Candidate Forum Round-up Question 5
What are some of the concrete steps that the district can take to prioritize the inclusion of k-12 students with learning disabilities, developmental disabilities and other challenges, in both the classroom setting and beyond while keeping an eye on the budget?
This topic is one that is obviously near and dear to my heart, not only as a special education attorney, but as a parent of a child with special needs and a board member of CHILD. There is no question that special education is a large percentage of the school budget, but is the district getting value for the money they spend? In many cases, the answer is no.
Inclusion takes many forms. There are inclusion classrooms – classrooms with mixed general education and special education students with both a general education and special education teacher working together. In Verona, inclusion classes do not exist in the elementary schools. They should. It is a model that creates great benefits for both general and special education students and allows special education students maximum access to their peers. Currently, students in the younger grades who need assistance through an IEP are either pulled out of class or placed in a self-contained classroom, even if their needs would be better served in an inclusion classroom. If we limited pull-out services for those who truly needed them, we may be able to free up enough teacher time to start an inclusion program.
According to the 2022-2023 budget prepared by Mr. Cruz, the Business Administrator, there at 26 students in private school placements, and 4 additional students in other public school special education placements. These 30 do not include any students who as part of a settlement agreement with the school district may require the parent to disenroll them from the school district even through the district is partially or fully funding a private placement. We should start creating good programs, programs that make sense for our students, so that we keep them in the district when possible.
A program to address the needs of our students with dyslexia is a great entry point toward creating such a program. Right now, despite providing years of training to over a dozen teachers and specialists, it is possible for a student in Verona to be diagnosed with dyslexia in the early elementary school grades and never have access to an Orton Gillingham certified reading instructor. The District has spent thousands of dollars partnering with Fairleigh Dickinson University and training staff and teachers, but they are not allowing all students access to those trained professionals. That needs to end. The goal should be for all students who are diagnosed with dyslexia will have OG instruction in the amount and level that is appropriate for their needs. By providing the instruction early and in the correct amounts, we can see rewards as the students advance from grade to grade and are able to generalize the training they have learned in the earlier years. They become better, more independent students who may ultimately no longer require an IEP once they are in high school, not because they are “cured” of their dyslexia, as there is no cure, but because they have been provided the tools and the training to overcome their disability.
In addition to academic inclusion, we need to strive for social inclusion for all our students. As a CHILD Board member, this is one of the top three concerns that parents have raised over the past several years. Special needs students are often socially isolated and lack the skills to make and maintain friendships with their peers. If we are to truly integrate our special needs students into the school community, there needs to be a culture shift, and it needs to start with the administration and teachers. I have in the past, recommended the District work with an organization called the New Jersey Coalition for Inclusive Education whose mission views inclusive special education as a fundamental right of students with special needs. They provide professional development programs, parent training and other support to school districts and parent groups. Working with an organization such as this may be the best way to really take a look at the culture and climate surrounding special education and how we can better provide education and related services to all students.