Special-services School a Gift for Families, a Cost Savings for District
CHELMSFORD -- School can be tough for Ethan, a non-verbal 8-year-old Lowell boy with autism.
The commute to an out-of-district program with the services he needed -- an hour both ways -- wasn’t making it any easier, his father Shon Teicheira said.
That’s why when the Day School, run by Lowell Public Schools, moved from Methuen to Chelmsford at the beginning of this school year, Teicheira was intrigued.
After speaking with the district, Teicheira enrolled Ethan. A few weeks into the school year, the difference in his son was “night and day,” he said.
“Our hope is back,” Teicheira said. “We’ve seen such a change. ... I’m talking maybe one day he’s able to to live on his own.”
Stories like these go at the heart of the goals Director of Special Education Jennifer McCrystal describes for these in-district services, but the calculation for opening a place like the Day School -- recently renamed the Dr. Janice Adie Day School -- is also financial.
“That’s a huge, huge savings to the school department,” said School Committee member Gerry Nutter, while discussing the school’s enrollment during a meeting in September. “As much as I may have had some disagreements with the former superintendent over his finance, his goal and zeal to work (with) Assistant Superintendent (Jeannine) Durkin and Ms. McCrystal to bring that to fruition of many, many years of trying, it is an astounding thing.”
Lowell Public Schools set aside $11 million of it’s $181.6 million budget for students attending out-of-district services and schools in the budget the School Committee approved last spring.
On average, Lowell spent about $14,500 per student in 2017, according to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Out-of-district placements for students can far exceed this average figure. Comparatively, just two students approved at a Sept. 19 School Committee meeting totaled over $90,000 for the year.
Though circuit-breaker funds from the state offset a portion of this cost -- about $4.7 million was initially expected for last school year -- school officials acknowledge out-of-district placements represent a significant and unpredictable portion of the budget.
As students move in and out of district these costs can change throughout the year. Students newly assigned an Individual Education Program requiring specialized services, can also add to the uncertainty.
As of late October, 47 students were enrolled at the Dr. Janice Adie Day School -- a specialized full-day program for students with autism from preschool to 12th grade. McCrystal said all these students would be placed in out-of-district programs if the school did not exist.
The Dr. Janice Adie Day School, which opened in fall of last year, moved to its Chelmsford location on 60 Carlisle St. over the summer. In its first month in the new location, it added about a dozen new students from out-of-district, according to McCrystal.
The building has capacity for 60 students with potential to add an additional two classrooms, upping the cap to 72 students, she said. Currently the school has 46 employees, including one teacher and three paraprofessionals in each of the school’s ten classrooms.
The new location, though $240,000 more expensive, was expected to bring in $1 million in revenue, former Assistant Superintendent of Finance Gary Frisch told the School Committee last April.
Actual implementation of the plan this year suggests a smaller positive financial impact as the district learned additional cleaning costs were not included in the budget. A plan to split costs with the central office to clean the facility will cost $64,000, with $50,000 offset by the city.
Transportation costs for the school were not fully factored into the budget, according to a review by Interim Assistant Superintendent of Finance Billie Jo Turner. She estimates about $200,000 extra, following the loss of some savings realized through transportation cost sharing at the old location.
An audit of the district’s 2018 finances by CliftonLarsonAllen also called into question the district’s process of securing the three-year, $23,556-per-month lease for the Chelmsford building, citing “potential noncompliance with the Massachusetts procurement law.”
The owner of the building, the Daly Group, communicated with district administrators about leasing the building before the district posted a bid request, according to the audit. The audit said the location was chosen over the only other bidder -- Bertos Nominee Realty Trust, which offered a space on 144 Merrimack St. in Lowell that was almost half the price, but met fewer of the program requirements.
Nutter and members of the audience of a December meeting discussing the audit rankled at the inclusion of this in the review. According to Nutter, the School Committee spoke about the procurement process in executive session and the other location would have involved letting students with autism out onto a busy road every day after school.
Diagnoses of autism locally and nationwide have increased in recent years. Right now, McCrystal said 16 percent of students who receive special education in the district have been diagnosed with autism.
In addition to the Day School, the district has 35 classrooms for students with similar diagnoses. Efforts to open a specific school for students with autism started about five years ago, she said.
“I think Lowell should really be applauded for really planning and forward thinking,” she said.
Though the school is not in Lowell, she said it is far closer than the Methuen location, removing the long bus ride.
“It also provides community for the students and families,” she said. “These kiddos are going to be living in Lowell.”
The location and in-district status of the school allows more opportunities for parent support and community-based programs for students, she said.
“Oftentimes parents may not know how to take their kids to Market Basket or out to dinner,” she said.
Children with sensory issues can be very disruptive in a traditional classroom environment, but the Dr. Janice Adie Day School is equipped to meet these needs, she said.
“We have two sensory motor rooms that have swings,” which the students can use to calm themselves down, she said.
McCrystal said she also has confidence in the program, because its run by Lowell Public Schools educators.
The school is named after one of these educators, former director of special education Dr. Janice Adie.
After almost fifteen years in the district, Adie became the director in 1988. About four years later, the district started the first classroom with children with autism in the district. In the 2001-02 school year, Adie and her staff wrote a grant to fund autism services. She retired from the district in 2005.
McCrystal said Adie drove the work that led to the opening of the district’s two other day schools for children with special needs: the Leblanc Therapeutic Day School and the Laura Lee Elementary School.
Follow Elizabeth Dobbins on Twitter @ElizDobbins