Voters in Livingston will go to the polls on March 12 to decide school construction projects. Last week, we examined new media centers. This article examines the space needs for special education.
When Samantha Rispoli was 6 she dreamed of walking to her neighborhood school with her neighborhood friends. As a first grader, her day began with a bus ride to Mountain Lakes, where she attended a school for the hearing impaired. Most days, she arrived home around 4 p.m.
“It was a long day for her,” said her mother, Anne Rispoli, a proponent for inclusion of special education students.
After seeing her sisters and friends – many who learned sign language so they could communicate – Samantha began pressing her parents to let her join them at Burnet Hill Elementary School. “I told my mom that I did not want to go to a school for the deaf. I wanted to go to Burnet Hill,” she wrote in an essay for a fifth-grade writing contest.
While Livingston Public Schools for many years has served students with learning disabilities, very often students with special needs like Samantha attend out-of-district schools. “I was very positive, smart and fearless,” recalled Samantha, who in second grade realized her dream of being a classmate to her friends. She's now a junior at Livingston High School, where she is a member of the Art Honor Society and Key Club, an artist who paints in oils and bakes pastries from scratch.
Her story, however, isn’t the norm.
“New Jersey is ranked as last, the 50th state in the nation for sending the most students out-of-district for special education placement,” said Superintendent Dr. Brad Draeger. “Livingston is at the high end of out-of-district placements, even for New Jersey. “
LPS currently sends approximately 130 students to private and public settings for special education placements. Millburn, which has a similar enrollment as Livingston, sends out just 50 students. In fact, we send some of the LPS students to Millburn, Summit and New Providence, all public schools for special education.
“When I found out that nearly 130 kids are going out of district, my jaw dropped,” said Dr. David Jasin, newly elected to the Livingston Board of Education at a recent meeting. “What we have here is a real missed opportunity, at the very least.”
School Vote March 12 would help students who can be educated in Livingston Public Schools a chance to do so.
“Having watched this for seven years, out-of-district placement is not the best way to educate the students. Our staff, with our children, in our schools is a much stronger educational model,” Draeger said. “I can say very strongly now: We can do a better job.”
New programs include classes that serve children on the autism spectrum and provide life skills. “Across the board, there has been nothing but accolades for these new programs created this year,” said School Board President Ronnie Spring.
A Pre-K discrete trial program is expected to begin next September, with social/emotional supports added for Grades 7-12, according to Lawrence Russell, the District’s Assistant Superintendent for Student Services. The long-term vision over the next 10 years includes adding even more programs for autism, life skills, and social/emotional supports – as space in the schools allows.
That’s at the center of School Vote March 12 – building additions and renovating existing space so Livingston Public Schools can add these programs and educate more students with special needs in our own schools.
Mary McNany is among the students with special needs educated by Livingston Public Schools.
Her parents like that she goes to school with her brothers and her friends. And Mary has a lot of friends. She plays in a band called the Jersey Girls, was elected to Student Council, is on Safety Patrol, and makes Morning Announcements. She knows the first and last name of just about every person at school, prompting her brothers to ask, “Why does everyone say ‘Hi” to Mary?”
On February 5, during the school’s Winter Concert, Mary absolutely lit up the stage, singing with joy with the Fifth Grade Choir.
“Mary, you were the best one up there,” her friend Julie told her. Other friends came to the concert to support her and were the first to give her “thumbs up” from the crowd.
Mary’s parents say they’re fortunate to have two other children at the school, so they have a broad view. “We have witnessed that the teachers, administration and staff are incredibly supportive, willing to work to tap into the resources of each child, and have helped so much to make Mary's six years productive, challenging and satisfying,” Marnie McNany said.
“We know that each child has to be considered individually, placed in the least restrictive environment, and that one size does not fit all,” McNany said. “Our experience is that our family has been given the opportunity to find Mary's best fit.”
Community Forums on February 13 and February 26 will include presentations and Q&A on the space needs at the elementary schools.
If approved, the referendum would allow LPS to create new classrooms that would offer the flexibility to add more special education programs. The added space would also ease soft border student placements and allow classroom capacity to decrease, among the other needs that emerged from the Board of Education’s year-long analysis.
The scope of the $18.2 million also includes the construction of three media centers and ADA improvements in the older sections of Livingston High School.
“In general, the philosophy is that the more we can educate our town children here in town, the more likely they are to make friendships, and bring their special gifts to our community as a school, and for our community to share back with the children who have special needs,” said Principal Cindy Healy.
No current out-of-district students are being forced into new LPS special education programs, Russell said. The plan is to create in-district programs that meet the needs of newly identified children.
Livingston Board of Education members have voiced the “moral imperative” of educating more special education students here as part of the larger discussion on the long-term facility needs.
“I don’t believe that bringing back special ed is about saving money,” said Leslie Winograd at a recent meeting. “I think we have a moral, ethical, educational responsibility to those kids – for as many of those as possible – if we can educate them as well or better in district, then that’s what we should be doing. Why should a child be sitting on a bus for 40 or 50 minutes to get an education they could get two minutes from their house? I don’t think that’s right. But we don’t have the space right now to do it.”