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Ready To Learn
How special education works in NH

03/01/12



The big thing with Camden is keeping his engine running at the right level. That’s not always easy for him. Camden, who is in the third grade, has Tourette syndrome.

“It’s all about keeping that engine being just right,” said Steve Alexander, Camden’s father. “If the engine gets a little high, that arousal level gets a little too hyped up, the tics get worse. The physical and mental obsessions or compulsions get worse. He ends up stuck on things.”

Alexander, who said his son’s school situation is currently very good, knows he’s lucky on the one hand, because Camden is an excellent student who has scored particularly well on tests. Certainly dealing with the Tourette syndrome is frustrating, but with a strong team at school, support from the Parent Information Center and parental involvement, Camden is able to succeed, because “they care enough to change some things a little bit for him [in the classroom],” Alexander said.

Sometimes the perception is that those changes are massive and costly. That’s not always the case, though. About 50 percent of children with Tourette syndrome have difficulty physically writing, the process of holding a pen or pencil and getting those letters on a page. And while Camden has trouble writing at times, he can type well. So a change that wasn’t particularly costly but was particularly effective for Camden was simply providing him with a keypad. He’s still working on using pen and paper. It’s a work in progress, Alexander said.

“The services for writing have been very successful for us,” Alexander said. “It’s not solved, but he’s getting good grades and he’s articulating very successfully.”

Alexander knows the special education system well in New Hampshire. It took until Camden was 2 or 3 years old before there were even hints that something wasn’t quite right. Alexander said most children are diagnosed with Tourette by the time they’re 5. For some, doctors can tell almost immediately after birth that a child might be dealing with a developmental disability. Alexander said 50 percent of the kids with Tourette are not diagnosed correctly. It’s not a condition that a lot of school districts have to deal with. It’s a neurobehavioral condition that can show up as anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder or ADHD.

For children with Tourette syndrome, their IQ is the same as the rest of the population, their developmental milestones fall in line with the norm, but there are neurological differences that can be more difficult to pinpoint. A child with Tourette would have trouble controlling his or her behavior, Alexander said. The syndrome results in verbal and physical “tics,” creating anxiety and OCD, all of which impact a child in the school setting. A child with Tourette could be reading a paragraph, then stumble on a word, and instead of just skipping that word, would just keep reading and reading, time and again getting stuck on that word. Or, maybe a child gets stuck on every ninth word, Alexander said.

“Teachers and parents, they see the outcome, which is frustrated kids,” Alexander said. “They might see meltdowns....”

Special education means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. As Alexander said, “Every special education story is different.” But there are perceptions and misperceptions that abound in the special education realm. Perhaps too often, special education is a line item, or a talking point. There are costs associated with special education for sure, significant costs, and in a small minority of cases, the costs are extraordinary. But the system that is currently in place, nationally and in New Hampshire, is designed to give every child a chance at an adequate education, regardless of whether a child has a disability or not.

“I am not sure if people really understand what special education is,” said Santina Thibedeau, special education administrator for the state Department of Education. “There are a lot of myths about special education.”

Children with disabilities are not in an exclusive club, since one in seven children have a disability and receive some services, said Bonnie Dunham, the Parent Information Center’s special education law and policy specialist. 

“Virtually everyone knows somebody who benefits from special education,” Dunham said. “Special education is an investment. It prepares children with disabilities for further education, for working, to be fully participating members of a community, just like kids who don’t have disabilities.”

Historically, kids with disabilities were discriminated against. Many were denied an education. It was a horrible situation that was largely corrected through the federal special education law, Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA), Dunham said.

“But at a school budget hearing, parents and kids feel like you’re looking at them as the reason why their taxes are so high,” Dunham said. “The reality is that maybe you have a child who has extensive needs. The school district gets funding through the state catastrophic aid fund in cases that are extraordinarily expensive. They’re often eligible for Medicaid so some services are covered by Medicaid for the school program. And there’s federal funding coming to the school district. … So really it isn’t that all that money is coming from the local taxpayer. It comes from different pools of money.

