Yesterday’s Trenton Times featured an article on Trenton Public Schools’ Life Skills program, which, in addition to continuing required adapted academic instruction for mild to moderately disabled teenagers, is supposed to teach the daily skills necessary for independent living (cooking, cleaning, hygiene, use of public transportation, entry-level job skills).
Scott Barudin, who created Trenton’s program as Special Services Director during his tenure there from 1998-2005, remembers the program in its original iteration:
“It was a per diem curriculum that was basically geared on activities for daily living, to enhance independent living skills,” he said. “Math was counting money, there were personal hygiene lessons and those kinds of things. Job hunting, putting a resume together … I really thought it was a very good curriculum for kids having that need.”
That was then. This is now. From the Times:
Students mindlessly copy answers teachers have written in textbooks. No curriculum exists. The students, all high school age, sometimes color sheets of Disney characters in lieu of classwork. There’s no rhyme or reason as to who graduates or who stays on for another year.
One special ed student from Liberia is robbed by classmates on a near-daily basis. And another student, a 19-year-old with behavioral issues, is instructed to clean and mop the school during classes on Fridays. Teachers don’t know how to handle him, so he’s treated like an unpaid, makeshift janitor.
A district aide, Deborah Downing Fortson, has filed numerous complaints with everyone from the principal to Chris Cerf. She says that this group of about 40 students is the “forgotten bunch.”
Trenton has a history of special education problems, particularly in fiscal oversight (one reason why the district has a state-appointed Fiscal Monitor). Three years ago (May 2010) the Trenton Times reported that “an audit of Trenton Public Schools revealed that the district has a $1.9 million dollar deficit because “last summer the district received bills for out-of-district special education programs it did not know students were attending.” Mark Cowell, the state fiscal monitor, told the school board, “[Trenton’s child study teams’ ] record keeping is not too good.”
In addition, auditors discovered that Trenton had not reported $3.2 million in bills from private out-of-district schools for special education students. The district also didn’t record $6.7 million it owed for out-of-district tuition and employee health benefits.
So Trenton has a long-term problem with accountability, both fiscal and curricular, for special education students. The district sends a disproportionate number of its classified kids to private and public special education schools instead of educating them in-district. Total tuition paid to these schools for the 2012-2013 school year was $32,365,300.
According to that year’s budget, Trenton sent 680 kids with disabilities to out of district placements out of total enrollment of 11,589 kids. That’s almost 6% of all their kids, not 6% of their classified kids. In fact, according to the DOE, over 32% of kids with disabilities in Trenton are sent to out-of-district placements. The state target is 8%.
Trenton’s classification rate – the percentage of children who are officially labeled as eligible for special education services — is not very high: about 18.7%. For way of comparison, the rate of classification in New Jersey is about 17%. (The national average is 13.8%.) Some Abbott districts, which tend to have a disproportionate number of kids classified as disabled, have far higher numbers: Camden classifies about 34% of its students. But what stands out in Trenton is the number of kids sent out-of-district, even in a state that leads the nation in this category.
Are Trenton parents more savvy? Do they know that in-district placements will relegate their kids to “forgotten bunch” status, like the kids described in the Times article? Does the Trenton administration find it more cost-effective to send out kids rather than create in-district programming, in spite of federal and state law that requires that children with disabilities be educated in the “least restrictive environment?” At $32 million a year, these are questions worth investigating.