Last year, Nick Lethbridge rode a school bus to Massachusetts to attend classes with other students who, like him, have autism and other significant disabilities.
This year, Nick, 15, takes classes minutes away from home at Martin Middle School right here in East Providence. He rides the bus with two of his siblings, takes art class with peers who don’t have disabilities, and eats lunch in the cafeteria along with dozens of other Martin students. For the first time, Nick has homework.
“He’s taken a lot of leaps and bounds this year,” said Nick’s father, Kevin Lethbridge.
The 5,400-student East Providence school district is in its second year of a partnership with Bradley Hospital, an 80-year-old children’s psychiatric hospital with its own schools around Rhode Island that is based in the city. The pairing is intended to bring many students once sent out of the district back in.
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Reporter Nirvi Shah talks with teachers, behavior specialists, and disabled students about the district’s partnership with Bradley Hospital.
East Providence had been spending about $6 million a year to send 190 special education students to schools outside of the city. Some, including Nick Lethbridge, crossed state lines, and the placements were eating up nearly a third of the district’s $20 million special education budget.
More Than Money
The out-of-district placements were expensive for another reason, said Anne Walters, clinical director of the partnership. They totally disconnected students from their communities, she said, and robbed them of the typical school experiences that would help them relate to students at traditional schools, such as after-school activities and changing classes for each subject.
“It’s particularly noticeable with older students: They develop a lot of self-esteem issues by being in a much smaller campus,” Ms. Walters said. Adding to that isolation, some students’ long bus rides meant they arrived home too late to interact with neighborhood children.
When Superintendent Mario F. Cirillo took over the district about three years ago, coming from a larger school district that identified fewer students with disabilities and sent fewer out of district for special services, he realized the district hadn’t worked on developing the right programs and expertise for serving children with disabilities who require intense services. So he approached an in-town resource no one had previously thought of for a possible solution, and in less than a year, the Bradley/East Providence School Partnership was formed.
So far, he said, the partnership hasn’t saved the district money on transportation, although many students have much shorter bus rides to school, because Rhode Island oversees busing for all school districts statewide. However the arrangement has saved East Providence about $1.3 million it would have spent on tuition at private and out-of-district schools and teacher aides. About 100 students have been a part of the program.
“We took a leap of faith,” Mr. Cirillo said. “It’s been really good for us.”
At First, Some Said No
Nationwide, the number of students with disabilities who attend separate schools or residential facilities—in or out of their school district—is small and dropping. The most recent U.S. Department of Education numbers available, from 2009, show that about 4 percent of special needs students attend classes in separate schools, residential facilities, or private schools.
Although busing children with disabilities to special schools, private schools, or clustering them together in special programs can be expensive, sometimes the staggering transportation costs are cheaper than hiring specialists or additional staff to work with a small number of students with unique needs.
In East Providence, once the idea of bringing students back took hold, the district reached out to the families of students attending out-of-district schools to let them know the placement would be reconsidered in favor of a less-restrictive setting. Then, Bradley employees spoke with any family willing to consider a change.
“Many of them said no,” Ms. Walters said.
The naysayers included Nick Lethbridge’s family, who wanted to see how the program worked out for a year before taking part, and that attitude was common among families of children with autism and developmental disorders. Families of children with behavioral and psychiatric problems were more willing to take a chance on the new endeavor, said Karen Cammuso, who directs the partnership.
For some particularly fragile students with multiple physical handicaps or those who had just successfully transferred out-of-district, a transfer to a traditional campus wasn’t considered.
East Providence worked out an agreement with its teachers that says they must have 10 days notice before a Bradley student joins their classes, and they can review a student’s individualized education plan beforehand, too.
The school district also had to convince parents at schools that would host these students that the arrangement wouldn’t be a bad thing for their children.
“They were worrying about their children’s safety,” Ms. Walters said, and some asked if their children were in danger of being attacked by a child with a mental disorder.
Most students in the program are accompanied by a behavior specialist when they go to regular classes. When they are in Bradley-run classes, the student-teacher ratio is as low as two to one.
Pairing students with behavior specialists means the Bradley students don’t totally blend in with their classmates. When Nick went to an art class with other middle schoolers, he sat at one end of a table with the specialist, working on his own drawing because he had already finished the project on textures they were still working on.
And though he is already older than those students, Nick will stay at Martin Middle through high school because of the way the program was set up: Bradley has permission to work with students through 12th grade at the middle school, where classrooms have been set up to teach Nick and other students how to cook, do laundry, make copies, and other tasks.
Not ‘a Small Thing’
For the 27 students enrolled in the behavioral and psychiatric program at Silver Spring Elementary, there are about 20 staffers, including teachers, behavior specialists, psychologists, social workers, and physical and occupational therapists. The district’s agreement with Bradley—which provides most of the staff—requires using experienced special education teachers.
Ms. Walters credits the amount of staff and their expertise as the reason just three students who returned to East Providence from private settings ended up going back to those out-of-district placements.
In a combination prekindergarten-kindergarten class at Silver Spring, teacher Natasha Rosa’s room looks like the other kindergarten class at the school, with the alphabet lining the walls, a reading area set aside, and knee-high desks lined up in rows. The only difference: Her petite classroom was one of three carved from a single room at the school to make room for the partnership.
East Providence schools, the city, and Bradley joined forces to pay to remodel the five schools serving students once sent out of district. Each school has a separate entrance for students, its own bus loop in some cases, and separate classrooms. Students mix in the library, cafeteria, at assemblies, and on athletic fields, as well some classes.
“It seems like such a small thing, but for our kids, it’s not,” Ms. Cammuso said.
The construction happened fast—over the course of about two months during the summer of 2009, after schools closed for the summer and a contract was signed with Bradley, and was worthwhile despite a $6 million budget shortfall that has been hanging over the district for years, the superintendent said.
At Silver Spring, the changes meant the art and music teachers no longer have their own classrooms, but the principal said offering an inclusive setting for out-of-district students outweighed turning a few teachers into nomads.
“When it’s the right thing to do, it works out,” Principal Nancy Cullion said.
While she lost classroom space, Ms. Cullion gained a full-time school nurse because many Bradley children are on medication that requires supervised dosing.
Before the partnership, kindergartner Christian Crank likely would have been sent out of the district because of his disruptive behavior disorder. Chris, 6, did everything he could to get sent home from school during the first half of the year at a traditional East Providence elementary school, said his mother, Heather Santo.
“This environment is a lot more structured,” she said. Chris has many more opportunities to have good behavior rewarded, and no longer tries to get out of class.
While the new placement has been good for Chris, it’s also benefited children who have always attended Silver Spring, the principal said. When she learned one 4th grader was mocking a Bradley 4th grader, she seized the moment to talk to the taunter. Now, Ms. Cullion said, he’s a regular at weekly gatherings where Silver Spring students play math games with students in the Bradley class.
That opportunity for on-the-spot acceptance is the same reason Martin Middle Principal Glenn Piros was so open to the idea of bringing students like Nick to his school.
“With our kids, it diffuses some of the behavior you don’t want, especially in a day and age of bullying,” Mr. Piros said. “It’s taught them to be compassionate.”
A version of this article appeared in the May 18, 2011 edition of Education Week as With Hospital’s Help, R.I. District Brings Spec. Ed. Pupils Back