OPINION: South Orange-Maplewood Should Make ‘Modest Investment’ to Expand Inclusion Classes, Keep Kids in District

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The following comments were made during the hearing of individuals at the August 1 South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education retreat during which the BOE discussed Board Goals and District Goals for the 2023-24 school year. The BOE is scheduled to vote on the final versions of the goals on August 24. Will Meyer, who is a candidate for BOE, spoke on behalf of the Special Education Parents Advisory Committee {SEPAC] Board, not his campaign.

Will Meyer, speaking on behalf of the SEPAC SOMA Board, at the August 1, 2023 South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education retreat

Good evening. Will Meyer, South Orange. I am also here tonight speaking on behalf of SEPAC [the Special Education Parents Advisory Committee]. I’m asking tonight that the board establish a goal of reviewing our special education programs and services in comparison with the needs of the students in our district, and ensuring the programs we provide are responsive to those needs, including by adding and modifying classrooms as appropriate. By way of example, I am raising two of our concerns.

As you may know, a cornerstone principle in special education is to teach students in the least restrictive environment, which means providing supportive services in as close to a typical child’s setting as possible. In our district, we offer a service called In Class Support — ICS — better known as inclusion classes, that provide both a general and special education teacher in a regular classroom to differentiate instruction and support neurodivergent learners without pushing them into a special class program. Unfortunately there are some elementary schools right now in which this class setting is not available in every grade, and students who are recommended for that support must be transferred to another school if they want to receive it.

SEPAC has discussed this issue with the administration, and they point out, not incorrectly, that there would be a financial implication to operating more of these classrooms then are strictly necessary to support the students currently recommended for them. However, we believe this modest additional investment in special education is appropriate to ensure our special needs students are given that “least restrictive“ opportunity by remaining with their friends and classmates while receiving the services they need to succeed.

Likewise, the board currently pays for many of our district students to be educated in private schools, some at the recommendation of a child study team and others as a result of a parents’ lawsuit. (Schools that, between tuition and transportation, can easily cost as much as the salary of a full-time teacher.)

Surely there are some occasions where this is warranted in light of a child’s unique and complex needs that require a specialized placement. But most out-of-district parents we speak with would like nothing more than to bring their child back into our schools while still receiving the support they need to thrive.

We ask that the board task the district with a goal of studying the situations leading to these out of district placements, including the circumstances leading to lawsuits brought against the district, and identify unmet student needs that we could begin to support in-house with new, innovative types of classrooms, likely at a net savings, for the benefit of those families and our entire community.

Watch Meyer’s comments at the 9:15 mark in the video:

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