October 18, 2010

Austism Program branded a success

Students in the New England Center for Children partner program,
 now in its second year at Derry Village School, 
have shown significant academic and social progress.


Union Leader Correspondent

 — District staff and parents say the New England Center for Children partner classroom has found academic and financial success in Derry.
Massachusetts-based NECC is a private, nonprofit organization that offers consulting services for students with autism and other related disabilities. At 14 Massachusetts schools, NECC operates special education programs within school districts for students requiring care beyond what an individual district can provide.
Last year, Derry hosted the first partner classroom in New Hampshire at Derry Village School, with the help of $900,000 in federal stimulus money spread over two years.
 In the NECC partnership classroom, Derry students work one-on-one with tutors to develop academic and social skills as part of an individual curriculum that adapts throughout the year as students progress, said Derry Director of Student Services Christopher Kellan. 
Then students and their tutors spend a portion of their day in general education environments, with most students averaging between 12 and 15 hours outside the NECC classroom each week. 
“The classroom is the hub of their universe,” Kellan said. “Students are taught the development of academic and social skills in that low-distraction environment by the one-to-ones and then they are able to practice those academic, developmental and social skills out in the general education setting at lunch, recess or in the classroom.” 
Last year, the elementary level program served five students with autism who either returned to Derry from an existing out-of-district placement or who would’ve likely been placed out of district last year for the first time, Kellan said. This year, seven students are enrolled and the program has moved to a larger classroom at Derry Village School. 
With seven students, Kellan said the NECC partner program will cost about $484,000 annually. But with the average out-of- district placement exceeding $100,000 per student, Kellan said the cost of the program will be covered by the savings of keeping students within the district. 
“A comparable program out of district would essentially cost double or more for the same number of students,” Kellan said. “But it’s also about those intangible benefits. There’s a cost savings and all, but the other benefits are priceless.” 
For 8-year-old Ben Koslouski, who is returning to the NECC classroom for third grade this year, the program has already made a difference, said his mother, Deb. 
“He spends a good majority of the day in the typical classroom, but it’s great because he’s able to ask for breaks,” Deb Koslouski said. “He can get really overstimulated quickly and once you hit that wall, it’s hard to recoup from that, but now he knows he can ask for a break and then go back to the classroom later.” And after that first year, Koslouski said she’s noticed advances in Ben’s verbal abilities. 
“I see a lot more verbal communication. He comes out with some stuff that surprises even me now and again,” she said. “I look at the work that comes home that he does do independently and there’s just a lot more progress academically.” 
Ben was previously attending a program in Lawrence, Mass., and Koslouski said commuting to the out-of-district placement and trying to coordinate school activities across state lines created headaches for her family. 
But with the new program, Koslouski said she’s more comfortable and was finally able to get a job outside the home in February. 
“I managed to get a job because I don’t worry about him at all,” she said. “It’s given me peace of mind that I know he’s with people who completely get him.” 
And Kellan said all students have shown academic success in the program so far. 
In the first year, he said, students showed “substantial progress” in more than 95 percent of their individualized education program, or IEP, objectives. 
And much of that success has been the cooperation of the wider community, he said. 
“It’s the partnership of the NECC, the Derry School District and all of the staff at Derry Village that have been outstanding in supporting and welcoming the new staff, students and their families,” he said. “It’s a partnership between lots of different folks all working together in the best interest of the students.” 
Kellan presented the program’s progress to the Derry School Board last week, where it was met with heavy praise. 
“I’ve heard nothing but positive things from parents and staff,” said school board member Brenda Willis at the meeting. “...That’s what we’re here for. We’re here to make a difference for children and to make sure that they’re educated and we do the best we can. I’m blown away by what has been accomplished.” 
The board approved the NECC partner classroom as a full district program for up to seven students last week, and the cost of the program will now be incorporated into the district’s annual budget, Kellan said. 
And Koslouski, who has another child with autism and a third student in general education classes, said she thinks the partner classroom will help students both in and outside of the program. 
“I think it’s good exposure for my kids to learn from their typically developing peers about how to behave and what’s acceptable,” she said. “But I think the typically developing kids get a lot, too. It teaches them about accepting people who are different, and I think anytime you get an opportunity to work with people who function a little differently, everyone wins.” 

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