“It just means you have a child who needs something more or different. In the spirit of community and providing an education to all, why leave this one out-of-district placement student out?”

Special education starts and ends with a team. No one individual is calling the shots. Schools don’t just provide whatever services parents request for their children. A team comprised of parents, teachers, specialists and administrators determine whether a child qualifies for special education. And then, if a child does qualify, that team decides what services a child should receive. It’s a process, Thibedeau said.

In the world of special education, New Hampshire does well — very well, in fact. The state’s special education graduation rate is high. The special education dropout rate is low. Special education students are graduating, in large part, ready to join the workforce, ready for more education, and ready to be productive members of their communities.

Special education, by the numbers

School districts in New Hampshire are mandated to be responsible for special education from ages 3 to 21. Typical students don’t go to school until about age 5, and students typically graduate by the time they are 19. Districts must provide special education services two years prior to when most students go to school, and two years after, Thibedeau said. With regard to cost, special education students obviously cost more right off the bat simply because they are receiving educational services for a longer period of time.

On Oct. 1, 2011, in a point-in-time count, the total number of special education students in the state was 29,422. The state doesn’t have a similar point-in-time count for all students, but there were about 194,000 students overall in October 2010. The percentage of special education students has remained fairly steady in recent years at about 15 percent of the overall student body, Thibedeau said.

To qualify for special education, students must have individualized education plans (IEP). To put it in perspective, a student who receives an hour of speech therapy each week isn’t considered a special education student.

“Lots of students get speech therapy,” Thibedeau said. “The IEP is the key document.”

The special education system in New Hampshire must meet the requirements outlined by IDEA, which requires a referral process to determine students’ special education needs.

“It’s a wonderful law,” Alexander said. “It’s as perfect an education law as No Child Left Behind is imperfect.”

There are issues, though. Federal funds come into the state and each district receives a portion of those federal funds — how much is based on a formula. When IDEA was developed, the intent was that the federal government would cover about 40 percent of the cost of special education. To date, depending on the source, the federal government has provided about 17 percent of that intended 40 percent funding level, Thibedeau said. In an interview this past fall, Nate Greenberg, superintendent of Londonderry schools, said the federal government has woefully under-funded Londonderry schools with regard to special education in recent years. He said the federal government should have been sending Londonderry schools, which Greenberg said was not unlike other New Hampshire school districts, another $1 million annually. In Fiscal Year 2012, New Hampshire received $42 million in federal special education money.

The state must distribute $3,450 per student in the state to meet educational adequacy requirements. Districts spend more money per child on top of that figure — how much districts spend per student varies considerably — but the state must provide $3,450 per student. The state must provide $5,306 per special education student. On top of that, the state has a catastrophic aid fund, which is intended for reimbursing districts with catastrophic special education costs, Thibedeau said.

Districts receive reimbursements through the state’s catastrophic aid program for extraordinary special education costs. In Fiscal Year 2010, the average statewide per pupil cost, special education and non-special education, was about $12,100 per student. Under the state’s catastrophic aid program, once a district spends 3.5 times the average per pupil cost on a special education student, which is about $42,000, the state will reimburse the district at an 80-percent rate for any additional costs. Once a district has spent 10 times the per pupil average on a single special education student, which would be about $120,000, the state would reimburse the district 100 percent of any additional costs. The most a district could spend on a single student would be $58,000. On top of catastrophic aid, districts are receiving federal aid, albeit at a lower than expected rate, and Medicaid covers some services as well.

Sometimes the reimbursement piece of the puzzle is left out, or at least can be difficult to find. People talk about how much a particular special education placement is costing a district, but they might not know or hear much about how much the state is reimbursing the district for that placement. Dunham said sometimes the school budget tally sheet is confusing. It’s easy to see how much a district spent on special education. It might not be as easy to see how much of that money was reimbursed, Dunham said.

While there are some myths and some misperceptions about special education and its funding, it’s still certainly not an insignificant portion of budgets. If 15 percent of students are special education students, that’s a big chunk of the school budget — it’s simply a lot of kids.

