NJ Schools Seen Keeping More Special-Needs Students In-District

After a history of relying on private institutions, public schools appear to be reversing a trend

New Jersey public schools have long taken the rap for the high rate at which they send students with disabilities to other schools, many of them private.

Two years ago, close to 10 percent of classified students were in such out-of-district placements, by far the highest rate in the country.

But in the last year, it appears that the rate has started to drop, with state recently releasing data showing it below 8 percent in 2009-2010 school year.

The reasons for the drop and whether the trend will stick are up for debate. Some question the accuracy of the numbers as the state changes how it collects data.

But at first look, districts do appear to be bringing more students back into their schools, and that’s good news for a state Department of Education that has pushed districts to provide more inclusive programs for these children.

“We are pleased to see the drop — it’s pretty significant,” said Barbara Gantwerk, assistant education commissioner for student services.

“We’d like to see the numbers for another year to be sure, but we know that a lot is going on in the state to develop inclusive programs,” she said. “Districts are really trying and before they send students out, they are seeing what they can provide in district.”

Recognizing In-District Benefits

It’s hard to pinpoint the reasons behind it, as districts are compelled by federal and state law to consider the student’s individual needs in setting up placements through their individualized education plans (IEPs).

Gantwerk said districts are recognizing the benefits of settings in which students are schooled among their peers. She and others said another factor is the lower cost of in-district programs, especially when weighing transportation expenses.

“In-district programs are not inexpensive in themselves, but we have always maintained that there are opportunities to be efficient and cost-effective,” Gantwerk said.

Concern Over Environments

Some advocates wonder, however, whether it is purely for fiscal reasons when districts are seeing state aid cuts and budget caps imposed by the Christie administration.

Diana Autin is co-director of Statewide Parent Advocacy Network and part of a three-year-old suit against the state for failing to press districts hard enough in providing what are termed the “least restrictive environments” for students, as required by the law.

“We certainly got a significant number of calls from parents last spring that these children were being pulled back into districts,” she said. “After the first budget cuts, they were even recalling IEPs.”

If districts only want to save money, Autin said her worry is that students were being brought back into what she called “non-existent programs.”

“Are they being brought back into programs that themselves are segregated?” she said. “What’s the point of in-district if they’re totally isolated and stigmatized in the basement or trailers?”

Assessing the Trends

Gerard Thiers, head of the association representing the roughly 170 private schools in the state that serve students with disabilities, said he has seen the trend as well, and his members have started working with districts to provide their services inside the local schools.

“That’s been a trend with all of our members, with most of them facing similar scenarios,” said Thiers, director of the Association of Schools and Agencies for the Handicapped.

Still, even with the trend, he hasn’t seen schools close or witnessed dramatic drops in enrollment.

“It’s kind of a mixed bag right now,” he said. “One school closed last year for enrollment, but that has not been a big issue so far.”

And how much it is happening in individual districts is still unclear; the state data did not include district-by-district numbers.

Marlboro is one district that has actually seen a slight rise, from typically under 40 students in out-of-district placements to 44 this year, said superintendent David Abbott.

At the same time, the district has worked hard to keep students in-district with a new autism program for preschool through middle school, this year enrolling about 100 students.

“More of the out-of-district are behavior issues,” he said. “They take tremendous resources, and we don’t always have the programs to handle them. We don’t have the room, we don’t have the people.”