Trenton Public Schools Addresses Its Special Education Problems

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The Trenton Times reports today that district administrators are trying to bring back more students with disabilities into district schools. At a school board meeting, Assistant Superintendent Alexa Ingram made a presentation that addressed the high number of special needs students sent to out-of-district placements. The district estimates that tuition costs for those out-of-districts schools will be $31,782,545 for this school year.

According to the State Department of Education, Trenton currently sends 505 students to other districts with better in-district programs and 143 to private special education schools. That’s 5% of the district’s total enrollment of 13.087 schoolchildren.

This disproportionality is not new to Trenton. In  April 2013, after a series of audits conducted by the State to account for fiscal irregularities within the special education department, board members and administrators were alarmed to discover that over 32% of children classified as eligible for special education services were sent to out-of-district placements. The state target is 8%.

This is in spite of the fact that Trenton’s classification rate – the percentage of students classified as disabled – is relatively low when compared to other Abbott districts. Gregory Elementary School, for example, classifies about 12% of students and Trenton Central High School classifies 19%. For way of comparison, Camden High School classifies a whopping 38% of students for special education and the state average across all districts is about 16.5%.

So it’s not Trenton’s classification rate that’s the problem: it’s the number of students with disabilities that are excluded from neighborhood schools and sent to other private and public placements. The cost is high, both fiscally and socially. On the other hand, maybe Trenton parents of kids with special needs are aware of the district’s spotty in-district special education record and are simply savvy advocates for their children.

Nevertheless, last April Trenton faced a $10.5 million hole in its annual operating budget of $262,703,430.. That’s not all due to its expensive habit of offering sub-par services to students with disabilities within district and paying annual tuition and transportation costs that can go as high as $100,000 per student per year. But, surely, this predicament deserves more attention than its getting. Maybe the special presentation to board members is a fresh start at an old problem.

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