Special Education at Independent Schools

Meg Kenny (Associate Head, Burr and Burton Academy) and Dr. Mat Forest (Director of Special Services, St. Johnsbury Academy) provided testimony on Tuesday to the House Education Committee. Chairman Conlon introduced the guests and the current discussion about Approved Independent Schools. He requested witnesses to explain how the system works from their experience, explaining that the Committee was still learning about Act 173, so their input is valued.

Kenny introduced her history at public and private schools, she is now in her 25th year at Burr & Burton Academy (BBA). She began as a teacher and then department leader and now is Dean of Faculty which directs evaluation and all professional development of their teachers.

She added that BBA has 775 students, 102 on IEPs, and 57 on 504 Plans (general education). They have an open enrollment admission policy for students on public tuition. Students with existing Individual Education Plans (IEPs) meet with Local Education Agency (LEAs) of the sending town and their staff. All students have access to general programs.

They are also working with outside mental health agencies for life skills and are working on building other offerings. They are working on lowering dropout rates by leveraging targeted hybrid learning and a 3-week preparatory program that addresses structural obstacles to learning, like family environments.

Forest also gave his resume. He is currently Director of Special Services at St. Johnsbury Academy (SJA). He has been a principal, guidance and crisis counselor, and a superintendent.

His children have dyslexia and received services at SJA. They work with 18 LEA’s and 26 different school districts to get special education services to their students. He highlighted teacher training for all and special needs, particularly reading and writing disabilities. Even his masters level teachers sometimes had no special training (for instance, in dyslexia).

When seeking solutions for this, they found that there was a years-long waiting lists for existing programs. So, they decided to pursue hosting and operating their own Orton-Gillingham method which is the best for treating dyslexia. They are now providing their 3rd annual training, which is 60 hours over two weeks and provides a graduate level program for the region (not just their own teachers) at cost.

Conlon asked about the relationship between LEAs and Independent Schools versus a public high school. Kenny said the rights of parents and the requirements standards are so similar there is likely little difference.

Conlon mentioned the “reimbursement model” for special education and Kenny explained that Approved Independent Schools have a reimbursement system that is highly documented as well as a bill back system where providers offer IEP services that may not be available at LEAs and vice versa.

NOTE: Per the No Child Left Behind act, the federal supports for special education follow the student regardless of what type of school they are attending.

Representative Williams asked Forest if they see patterns from specific schools that indicate they need help. He pointed to patterns resulting from staffing turnover rates as a source of problems with special education. The training they offer serves as “an outreach” to help address that. However, chronic turnover and difficulties in hiring it can create discrepancies in service quality and consistency.

Kenny agrees and adds the model of teaching and assessment cycles will also address these aspects of turnover in the future. A lengthy discussion followed about handling mental health interventions (anger, conflict resolution). The Committee members seem favorably impressed with the depth and level of details and professional expertise they are hearing from Kenny and Forest.

Conlon asked how they were doing implementing Act 173. Its ongoing, but well under way.

Conlon also asked how they work with the “Designated Agencies” (DAs) for mental health services. Kenny said that some students have mental health services written into their IEP (fewer and fewer however) and along with DAs they have an outside contractor who takes private insurance as well. In addition, at BBA they have two clinicians along with these off-campus services. These can all be accessed on-campus as needed.

SJA has five mental health counselors on staff with 1,157 visits so far this school year.

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