By Guest Blogger Lenny Armato
It’s no secret that special education is expensive. According to the Center for Special Education Finance, the total expenditure to educate the average student with disabilities is estimated to be 1.9 times the expense of educating a typical student with no special needs. Even with some state and federal aid, this is a significant financial responsibility for school districts, especially in these times of severe budget cuts.
In St. Mary Parish Public Schools in Louisiana, we’ve developed several ways to keep special education costs under control while improving the quality of education and services we provide to our students.
1) Prevention. One key way to reduce costs is by effectively addressing foundational reading and learning issues — thereby reducing unnecessary referrals to special education. In 2006, we implemented a brain fitness program called Fast ForWord. The software program supports special education students, as well as those working at or above grade level, by improving their ability to learn and retain knowledge. Since 2006, the number of special education students being served by our Exceptional Children program has dropped nearly 13 percent, saving the district thousands of dollars per year. In the case of interventions, the percentage of students identified as struggling readers has dropped from 60 percent to 32 percent. In addition, the percentage of students achieving proficiency on our state assessments has increased, with gains for both regular education and special education students in English language arts, math, science, and social studies.
2) Pupil progression. As the number of students requiring special education services and interventions has declined, the number of students identified as gifted and talented has increased. This shift has brought additional dollars into the district through state and federal funding for gifted and talented students.
3) Data-driven decision making. We formed School Building Level Committees (SBLC), which typically include an administrator,SBLC facilitator, counselor and teacher, to identify and assist students who are struggling as early as possible. Each SBLC uses data from multiple sources — district assessments, software programs, state tests, and more —to make decisions to ensure each student receives the right instruction and interventions to be successful.
4) Video communication. We use Skype to supervise and observe physical therapists, occupational therapists and speech therapists working with students across the district. Using this software to make free video calls, we can collaborate in real-time, saving time and money on travel.
5) Virtual classrooms. We also use Skype with students receiving hospital/homebound services. After we secure permission from the student’s teacher and classmates, the student can attend class using a computer, a camera and the communication software. This allows students to receive the same quality instruction they’d receive in the regular classroom, and to interact with their teachers and peers. Having virtual classrooms also reduces costs by eliminating the need to have a hospital/homebound instructor visit the student once a week.
6) Individualized instruction. We use a variety of online and computer-based educational programs, including Fast ForWord, Reading Assistant, Voyager Passport and Vmath, among others, to provide students with self-paced, individualized instruction in core subject areas. This allows us to address each student’s needs and frees teachers to provide one-on-one assistance as needed. Using technology in this way also saves on costs for additional staff, such as para-educators, that would typically be required to provide this level of personalized assistance.
7) Digital documents. We are currently piloting a program called WinWizard to help us make our existing curriculum materials accessible to a wider spectrum of students with disabilities. With this software, we can make printed materials or electronic text readily available to students who are blind or visually impaired, which eliminates the need to purchase additional materials.
8) Braided funding. We have a braided system of funding that weaves together funds from many sources, including special education, Title I, and a number of federal, state and local programs. This allows us to maximize our resources, particularly in areas such as professional development, across multiple programs.
9) Autism teams. Another way we’ve made the most of limited resources is by creating autism teams, which include a social worker, physical therapist/occupational therapist, speech pathologist, and teacher. The teams receive ongoing, in-depth education and professional development, and then share the information with teachers to help them work more effectively with students and parents. By providing this specialized training to a team, rather than to individual teachers and staff at each school, we save money on training, release time, substitute teachers, travel, and more. Further, we have been able to keep more students, including those with significant behavioral problems related to autism spectrum disorder, in school.
10) Inclusion. Inclusive education is an important way to provide a quality education for all children. Our inclusive education settings coordinate special and regular education services to meet the needs of both special and regular education students in the same classroom, and to blend together the strengths of both systems. Teamwork results in improved support among educators and improved instruction for all students.
Lenny Armato is the supervisor of special education for St. Mary Parish Public Schools.