Thibedeau hears it all. People sometimes think districts are drowning in special education costs. She also hears the other side, from parents and administrators who are actually working with the special education system. It’s certainly not a system that is without frustrations, particularly for parents and students, but it is collaborative, and decisions are made as a team, and parents always have a vote.

Making sure everybody has a seat at the table

Together with parents, the IEP team creates the plan to address what’s needed for a particular child. The key is strong parent involvement.
“The parent is always at the table for our meetings,” Thibedeau said. 

That team consists of a special education case manager, specialists, teachers, a speech therapist and parents. Parents are, by law, members of the team. But parental involvement makes it easier for schools and much easier for parents to communicate with teachers and specialists, which ultimately results in more success for students. Specialists bring parents up to speed on different educational approaches, while parents can bring their knowledge from the home front into the discussion, Alexander said.

While the system currently in place for Alexander’s son is a good one, and a successful one, that doesn’t mean things always go smoothly.

“There are a lot of emotions involved,” Alexander said. “Parents care about their kids. Then once their child is in special education, they perhaps may feel less control. And those emotions really get in there.”

Often the issue is simply that there needs to be more communication. Oftentimes, there’s a misunderstanding between the school and parents, Dunham said.

“A parent was told something by the school and maybe it wasn’t said well or it was heard differently,” Dunham said. “But [parents] believe the information that was given to them was wrong. It leads to a lack of confidence or a lack of trust.”

It is fairly frequent that the Parent Information Center gets calls from parents who simply don’t know how to approach the special education system. It all comes back to the team relationship.

“A parent might have some additional information from a private therapist and the team may get together and the team can decide, ‘Yes, you’re right, he does need additional services…’ But if you don’t get together and look at the situation, then everyone is going to be pretty unhappy,” Dunham said.

Jennifer Bertrand, a Mont Vernon resident whose daughter Chloe has autism, hears the grumbling, that any disgruntled child with disabilities gets all these fancy services.

“That’s just not the case,” Bertrand said. “No one individual decides anything.... There’s a process, a very well-thought-out process to determine if a child has an educational disability. The decisions are made by a team of professionals.... It’s not like anyone who requests special education gets it.”

The out-of-district special education placement

The notion of out-of-district placements is often bandied about in school committee meetings and budget hearings. Administrators talk about it costing school districts huge sums, such as $100,000, to educate a single child in the case of an out-of-district placement. The figures are correct — out-of-district placements can be incredibly expensive — but the prevalence of out-of-district placements might be overblown.

In New Hampshire, 97.5 percent of students who are special education students are being educated at public schools, leaving a relatively small percentage of students who are being educated outside of public schools, Thibedeau said. Students in out-of-district placements may have more extensive needs. They may need a day program or a residential program. But ultimately, it’s less than 3 percent of special education students in the entire state who fall into that realm, or based on the figure of 29,422 special education students on Oct. 1, 2011, it amounts to about 735 out-of-district placements in the entire state.

Thibedeau said there is a misperception that essentially all students with IEPs are educated outside of public schools.

“In our state, that’s simply not true,” Thibedeau said. 

The number of out-of-district placements across the country is “startlingly low,” said Bertrand, whose daughter Chloe receives her schooling right in her local public school. “It’s only in the most extreme cases where nothing else works.”

For those instances where catastrophic aid is appropriate, the child is usually already enrolled in Medicaid and is receiving support from that. The notion that special education is bankrupting small, property-poor towns is incorrect, and special education funding isn’t stealing money from non-special education students, Bertrand said.

“I think it’s important that we create and ensure a climate where kids receive a high quality education,” Bertrand said.

Bertrand said in her experience her daughter’s school district has been able to obtain grant funding or has found ways to creatively fund aspects of special education. She doesn’t see that component talked about in the public sphere.

“There are a very, very small number of students who need to be in a special school because the public school isn’t meeting their needs,”

Dunham said. “Parents and the education team together make that decision. Still, it is more expensive certainly and the downside for the parent is that it means the child will not have the same opportunity with the kids in the neighborhood. … It really isn’t something parents hope for… Sometimes that’s what people believe, but it’s not really the case.”

