Educating special needs students at off site facilities a costly matter for school districts
By Emily McFarlan Miller and Mike Danahey email@example.com firstname.lastname@example.org February 12, 2013 7:34PM
A student named Jason works on grooming skills Friday at Camelot Therapeutic Day School in Hoffman Estates. January 25, 2013 | Michael Smart~Sun-Times Media
By the numbers
Here’s how much it costs to educate one student at each of these facilities that serve District 300 students
Alexander Leigh Center for Autism, Lake in the Hills / $102,344
Allendale Association, Lake Villa / $37,719
Allendale Association, Woodstock / $37,719
Aurora Education Center, North Aurora / $33,130 to $39,000
Bridge High School, Downers Grove / $33,576
Camelot, Des Plaines / $35,355
Camelot, Hoffman Estates / $35,355 to $52,355
Chicago Education Project, Hoffman Estates / $62,226
Child’s Voice, Wood Dale / $41,163
Clarewood Academy, Bartlett / $31,318 to $57,880
Classroom Connection Day School, Bannockburn / $80,425
Cornerstone, Streamwood / $33,100
Fox Valley Tech and Trade Center, Aurora / $35,865
Adventist GlenOaks Therapeutic Day School, North Aurora / $31,555
Adventist GlenOaks Therapeutic Day School, Glen Ellyn / $31,555
Adventist GlenOaks Therapeutic Day School, Glendale Heights / $33,576
Hamilton Academy, Elgin / $41,100
Innovations Academy, Streamwood / $69,085
The Larkin Center, Elgin / $39,435
Marklund Day School, Bloomingdale / $57,980
Milwaukee Academy, Milwaukee, Wis. / $23,129
Parkland Preparatory Academy, Streamwood / $49,475 to $98,686
South Campus Day School, Palatine / $38,671 to $51,272
Summit School, Elgin / $31,199 to $31,916
Willowglen Academy, Freeport / $51,272
Source: Community Unit School District 300.
Updated: March 14, 2013 6:16AM
This is the second in a series looking at where students are placed when their home schools can’t meet their needs
It’s a late January day at the Camelot school in Hoffman Estates, with a small group of high schoolers exploring the prefix “ven-” with their teacher: ventilate, ventilation, ventilator.
Another high school class knocks over cones in a dodgeball-like game before practicing grooming skills back in their classroom, brushing their teeth and combing their hair.
A girl spins contentedly on a platform swing in a darkened occupational therapy room, filled with soft mats and quiet music. A boy down the hall spends time one-on-one with his social worker, playing a game of Sorry!
These are students with social-emotional disabilities, learning disabilities, autism, court records — students who may have been failing at public schools unable to meet their needs. At Camelot, these students are making progress, some leaving the therapeutic day school performing at their age level after they had arrived as much as seven levels behind their peers, according to school officials.
Camelot is just one of 345 off-site facilities that Illinois school districts use to meet the needs of their students, twice as many as in the rest of the country combined.
“A student has to be educated in the environment closest to his peers,” said Shelley Nacke, assistant superintendent for teaching and learning — education services in Community Unit School District 300.
But that education comes at a cost.
In District 300, that cost was about $4 million last year to educate 107 students at 24 off-site facilities such as Camelot across the area, according to information provided by district officials.
This year, neighboring Elgin School District U46 so far has spent more than $5.3 million to educate 194 students at 26 facilities, it said. It spent more than $7.2 million total last year to educate those students off-site.
“We always try to keep kids in district, in their base school. However, we have a continuum of services, anything from a general education classroom with support all the way up to residential treatment,” Nacke said.
“An outplacement like Camelot is in that continuum of services.”
Off-site facilities that District 300 uses include Camelot; The Larkin Center in Elgin, which includes residential services for students with emotional or behavioral challenges and a therapeutic day school for students at risk of dropping out of school; and the Alexander Leigh Center for Autism in Lake in the Hills.
