BRUNSWICK — More special education students, fewer teacher aides, and a lack of funding for special education and behavioral management is challenging teachers and administrators at every school in town.
But nowhere is the impact being felt as severely as on the kindergarten and first-grade students at Coffin Elementary School.
“Behavior programs are at capacity and staff are struggling to manage the various crises that occur each day,” Paul Austin, director of student services, told the School Board on Jan. 11. “Even with our staff-intensive programs, some children have needs that far exceed our capabilities.”
Special education staffing levels are down by two full-time positions at the elementary level and one half-time aide at the junior high school.
At the same time, the percentage of students requiring special education services has increased to 16 percent, or 383 students, up from 14 percent in 2007.
Despite the increase, Coffin no longer has a separate program for kindergarten and first-grade students with significant behavioral needs. Instead, those children spend a majority of their time in their regular classrooms. If they need attention, an educational technician intended to work with students with learning disabilities will remove them from class and work with them until they’re ready to return. If she’s busy, a social worker, guidance counselor or other staff may assist with the child.
At the high school, junior high school and Harriet Beecher Stowe Elementary School, students with behavioral and special education needs spend up to 60 percent of their time with a small group of staff who work exclusively with them.
In the past, all children in kindergarten through fifth grade had access to a separate special education and behavior program that was based at Coffin, no matter which elementary school they attended. But after last summer’s elementary school shuffle and multiple years of budget cuts, the behavioral option is no longer available to the district’s youngest students.
Coffin still has two separate special education rooms: the functional skills classroom, for students with severe disabilities, and the non-categorical resource classroom, for students with learning disabilities.
But the system, Coffin Principal John Paige said, is less than ideal.
“I’m not blaming anybody for making an educated guess as to the best way to save some money, but it didn’t work out,” he said. “When you don’t have resources, you do the best you can. And sometimes you’re successful, and sometimes the problem escalates.”
Administrators discussed whether or not to continue the behavior program at Coffin this year, but decided against it because they didn’t anticipate a great need for the service – a decision Paige described as “a risky proposal or a gamble, if you will, based on budgetary constraints.”
“Our data had not been supportive of a lot of kids at the K-1 level really needing that support,” Austin explained, so administrators decided to go without and see what happened.
But even though the program would only have served a couple of Coffin students, Austin and Paige both said it’s been difficult for teachers to manage without it.
“What we had initially was a number of students whose behavioral needs weren’t being met, and so their behavior was deteriorating,” Paige said.
So he got creative, working with parents, teachers and district administrators to solve behavioral and special education issues without hiring more staff.
They were forced to spend more money, though.
Austin has hired a psychologist to spend one day a week at the school, which so far has cost the district an estimated $15,000. In addition, the School Department has also sent more children out of district for special education than in the past, causing a budget overrun of about $175,000.
“One way or the other you have to pay, ” Paige said. “If you find out that you can’t get by without the program, you have to do something about it. You can’t just have everybody suffer.”
The efforts are working, he said, but his staff is exhausted and stretched.
“I don’t think it’s sustainable,” he said. “This is not what people want to do every year.”
Austin also said the solutions are temporary fixes. The School Board will have to address the underlying problems – decreasing state and federal aid for special education – in the next budget cycle.
If additional staffing cuts are in order, Paige said he doesn’t see where they can come from.
“If society is looking for fat to trim, they’re not going to find it,” he said. “I don’t think we can sustain anymore downward spiral.”