Stability in special education


The reality is that the number of special education students in New Hampshire isn’t growing. It’s actually pretty stable. In New Hampshire, the overall percentage of students requiring special education is stable, although the percentage of students within the special education realm who are being diagnosed with autism is increasing. That’s because there is more awareness, research and education about autism, Thibedeau said.

Possibly 10 years ago, many of the students who are today diagnosed with autism were identified as mentally retarded, Thibedeau said. Today, those students with autism are more appropriately identified and they are receiving different and more appropriate services than they would have years ago.

“As we become better educated and more knowledgeable, we may be seeing a shift — while the numbers of overall students receiving special education is stable, the number of children identified with autism has grown,” Thibedeau said, adding that’s a New Hampshire and a national trend.

In 2000, the state had 397 students identified with autism, while the state had 30,077 students with IEPs. In 2010, the state had 1,723 students with autism, but the total number of IEPs had actually decreased slightly to 29,920, Thibedeau said.

Understanding the law

No state can have less special education laws than the federal government mandates, but states can choose to do things differently or to do more if it creates a better system. New Hampshire is a fairly independent state and its special education laws reflect that. In some ways, New Hampshire state law goes further than the federal law. State laws encourage parental involvement, and the state laws clarify aspects of the federal law. For example, in New Hampshire, parents have 14 days to sign agreements reflecting changes to an IEP, while the federal law isn’t particularly clear on that point. If the IEP team is meeting after an evaluation of the child, parents receive the evaluation report five days prior to the meeting, so that, ahead of time, everybody is on the same page, Alexander said.

“It goes faster and you accomplish more,” Alexander said, adding that gets teachers back in the classroom faster, saving that school money and giving all the kids a better education. “It makes the system more efficient.”

The laws essentially create and ensure a climate in which high-quality education is supported for all. The laws in New Hampshire help to ensure that all students are making adequate progress. But the federal law, while many say it is a good one, is still a federal law, and that makes it big and unwieldy.

“Part of what happens is the special education law is a federal act, and that, in and of itself, makes it very complicated,” Thibedeau said. “So part of what we do is really try to talk about how can you just bring it down to something simple and understandable.”

“The law is huge,” Alexander added. “It’s dense. Nobody else out there is going to explain it to you. School systems don’t have the resources. They don’t offer workshops on these kinds of things. Parents often go in very blindly.”

The idea is that children obtain an appropriate education that prepares them for the future so they can contribute to society, whether that child requires special education services or not.

“All children can learn,” Bertrand said. “The goal is to find appropriate ways to help them in the least restrictive environments.”

Sometimes it’s difficult for parents to understand that school districts aren’t required to provide the best education for their student; school districts must provide a free and appropriate public education — so not the Cadillac education plan, more like the Hyundai. That makes it all the more key that parents be informed about their legal rights so they can effectively and appropriately advocate for their child, Bertrand said.

“It’s overwhelming as a parent going into special education,” Bertrand said. “You’re hearing about a deficit your child might have and it’s emotional. Every parent wants the best outcome, of course.”

Naturally parents are most concerned with their own child, but teachers and specialists are charged with meeting the needs of many students, while administrators are concerned with the entire school, Dunham said.

“We sometimes don’t make anybody happy,” Dunham said. “A parent may call and say, ‘I want my child to have a full-time aid because it will give them the best opportunity possible.’ And we end up telling the parent, that’s not what the special education process provides. A child is entitled to a free and appropriate education, not the best education available, and that can be frustrating, because, as a parent, you always want the best.”

A child may need certain services and there are multiple options. The district is going to look at the least expensive option, as long as it provides the needed benefit, Dunham said.

Dunham said a lot of parents do get frustrated because they don’t understand why their child isn’t receiving the Cadillac program.

“What their child really wants is car with an engine that can get the child from point A to point B, like the other children,” Dunham said. “To get the diploma, to get an appropriate education and not to end up with a car up on cinder blocks without an engine.”

