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SCHOOLS: Special Ed Needs More Effective Programs & Staff Utilization

The School Committee heard a report on a Special Education audit conducted in the District last January. The audit was conducted at the request of the Superintendent of Schools and the Director of Pupil Personnel Services and focused on current and future program needs, staffing utilization and costs of the special education. The audit was conducted by Walker Partnerships of Needham, and was presented to the School Committee at their regular meeting, June 12.

Dr. James Earley of Walker Partnerships presented the report which revealed a need for more effective programs in special education, better utilization of regular teaching staff and paraprofessional staff in special education and better control over rising costs. The audit collected data on the number of students in the District in special education and on Individual Education Plans (IEPs) and the costs of serving students in special education. The audit found that the overall student population in special education on IEP programs in Groton Dunstable was lower than the state average. Percentage of students on IEPs was 14 percent in Groton Dunstable compared to 17 percent statewide.

However, the number of students identified with more significant needs such Autism, developmental disabilities and specific learning disabilities represent a higher percentage of special needs students than the state average. In Groton-Dunstable, 12.5 percent of students with special needs are identified with Autism while statewide that percentage is eight percent. The percentage of special needs students with developmental disabilities in Groton-Dunstable is 18 percent compared to 11 percent statewide. The percentage of special needs students with specific learning disabilities is 34 percent compared to 29 percent statewide.

According to the audit, this trend of a higher percentage of special needs students with higher levels of need translates to higher costs within the school budget as the district must provide more specialized instruction or place students in out-of-district programs. The audit collected fiscal information on expenditures for special education in Groton-Dunstable from fiscal 2002 to 2012 and found that for nine years the percentage of expenditures on special education compared to total expenditures in the district was below state average. However, beginning in fiscal 2010, percentage of expenditures on special education compared to total budget increased beyond the state average. In fiscal 2012, Groton-Dunstable spent $6.1 million out of a total budget of $28.3 million on special education or 22 percent of total budget. Statewide, the average was 21 percent.

The audit also found that out-of-district placement of special needs students in private day and residential programs was more than double the state average. In Groton-Dunstable, 7.5 percent of special needs students were placed in out-of-district private day programs compared to three percent statewide.

The audit made several recommendation to improve effectiveness and accountability of special education programs in Groton-Dunstable. One recommendation is to provide more training for all teaching staff regarding special education to better understand the needs and methods of instruction. Groton-Dunstable has one of the highest rates of inclusion of special needs student into regular classrooms and the audit found that classroom teachers would benefit from having a better understanding of special needs programs.

Another recommendation was to better utilize paraprofessional staff and also to better train them in instructing special needs students. Groton-Dunstable has a relatively high number of paraprofessional staff and the effectiveness of this staff could be improved according to the report.

A current debate going on in the education field in Massachusetts concerns the level of services provided to special education students. Prior to 2000, Massachusetts mandated that school districts develop IEPs that would "maximize a student's potential" - a standard that was much higher than the rest of the country. After 2000, Masschusetts adopted the federal standard of "effective progress" rather than "maximize" which has touched off a debate in the state over what is the appropriate level of services for special needs students.

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