Expert report says WO special education is successful

WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange Board Education heard a presentation on the recent audit of the district’s special education program at its Dec. 4 meeting, and received praise for the program’s successes and recommendations as to how the district can improve.

The report was presented by Charlie Bryant and Patrick Keenoy, educational consultants from the firm Bryant, Gemza, Keenoy & Kozlik. According to Bryant and Keenoy, the firm examined the quality, efficiency and overall effectiveness of the programs and services available to students with disabilities in West Orange. They found that, by looking at the district’s code compliance, parent and staff satisfaction, and curriculum, West Orange’s special education program is in good shape.

“What we found is West Orange continues its tradition of having experienced and dedicated staff who take pride in their work,” Bryant said at the meeting. West Orange’s special education program ranked 76th in the state, which Bryant said is good, considering there are more than 500 school districts in New Jersey.

Keenoy said various factors that went into that ranking, saying that special education codes and regulations in the state are always changing. They included the district’s reconfiguration of the Language-Learning Disabilities program, now housed at Kelly Elementary School, and the district’s reading programs.

“As most of you probably know, reading is the most important issue for special education students,” Keenoy said. “That’s usually the reason that most of them are referred.”

Keenoy said at the meeting that West Orange is spending slightly more money on the special education program than average, because the staff to aide ratio is 1 to 1, which is high.

“Spending is a little higher than most, and in general it seems to be mostly with non-instructional staff,” he said. “Which is the difference between direct and support staff.”

While he admitted that more staff is always needed in special education programs across the state, Keenoy said that more professional development is the best way to allocate teachers and aides to where they need to be in order to maximize the number of students reached. More one-on-one instruction is more effective than having one teacher and more than one aide, he said.

“You do a lot of professional development already,” Keenoy said. “However, targeted professional development would probably be your most valuable way of improving. Professional development makes the staff you do have more efficient, and you probably don’t need more for the pieces you have.”

Keenoy described the professional development needed as a “larger toolbox” for teachers, saying that when a teacher has more skills, that teacher can then provide more direct instruction, thus making aides available to be in other places.

BOE member Laura Lab agreed with Keenoy and Bryant’s assessment of needing more professional development to better prepare teachers for working with students. She also would like to see general education teachers receive more training as well.

“I hope, moving forward, that the district does provide that professional development, to general education teachers as well,” Lab said at the meeting. “Because, usually if a child is in general education and they’re not doing well, the teacher is the first (to notice). Maybe it’s special education that they need, maybe it’s other support.”

Keenoy lauded the district for the number of special education programs and services it offers to students in West Orange.

“You’re one of the leaders in terms of having more programs within the district,” he said. “More districts are starting to look into that, but you started quite early.”