A system with a strong spirit

Thibedeau said she thinks school districts are doing a good job, and she pointed to the graduation rate of special education students, which is 91 percent, the highest percentage in New England.

“Our districts are very creative,” Thibedeau said. “They’re creative in that they share resources, sometimes they share staff. There are lots of parents, district parent groups, working with districts as a partner, to educate other parents, and to support other parents.”

Of course, there are times when things don’t go smoothly. There are differences of opinion. Bertrand and her daughter’s school team don’t always agree, but the process works because it facilitates effective communication by listening to the different perspectives of team members, including parents. While the special education system in New Hampshire isn’t perfect, the spirit behind the laws that govern special education is strong in that it helps ensure an environment where all children receive a quality education. It’s based on the philosophy that all children have the capacity to learn, Bertrand said.

“When school staff make an effort toward understanding the realities and challenges parents face raising a child with a disability, it promotes a collaborative team dynamic,” Bertrand said.

One of the biggest challenges in New Hampshire is simply having enough service providers, which could be finding speech and language pathologists, or occupational or physical therapists. That’s most troublesome in the state’s northern regions, Thibedeau said.

“Children are benefiting from special education in our state,” Thibedeau said. “I think that sometimes what we miss, it’s always very much about money and resources, but our students are graduating, and they are going on to some type of higher education, they are going on to employment, post-secondary training. They are furthering themselves one way or another, and that’s what the intent is.”

The state has to submit a federal report each year based on certain indicators. One of those indicators is a post-school outcome survey that is mailed to students one year after they leave high school. That survey has been providing good news, Thibedeau said.

New Hampshire has a lower rate of mediations related to special education process hearings. In other words, parents and other IEP team members tend to be on the same page in New Hampshire. The more involved parents are, the more likely it is that disagreements get resolved before they become bigger issues, Dunham said.

Keeping kids in public schools, and why that’s better

Alexander’s son began school in a private school. Academically, the private school fit Camden’s needs, as he is a strong student. But the school wasn’t equipped with the knowledge, resources and expertise to meet his special education needs. As a private school, it had no access to state funding and wasn’t required to provide special education services, Alexander said, adding that private schools can simply say no, with some exceptions.

“They were not able to meet our son’s needs and we had no other option,” Alexander said.

IDEA essentially requires that kids with disabilities can access curriculum and go to public schools with their peers. That’s the goal, anyway. And beyond that the goal is that kids with disabilities can go to public schools, grow up and become independent adults, Alexander said.

“In order to achieve that, kids need to be in the same public schools,” Alexander said. “We can’t be putting them away off by themselves, where they wouldn’t be getting the same quality of education as the mainstream.”

Alexander said all the research suggests keeping students with disabilities in the classroom has plenty of benefits for special education students, as well as their peers.

Making the switch from private school to public, Alexander said he understood the state had some special education laws but he didn’t understand the ins and outs of them. Alexander is a former math teacher.

“I knew I needed to get up to speed,” Alexander said.

Things are working well in Alexander’s case. But take out Alexander’s involvement in his son’s education. Take out PIC. Take out the school team’s willingness to work with Camden and to understand his situation, and there’s no question he’d become an out-of-district placement, and then it would be more like $50,000 to $100,000 per year to educate Camden, Alexander said.

“My child is in a regular classroom,” Alexander said. “He works with his teacher and a few other specialists, and ... it’s far less expensive. It’s not even in the same magnitude of expense. If I didn’t have a way to get up to speed, this would be costing the district a lot of money. [The system has] actually saved the district a ton of money.”

“That’s why PIC is so important, it’s helping parents and families to ... not fear the school, but to work with the school,” Alexander said.

Bertrand, who has three other children, wants Chloe to have the same experiences as other children, and so she wants her daughter receiving the help she needs in the local school, as much as possible. Chloe has an IEP that calls for specialized training related to her specific needs and that outlines specific goals and objectives.

