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Report questions cost effectiveness of Newton’s special education programs

Costs cited in look at Newton system

The Newton public schools have embraced inclusive classrooms for special education students, but a new report questions whether the district is getting the best results for the tens of millions of dollars it spends annually to educate children with learning disabilities.

The report questioned the high number of teacher aides in the classroom and the length of time it takes to develop education plans for students.

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The $90,000 report by the District Management Council is the first comprehensive overview of the city’s special education programs in more than a decade. Commissioned by the School Committee, it was presented to the board last week and will be discussed with parents next month.

But already, some School Committee members are dismissing the report’s findings.

“It’s old information,’’ said School Committee member Jonathan Yeo. “It’s not nearly as important as what the superintendent is working on now.’’

Newton schools have added more reading specialists at the middle and high school levels, developed a program for autistic students at Newton South High School, and provided more teacher training.

Superintendent David Fleishman, who was hired after the report was commissioned, is already looking at adding more programs and monitoring expenses, Yeo said.

“The study was disappointing,’’ Yeo said. “When you bring in outsiders . . . you don’t always get the level of detail that you wish. You get a snapshot and some general sort of statements, and that’s what we got.’’

The report praised the district for offering plenty of programs for special education students, sending relatively few students for services outside of the district, and having students who perform well academically.

“Certainly, the district has been effective,’’ the report states. “It is one of the 30 highest performing districts in the state. But it has not been similarly cost-effective.’’

During the 2009-2010 school year, the district spent $54 million on special education. This year that cost has increased to $56 million.

According to the report, special education students in 16 other districts outperformed Newton on 10th-grade standardized tests last year, while the districts spent less per pupil.

The report is critical of the high number of special education teacher aides in Newton, which many parents consider critical to helping their children participate in the traditional classroom setting.

The district has the highest number of aides of any of the state’s top-achieving districts, 35 percent more than the next highest, the report states.

The aides can hinder student independence, and the money could instead be spent on reading and math specialists to help these students academically, the report states.

Sandy Baird, cochairwoman of the Newton Parent Advisory Council for Special Education, said the city’s special education programs could use some fine tuning, and she is pleased that the district commissioned the study and is starting the discussion.

But she said parents and education officials should delve further into some of the comparisons the report makes with other communities. For example, other districts may give aides another job title but they could have the same responsibilities, Baird said.

The recommendations on teacher aides will likely spark an uproar among Newton parents, she said.

“I really think the inclusion model is hugely successful for many kids,’’ Baird said. “Newton doesn’t need to do a huge-scale overhaul of special education.’’

Fleishman said changing special education services is complicated and can’t be done arbitrarily.

The aides “are part of the long-standing culture in Newton, in terms of having support for students,’’ Fleishman said. “There’s a lot of emotion about it. And you really have to be sensitive about how you talk about it.’’

The report also suggests that it takes Newton officials and parents too long to develop learning plans for students, and that the district should make the programs across schools more consistent. Some students with severe autism and emotional behavior problems may also benefit from smaller, structured settings instead of going out-of-district or being in an inclusive classroom, the report said.

The report did focus attention on special education, and Yeo said that was helpful. The school district is working with the Education Collaborative for Greater Boston Inc. to determine the next steps for improving Newton’s education programs.

Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@ globe.com
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