However, autism occurs in all racial, ethnic, and social groups equally.
Although there were reports of studies relating vaccines to autism, there was no conclusive scientific evidence proving any material or preservative contained in vaccines plays a role in causing autism, according to the NICHD. However, research has established that genetic and environmental factors may play a role in causing autism.
Autism was first recognized as a disorder in 1943 by Dr. Leo Kanner of the Johns Hopkins Hospital, who used the label "early infantile autism" after studying a group of 11 children, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. At about the same time, Dr. Hans Asperger, a German scientist, described a milder form of the disorder, which became known as Asperger syndrome.
The two program enhancements would include a second Project Headway preschool classroom, and an elementary program for students with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and communication and social interaction disorders. Both will be operated as shared services for Island schools under the superintendent's office, and represent a major portion of a 20 percent increase in Mr. Weiss's budget over this year.
Every year as Vineyard public school districts prepare their budgets, educators and town leaders go through a give-and-take process, weighing fixed costs versus acceptable increases and making cuts where possible. When it comes to special education, however, there is little leeway, and increased costs to provide services mandated by federal and state laws have a significant impact on school budgets.
How the services are provided is up to individual school districts. On Martha's Vineyard, where many special education students are limited by the confines of the Island, the challenge is to provide programs and services locally - and also cost effectively.
Many children with mild to moderate needs receive special education services and consultation within community-based preschools, funded through the superintendent's office and federal special education entitlement funds. The Island school system also has provided preschool special education services at Project Headway since 1981, now housed at Edgartown School.
Children with more intensive needs go to Project Headway, which is a regular preschool run by a special education teacher and has a higher ratio of staff to students. The state allows 7 children with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) in a preschool classroom with up to 8 regular education students.
When the number of children with moderate to severe disabilities at Project Headway increased to 10 this year, Mr. Weiss and the special education staff had to scramble to fund and set up a second classroom. In his FY09 budget, Mr. Weiss requested funds to continue to provide two Project Headway classrooms. Adding the second classroom raises the budget for the program from $111,000 in FY08 to $173,000 in FY09. However, as Mr. Weiss pointed out, Project Headway 2, a program for support services for children who moved on from Project Headway into regular first and second grade classes, will be cut, saving about $27,500.
The other major addition to the special education program will be a shared specialized elementary program for children with ASD and communication and social interaction disorders. At least three students from three Island schools will be in need of the special program next year, Mr. Weiss said.
"This is a new population of kids that we've not wrestled with, with the kind of scope and intensity that we're experiencing now, and so there is no choice in the fact that we will have to program for these kids," said director of student support services Dan Seklecki at the AISC meeting. "The choice is the model we believe will be the most efficient in the next few years in moving these guys and girls along in the elementary years."
Mr. Weiss pointed out the advantage of budgeting the program collaboratively among Island schools.
"I did a quick calculation - the elementary special education program as we've developed it will cost about $181,000, plus some Federal dollars from grants," he said. "If you had to replicate this in three places for each of those individual youngsters, we estimate it would cost $600,000, because you would have to duplicate services."
Preschool special education programs
Special education programs in Martha's Vineyard public schools include many components. An early intervention program for children from birth through age 3 is run by the state Department of Health through Cape Cod Child Development in Hyannis. Alecia Barnes coordinates the program on Martha's Vineyard, which now has 27 children. By comparison, in years past, Early Learning Coordinator Ann Palches said the numbers varied between 2 to 10 children.
Under state law, each school district's school committee is responsible for providing services to children determined eligible for special education from age three until their twenty-second birthday.
Children who are eligible for early intervention programs are not necessarily eligible for special education, Ms. Palches explained. "There are state regulations about who qualifies for special education, based on a couple of really important criteria," she said. "They have to have an identified disability and not be progressing as we would expect for their age."
After an evaluation, a child eligible for special education receives an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) and is monitored by an education team that includes his or her parents. In looking at the children in the early intervention program who will soon reach preschool age, Ms. Palches said she anticipates that out of nine children who will turn three next year, there may be four or five who may need more intensive services.
Federal and state special education mandatesThe U.S. Congress passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, to provide federal funds to states in order to educate children with disabilities, according to the Congressional Research Service website.
After several amendments, in 1990 the name of the act was change to Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The first comprehensive revision of IDEA, passed by Congress in 1997, requires that states and school districts must make a free appropriate public education available to all children with disabilities, generally between the ages of 3 and 21.
States and school districts must identify, locate, and evaluate all children with disabilities, regardless of the severity of their disability, to determine which children are eligible for special education and related services. Each child receiving services has an individualized education program (IEP) spelling out specific special
education and related services to meet his or her needs; a parent must be involved as a member of the IEP team.
To the maximum extent appropriate, children with disabilities must be educated with children who are not disabled.