In some cases, classroom materials are modified to meet Chloe’s level of learning. Being nonverbal, Chloe needs a touch screen device to communicate. Chloe also receives speech therapy and motor functioning services from a physical and occupational therapist. Chloe receives specialized instruction based on the principles of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), which is the only objectively researched and proven treatment for children with autism, Bertrand said.  Her teacher has specialized training in ABA as well. The school utilizes consultation services from ABA specialists to provide guidance and advice. The consultant does not deliver services to Chloe. That’s all within the school day.

“It’s really important for home and school to be on the same page,” Bertrand said. “That way I can consistently follow through at home to help her succeed. If she’s using her touch screen speaking device, and she’s working hard on it at school, if I don’t follow up at home, we’re just not going to make as much progress.”

Having Chloe in the classroom benefits her but it also benefits the other students. If Chloe, who is nonverbal, is using a visual support, then the other students get to benefit from it as well. They see Chloe communicating and interacting in different ways, and they take that all in, Bertrand said.

Parents aren’t alone

Alexander readily admits that other parents might not be in the same place he is. He dove in head first. He dove into the research about Tourette syndrome, anything he could get his hands on. He dove into special education laws, both in this state and federally. He’s in the know. Other parents might not be there yet, and the future can seem scary.

“Other parents are struggling in a lot of ways,” Alexander said.

Like Alexander, Bertrand knew she needed to get informed and educated on her daughter’s condition and on her educational rights.

“Once my daughter was diagnosed, I started reading everything I could about her disability...,” Bertrand said. Her daughter, Chloe, is diagnosed with autism and is nonverbal. That makes for complex challenges. Sometimes the team disagrees. Sometimes it’s stressful. But the team members work through it. Bertrand is a certified teacher and had worked in Manchester and taught at the Mont Vernon Village School.

“I am a supporter and believer in public education. I reviewed the research and best practices. … How do you educate a child who has these types of challenges?” Bertrand said. “I attend every single IEP meeting for my daughter. I actively participate. ‘Here’s what the research says. These are her needs. How are we going to accommodate those needs?’”

“The key is for parents to be informed about the disability and the federal and New Hampshire rules and regulations, and what your rights are,” Bertrand said.  

One resource — and a big one — is the Parent Information Center (PIC). The center focuses on getting parents to partner with schools. The center’s staff views that approach as a key avenue to a child’s success — that’s for all students, of course, not just special education students, but perhaps more so with special education students.

PIC provides a number of programs, training information and technical assistance for parents and teachers. The center is there to explain the process, a process that can be confusing, overwhelming and scary for parents. The center hosts training programs all over the state. Most states have similar organizations to PIC that can be invaluable resources.

People come to PIC during tough times for themselves and their children.

“They try to bring light to it,” Alexander said. “They try to break it out into pieces, so parents can begin to learn how to advocate for their child on their own. I think they’re worth their weight in gold. There are not a lot of places to turn....”

“Our materials tend to be very user-friendly,” Dunham said.

The center also works with schools to make sure they understand things from the parent perspective — “When you say something this way, here’s how a parent hears that,” Dunham said.

“We try to provide information to help parents better understand the process,” Dunham said

In some cases, particularly at the beginning stages of a child’s entering the special education realm, parents aren’t happy with schools and schools aren’t happy with parents. The general public often isn’t happy about how special education impacts a local school budget. In the midst of all that, PIC is pushing and promoting a partnership between school officials and parents, Alexander said.

“They think everyone will find more success if they work together,” Alexander said. “They helped me to become an advocate for my child, but also for that school. I am working to find ways to work together with his team at school.”

But, Alexander said, that’s why it’s so important to understand the process of how special education actually works. That can help take the emotional piece out of it, or at least to limit it, Alexander said.

“The teachers at the schools are there because they would like to help,” Alexander added. “They want what’s best for your child.”

As regular a school day as possible

It’s challenging for parents to go through the special education process, and without question, it’s challenging for school officials as well. But without special education laws and the subsequent process those laws provide, “Camden would have no shot,” Alexander said.

“He has a good program at school and he has a good IEP, caring teachers, and we’re all working together,” Alexander said. “He knows it. He feels it. He loves going there every day. He loves his teachers. He loves learning. I think that’s what it’s about.”