U46 uses many of the same facilities.
Students in Carpentersville-based District 300 can be placed as far away from the village as the Milwaukee Academy in Milwaukee, Wis., a residential program designed to meet the behavioral and emotional needs of adolescent girls; and Willowglen Academy in Freeport, which serves students with autism, intellectual and developmental disabilities, mental illnesses and brain injuries.
The costs of those programs range from $23,129 for one student at the Milwaukee Academy to $102,344 for a student attending the Alexander Leigh Center, according to information provided by District 300.
And that doesn’t even include what it costs to transport students to and from the facilities.
Students usually are not transported as far as Milwaukee or Freeport, according to Charlene Cross, a special education generalist in District 300. Those are residential placements, and the district pays only the education costs of those student, Cross said.
And while districts are required by the state of Illinois to educate all students within their borders — even when that means placing them at off-site facilities that better can meet their needs — they aren’t fully reimbursed by the state for those costs.
Instead, the districts pay those costs — set by the Illinois State Board of Education, which also approves each facility — then submit the bills at the end of the year to the state, Cross said. Once the district has paid double the cost to educate a general education student, the state will pay the rest, she said.
In District 300, that means shelling out nearly $17,000 per student before it receives any money from the state, she said.
By comparison, Nacke said, it would cost the district about $31,000 to educate a student with severe autism within the district. Only the cost of the staff to work with that student would get any reimbursement, she said.
Who is served
“Students who are outplaced — it could be for a wide variety of needs, whether it be social-emotional needs, academic needs. It’s anywhere from students with autism to an emotional disability to learning disability,” Nacke said.
A school district determines whether a student’s needs can be met within that district in meetings with that student and his or her parents or guardians, setting an Individualized Education Program or Plan (IEP), she said.
If an off-site placement is necessary, the district gives the parents several options to choose from, according to the assistant superintendent. Part of that decision is asking if a facility had a plan to get the student back in his or her home school. Part is looking at the services a facility provides that the district can’t. Ultimately, though, that’s the parents’ decision, she said.
That’s happening more and more in District 300, Nacke said.
The district has been using such programs since 1974, with those numbers increasing since the mid-1980s, Cross said. That’s when, she said, “We stopped using the mental health facilities to educate these kids. That was the worst thing we ever could have done for kids.”
And, Nacke said, the district also is seeing increases in the number of students with autism — “just the sheer numbers have increased, and the identification” — and emotional disabilities.
“A lot of that is our economics. There’s not the support the family needs to have,” she said.
The district currently has placed 109 students, or about 5.2 percent, off-site — slightly higher than last year, Cross said. At the state’s request, it tries to keep that number under 5 percent, she said.
About 6 percent of those students wind up being able to return to their home school, Cross said. That’s a number that has increased over the past five years, from 4 percent, she said.
In U46, about 4 percent of students were mainstreamed last year, according to information provided by the Elgin district. So far this year, about 2 percent have returned to their home schools, it said.
Tops in country
As of October 2011, Illinois led the nation in the number of those approved facilities, according to information from the 2012 Special Education Directors’ Conference. Of 516 programs nationwide, Illinois offered 345, it said.
Those programs include residential homes, residential treatment centers, combination programs and day-only schools.
Cook County alone has 85 such facilities, more than the next-closest state in terms of those numbers: Wisconsin, with 33. DuPage County has 23 facilities, and both Kane and downstate Sangamon each have 13, according to that information. Other counties trail with 11 or fewer facilities.
Cross said she has “no idea” why Illinois has so many facilities compared to the rest of the country, and state board officials simply noted laws overseeing the approval of such places vary from state to state.
“Maybe it’s because we care more about our kids,” Cross said.
“That’s what I like to think. I really like to think that we do go above and beyond in Illinois to serve those kids who are very needy.”
Next: A look at transportation costs alone for these students — and why they are so high.