The General Laws of Massachusetts regarding children with special needs, outlined in Chapter 71B, also require each school district to create a district-wide parent advisory council, whose duties include meeting regularly with school officials to participate in the planning, development, and evaluation of the school district's special education programs.
"If a child needs intensive intervention, then most likely we would consider placing that child in Project Headway with the team," Ms. Palches said.
In addition to overseeing the Project Headway program, Ms. Palches works in all of the community-based preschools, as well. "Most years, I screen or provide a consultation for around 60 to 90 children, in addition to ones identified with disabilities, who may need some services," she said.
Ms. Palches also oversees the specialists who work for the schools to provide services to children in the preschool and childcare programs.
Historically, Project Headway students have been incorporated into regular kindergarten classes. However, the intensity of needs in some of the children who will be moving up from Project Headway, as well as children identified with autism or other communication disorders, created the need for another elementary program.
Proposed elementary special education program
Autism specialist Hope MacLeod will set up and oversee the new elementary special education program if it is approved. Ms. MacLeod started up the public schools' autism program in 2002, after helping student support services director Dan Seklecki write a grant for the program with her as the specialist. Martha's Vineyard was one of only 26 communities statewide awarded the three-year grant.
Autism, a complex neurobiological disorder of development, inhibits a person's ability to communicate, respond to surroundings, and interact with other people. The diagnosis of autism has been expanded to include other disorders with similar features, known as autism spectrum disorders (ASD).
Estimating she probably has 75 to 100 children in her program, Ms. MacLeod explained, "Autism spectrum is quite a wide umbrella. In fact, one of the reasons the numbers have increased across the country and across the world is because that umbrella has gotten bigger."
The question of whether the incidence of autism is increasing dramatically remains controversial. According to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), researchers say they are not certain whether autism is more prevalent now than in the past or whether the increase may be attributed to better education about the symptoms of autism and more accurate diagnoses.
Nonetheless, statistics from the Massachusetts Department of Education show that autism numbers have almost doubled in five years (from 4,080 children in 2002-2003 to 7,521 in 2006-2007). Based on a study completed in 2005, the Advocates for Autism Massachusetts estimate that 1 in every 122 children in the state is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, compared to a national average of 1 in every 150 children.
In response to the growing numbers of children diagnosed with ASD, in 2005 Massachusetts established an Autism Spectrum Division within the Department of Mental Retardation. Ms. MacLeod said she believes the numbers on the Island are similar to trends elsewhere. "We're not up way higher than the population in general," she said. "The only oddity or maybe the difference in numbers is the amount we're now seeing in our youngest population. If you compare that to our numbers for preschool, our numbers would be quite high."
Ms. MacLeod's plans for the proposed new elementary special education program include a special education teacher, plus assistants to work one-on-one with each student. Mr. Weiss's budget includes the cost of one teacher and two assistants. Ms. MacLeod told the AISC she will seek grant money to fund classroom supplies and equipment.
The children in the new program will need a high degree of support in the classroom and school environment, Ms. MacLeod said, with additional support services such as physical therapy, occupational therapy, and speech and language, hearing, and communication and autism specialists.
The new program will incorporate "reverse mainstreaming," Ms. MacLeod said. Although the children will be in a separate classroom, they will be assigned to a regular education classroom and be there as much as is appropriate in terms of their IEPs. As an autism specialist, Ms. MacLeod has focused on providing social opportunities for children with ASD and communication disorders. This year, she started a resource room at the regional high school that focuses on social skills. She also works with individual teachers and special education teams on professional development.
Other special education services
"We can't offer everything," Mr. Seklecki said in a recent interview. "Other districts may have more remedial, Title 1 or Chapter 1 funds that address at-risk learners. Because of their population, they may receive other Federal or State money that Vineyard schools don't because of our demographics and our wealth.
"We do have so much, though," he added. "We have wonderful support from our schools and our school committees, who have long gone to bat for quality education."
Additional special education programs and services include a social skills program for students who need help with social and emotional skills, available to students in K-5 at Edgartown School and to middle school students at Oak Bluffs School.
The Cape Cod Collaborative offers alternative education programs for children from ages 9 to 18, as well as occupational, speech, and physical therapy.
According to Mr. Seklecki, 11 Vineyard students go off-Island for special programs. According to Amy Tierney, the assistant to the superintendent for business affairs, the cost ranges from $60,000 to $260,000 per year per student, depending on the type of program.
Mr. Seklecki pointed out that many Island students with IEPs achieve successful MCAS scores and move on to jobs and college after high school. "Among our students with challenging learning profiles, there also are very successful students, and that's a message I would probably tie into funding requests for these programs," Mr. Seklecki said. "Obviously, there's a cost to the services, but the benefits we hopefully bestow on these kids as they exit the school system and go off to their own endeavors or make a life of their own in our own community, that's a benefit, right there. That's a dividend, to see them later in life, as real successful people."