Special Education Schools Worried About DOE Proposals

By Michael Hill

A book signing and reading by Jordan Hollow. He’s co-written two books on his passion — the video game Minecraft.

Who is Jordan Hollow? He’s a 16-year-old with Asperger’s and a student at Calais School. Calais takes on the mission of educating students with disabilities and special needs when traditional public schools don’t have what it takes to do so.

“I’m a cheerleader for this school,” said Michele C. Hollow, Jordan’s mother.

Hollow and her son Jordan bypass the high school that’s minutes from their front door in South Orange to drive all the way — 30 minutes away — to Calais in Whippany.

“It’s a good high school but my kid and a lot of other kids with special needs would be totally lost there. Here, he gets up in the morning, he’s excited, he wants to come to school,” Hollow said.

But, the future of Calais and 158 other special education schools in New Jersey is not clear.

The state Department of Education is proposing to freeze and cap staff salary at private special needs schools, lower the salary cap for therapists, return revenue from sales of the schools to the public district, lower the caps for website operations and for professional development.

The DOE says fiscally it wants the schools “more streamlined” after audits found lavish overspending and it’s “absolutely not the intent” to drive schools out of business.

Last week, the association representing the schools told the state Board of Education, “Our schools are already losing experienced therapists to agencies serving public schools, where they almost double their salaries, as a result of these discriminatory maximums.” The association said, “The department has added more than two dozen new items in the proposal that were never discussed (in talks over the last 18 months), and changed many of the agreed upon items. To say that our members are frustrated and deeply disappointed is an understatement.”

The big question is if the State Board of Education approves these rule changes, what would happen to these special needs schools?

“I was baffled. About saving money? It’s the worst way to go about it,” Hollow said.

What would happen if the proposals are approved?

“The school may have to close,” Michele said.

Calais and its supporters say no public school would match its commitment to reaching and teaching its students where they are, and where they are is an environment that adapts to how they learn.

In Dawn Heinen’s kindergarten class, a rescue dog named Sage goes to work, allowing the students to find comfort in petting.

Heinen also teaches a coping method.

It’s a technique that could certainly serve the private special needs school industry in this uncertain, anxiety-filled time.