Camden receives services at school that allow him to access the grade-appropriate curriculum. He has to take breaks sometimes. He has an occupational therapist he works with to help get himself back in check. And, then, he’s right back in the classroom.

“He has good weeks and tougher days,” Alexander said.

Part of Camden’s program is teaching him how to self-monitor, so that he knows when his engine is running a little too high. Alexander said he’s getting better at knowing where he is. Camden often works with a behavioral specialist in the school, and he also gets help with writing.

Teachers and specialists have needed to adjust things to make the environment appropriate for Camden. That requires more understanding. A teacher would normally address or challenge a child who is saying inappropriate things in a classroom, but if he or she did that to a child with Tourette syndrome, the child would likely only react negatively. But if the teacher were to ignore it, it will probably just pass, Alexander said.

While Alexander’s son receives unique services, the specialists staffed at his school are not just there for him, of course. He works with behavioral specialists and occupational therapists. Those specialists work with other students who have IEPs. They also work with students who have Section 504 plans. Section 504 is a federal civil rights law protecting students with disabilities. Those specialists also work with students who have neither an IEP nor a 504 plan. Camden meets with his specialist for about 45 minutes per week on average.

For kids with neurobehavioral conditions, teachers and specialists work to create a certain environment in the classroom. They work to change how the day is structured for those kids. And again, that could be as simple as providing a keypad to Camden so he can type, rather than use pen and pencil.

“A lot of kids aren’t a lot of cost,” Alexander said. “We’re not talking big costs. What we’re talking about is a staff that can be trained on disabilities to understand it and to operate a little differently. Maybe it’s more time intensive and maybe they need more assistance from the adults at a school, but we’re not talking about big money in terms of equipment and super-duper specialists.”

Keeping a special education student in the mainstream classroom as much as possible is better for the student, as it helps him or her progress to independence. The student makes friends. Camden helps some of his fellow students with math. He works with adults. It’s costing the district a whole lot less money, Alexander said.

A few cents up front

Without all of these protections for special education students, the future would be murky. Kids would be failing out of school. Their needs wouldn’t be met. Many would end up on the street eventually. Some would end up in jail. Ultimately, Alexander contends, the costs would be a lot higher, they’d just be in different places.

“A few cents up front,” Alexander said, “saves big time down the road.”

“If we don’t assume all children can learn and if we don’t try to find appropriate ways to help them learn, they may not be able to hold a job or to support themselves financially,” Bertrand said.

It gets to the heart of what Alexander is saying. The cost of special education now is one thing, but the cost of not providing special education might reveal itself in much larger costs down the road. Bertrand is concerned that recent legislation introduced this session could be doing just that: reducing costs now, while risking unforeseen costs in the future.

“There is a lot of short-sightedness sometimes,” Bertrand said. “There are a lot of anti-special education bills out there right now that serve to restrict access and services. If many of these bills were voted into law, we’re going to be in trouble down the road.”

Senate Bill 150 would eliminate some insurance mandates and would dramatically decrease early intervention remediation or ABA therapy. Bertrand urged legislators to support legislation that supports early intervention and ABA services.

“If they don’t have access to that treatment, then they will need lifelong support from the government,” Bertrand said.

Bertrand said a woman testified at a hearing for Senate Bill 150 about her experiences. Her child was born without any developmental or language issues, but suddenly, a few years later, the child lost all of his skills and became nonverbal. “He withdrew into a world of his own,” Bertrand said. But she was able to get him services and now he doesn’t even need supports, Bertrand said.

Parents worry about the future of special education.

“So we really have to start stepping back and seeing the bigger picture,” Bertrand said.

“Every special education story is different,” Alexander said. “It does change. I believe we have a really good system here in New Hampshire. I’d be concerned if any of the protections were taken away. I’d be concerned for my kid but even more concerned for others. Disabilities, they don’t pick. They cross socioeconomic lines, political lines, ethnicity ... it just happens to all of us. If we want a successful society in New Hampshire, a community of like-minded citizens, I jut think special education here makes a lot of sense.”






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