BURLINGTON — The Burlington Area School District is considering implementation of a program for students who are currently receiving special education services outside the district, so they can attend classes in-district.
BASD Superintendent Peter Smet said that the majority of special needs students are currently being educated within the district. This program would affect the students who, due to having more than one learning, cognitive or emotional disability, have been bused to schools such as The Richardson School in West Allis or Kradwell School in Wauwatosa.
Special Education Director Kathy Merlo and support teacher Colleen Wagner gave a presentation to the district’s Curriculum Committee on Monday about the proposal.
Merlo said that when the district had one or two students their current special needs program couldn’t accommodate, it made sense to bus them to schools that did have those resources.
But now they have nine such students, and the school district is paying for their full tuition, busing them to those schools with an aide on the buses. In the 2017-18 school year, those costs added up to $504,775.34.
The special education team believes the district could provide an equivalent program in-house for $423,710.00 per year with a $53,000 start-up investment. The district would hire two more full-time special education teachers, three full-time aides and invest in curriculum and technology for the class. The classes would be held on the third floor of Karcher Middle School, 225 Robert St., which is currently not being used.
If it pans out the way the educators plan, the district would save $28,065.23 in the first year and $81,065.34 each following year.
Closer to home
In addition to the cost benefits, Merlo and Wagner laid out several benefits for the students, teachers and parents.
One of the first issues with busing these students are the bus rides themselves. For some students, the trip could be 90 minutes from pickup to drop-off, which means 3 hours a day on the bus. This kind of commute is stressful enough, but is compounded by the level of need of the students.
“If one student becomes agitated, they’ll trigger another student and they’ll trigger another student,” said Merlo. “And you’re on a small bus and there’s not a whole lot you can do except separate them and keep them from interacting with each other.”
The children are supervised by an aide, but that position has had a high turnover rate. Since they started busing, the district has gone through about a dozen aides, partly due to the stress of the position but also because of scheduling. The aides work a split shift, starting in the early morning and ending in the late afternoon.
Wagner added that the long commute also limits how involved the students and parents can be.
“Right now, it’s really hard for a parent to come to the schools that we have students placed in,” said Wagner. “We feel that is such an important part of this whole process.”
Better for support staff
By having the student attend a school closer to home, the staff hopes to have better communication and regular interactions between the parents and staff working with their children. It’ll also make it easier for psychologists, social workers and other service providers do classroom observations and keep up with what’s going on with the student.
School Board member Barry Schmaling asked about integrating the students with their peers. Wagner said that for students who are ready they could develop a transition plan for the student to spend at least part of their time in regular classes.
School Board member Peter Turke asked about the age range of the students. Merlo and Wagner said the students are in grades 5 through 12. Wagner said the curriculum would be largely project-based and largely individualized for each student.
Currently they bus students as young as 3rd grade, but with the extra staff and resources in-house they’re hoping they can do more with younger students in their regular classrooms.
Schmaling noted that once the program is in place they may see more special needs students open enrolling into the district. Wagner said there are students from Union Grove and Yorkville at Richardson and Kradwell who may want to transfer to a program closer to home.
The committee voted unanimously to bring the proposal to the full School Board for consideration. The board meets on Monday and the agenda for the meeting includes discussion and possible action on the proposal.