More special education students participating in general education classes in Mt. Laurel

Four years after falling short of a state goal, the Mt. Laurel School District is continuing to increase the number of special education students participating in general education classrooms.

Diane Willard, director of child study team services for the Mt. Laurel School District, said the district has continued to introduce more special education students into general education classes this year, continuing an upward trend from the last three years.

The district’s “Least Restrictive Environment” initiative focuses on merging special education and general education students in the same class. In 2014–15, the school district has 501 special education students, 419 of whom are participating in either resource or inclusion classes. Only 13 percent of students were placed in self-contained programs.

Willard said this push to have special education students with their general education peers has been the key to making the district’s program a success.

“It’s a very high percentage and an excellent goal to achieve,” she said. “With those strategies we’ve been using, we have seen our rate of classification go down over the years.”

The district employs LRE guidelines as early as preschool. Willard said in 2012–13, the district had only 67 percent of special education students in an inclusive setting. The number has increased to 79 percent this year. In addition, the number of special education students in preschool has gone down from 73 in 2012–13 to 57 in 2014–15.

The district has been able to increase the number of special education students in inclusive classes thanks to additional staff and programming. Both Fleetwood and Hillside schools have entirely inclusive preschool classes.

Willard said the inclusive program has allowed students at the preschool level to progress greatly. She said the district has seen a considerable number of special education students become declassified once they reach kindergarten the following year.

“What we have found with our preschool students is when we apply these intense services, more children are declassified,” Willard said. “We do what is best for the child.”

Across all grade levels, the vast majority of special education students are taking at least 40 percent of classes with their general education peers. The one exception is students with autism, where 45 percent of the population still remains in a self-contained class.

“They need that intense therapy and that intense instruction,” Willard said.

Willard said the district has always put a focus on special education, but its focus has increased after the district fell short on a state target for inclusion at the preschool level in 2010–11. As a result, the district is in the second year of a five-year corrective action plan where districts are required to analyze data and have state monitors visit the schools for classroom observations and staff and parent interviews.

Willard noted the district was 1.3 percent off its goal in 2010–11. It has exceeded its state target since that year and has used the corrective action plan to improve its programming.

“We have completed all of our requirements and we’ve had the state monitors come out,” Willard said.

The district is taking advantage of suggestions from the state monitors to make further improvements. The district is planning to add special education training for art and music teachers prior to the 2015–16 school year.