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Autism programs take a hit

Educators hope to replace funding

By Joyce Pellino Crane
Globe Correspondent / February 15, 2009
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Special-needs administrators are scrambling to replace funding for the next fiscal year as a state grant designed to help teachers deal with the increasing numbers of autism-spectrum students dries up this school year.

The grant, in the form of a professional development fund, was available to every public school district for the past several years and gave districts the option of applying the funds directly toward teaching students on the autism spectrum.

"We're very sorry to lose it," said Liza Huber, director of pupil services for the Acton public schools and the Acton/Boxborough Regional School District. "We'll have to look for other creative ways to support teacher training issues."

In its place, state education officials are planning a grant program over the coming year that will promote the regionalization of special-needs programs and services among school districts, according to spokesman Jonathan Considine.

One quicker form of relief could come from the economic stimulus bill that was before Congress last week. As of Thursday, the bill included $12.2 billion for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, according to John W. Noble, communications director for US Representative Niki Tsongas, a Lowell Democrat.

"While there is nothing specific in the stimulus bill for autism," said Noble, "states - including Massachusetts - use IDEA funding for special-education programs which help students with autism-spectrum disorders."

That's why Superintendent Christine McGrath of Tewksbury kept a close eye on the Senate's deliberations.

"This could be most helpful," she wrote in an e-mail response to a request for comment.

Grant funding is typically excluded from school budgets. McGrath, whose education budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 was presented to the School Committee on Feb. 4, noted that special-needs services are mandated by state and federal laws.

"We are, however, closely monitoring things such as tutorial services, student specific aides, and home-based services," she added, noting that the services become mandated once they are included in a student's education plan, adding to the cost.

Tewksbury, like most school districts, has seen a growing number of students identified with autism-spectrum disorders, wrote McGrath. As the medical profession becomes more proficient at identifying the developmental disorder in younger children, prekindergarten programs are welcoming the bulk of the students.

Autism is a neurological disorder involving areas of the brain that govern social interactions, language, behavior, and sensory issues. It is not curable, but with help, say educators, the impairments, whether mild or severe, can improve. Asperger's syndrome is considered a mild form of autism that does not impair a student's intellectual abilities, but presents social, communication, and organizational challenges.

Asperger's students are usually included in regular classrooms inside public schools. Training teachers is critical for success, said Dania Jekel, executive director of the Watertown-based Asperger's Association of New England.

"Children with Asperger's are so bright and so verbal and they look like other children, that it's hard to understand, intuitively, why they don't do what is expected of a bright child," she said. "But once you understand how they're processing information, and how there is a neurological difference, then it becomes much clearer."

Public schools are taking steps to accommodate all students on the spectrum.

Tewksbury has two special-education classrooms at the Trahan School for prekindergarten through second-grade students on the autism spectrum and another for grades 2 through 4 at the North School, according to Cheryl Porcaro, team chairwoman of the special-education office. A fourth class is expected to open for fifth-graders in September at the Ryan School. The district has 56 students identified as autistic, out of about 4,600 in all. Its special-needs budget made up about 19 percent of the total education budget during both fiscal 2006 and 2007, according to the state Department of Education.

Last month, the Lowell public schools opened a fourth prekindergarten classroom at the Pawtucketville Elementary School for students diagnosed with autism.

Lowell has 180 autistic students, according to Deborah Westaway, director of special education, out of a population of 13,500. When a 2002 state grant that funded, among other things, a full-time autism specialist, ended three years later, the district began supporting the position.

In fiscal 2006, Lowell's special-needs budget for all disabilities was 10.1 percent of the total education budget. The next fiscal year, it jumped to 14.4 percent, according to the education department.

In Acton, where there are 25 students identified as autistic, according to the education department, special-needs spending made up 20.8 percent of the total education budget in fiscal 2006. In fiscal 2007, it made up 23.3 percent.

From 2002 to 2005, Tyngsborough received $75,000 each year from the state's "Exploring the Options of Children with Autism" grant and another $50,000 through 2006. The funding was used to contract with trainers, a board certified behavior analyst, and an autism specialist, according to Kim Oliveira, administrator of special education. The district has 24 students diagnosed with some form of autism, she said, out of about 2,200 total students. The special-needs budget portion was 19.5 percent in fiscal 2007, compared with 18.8 percent in fiscal 2006.

In recent years, Tyngsborough applied funds from the state grant to pay for some of those services, said Oliveira.

But with the elimination of the funds, "we are going to be required to do more with less but . . . we can't lose sight of our responsibility to provide a quality education opportunity for all children," she said.

Joyce Pellino Crane can be reached at crane@globe.com.

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