Schools in Rhode Island spend hundreds of millions of dollars every year on special education, a broad category that includes physical and learning disabilities, emotional problems and autism.
Right now, the students needing the most attention are often sent to special schools, but a growing program from Bradley Hospital shows promise in reducing the cost of special education by keeping more students in their own school districts, in their own schools.
It’s attracting attention from Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut, so Rhode Island Public Radio's education reporter Elisabeth Harrison visited a Bradley classroom to find out how it works.
"All you’re going to need is a pencil right now," teacher Brenda Pacheco tells the students in her tiny classroom tucked along a long hallway at Middletown's Gaudet Middle School.
The six students file in, pull out pencils and paper, and Pacheco opens a discussion about World War II.
"Why did Hitler invade so many countries? Do we know why?"
"I think so," one student responds. "Because he wanted to have power."
The Bradley classroom at Gaudet is decorated in bright primary colors with a sign on the wall that says, “we love reading” in big, bubble letters. But the students here struggle with reading. They're here because they have serious learning disabilities, or mood and anxiety issues that get in the way in the classroom.
To help them read an article, Pacheco reads the text out loud, stopping periodically to explain the meaning.
Some of the students Pacheco teaches have never been in a regular school, or they’ve been away for some time attending special programs. But increasingly, public schools are looking to bring more of their students with disabilities back, and the Bradley classrooms help them do that.
"We work with the public school staff, the public school staff works with us, so everyone becomes more efficient and skilled at supporting a broader range of students," said Trish Martins, the education director for Lifespan School Solutions, a new entity created to oversee the classrooms Bradley is setting up in public schools.
Martin says the benefit is that students stay in their community. They can often take regular classes, eat lunch in the cafeteria and hopefully make connections with other students.
"It is their peers they have now that are going to be the people they’re employed with, the people they live with, and that they grow with and transition to adult life with," Martins said. "If you don’t have those relationships now and as your growing, the chances of having them as an adult lessen."
Lifespan operates 22 Bradley classrooms in seven school districts across Rhode Island, serving a little more than 400 students. They bring in specially trained teachers and psychiatrists and other experts from Bradley hospital.
Parent Jill Brash says it’s made a big difference for her son. Before he came to the Bradley classroom, he constantly landed in the principal’s office.
"Angry all the time, outbursts of rage that no one could control. He didn’t know how to express it any other way, he was miserable." Brash explained. "He just, he couldn’t keep up."
Now, Brash says her son is able to make it through the school day, and he’s playing basketball and taking science and social studies with his classmates. He asked us not to use his name or discuss his diagnosis because middle school is awkward enough with everyone knowing you’re in special ed.
"He’s a happier kid, and as a parent, I just see him relaxed, and able to finish the day happy," said Brash. "And maybe it sounds silly, but really that’s all we want as parents is our kids to be happy. I’m not worried about the academics, I had to put that aside and just look at his wellbeing."
Lifespan opens new Bradley classrooms every year, and has a list of schools interested in adding them, including some in Connecticut. Part of the attraction is that by keeping students in public schools, Lifespan estimates they can save roughly a third of the cost of sending them to a separate facility.
And any savings on special education is significant. Rhode Island schools spent close to half a billion dollars on special ed in 2013, according to the most recent figures from the State Department of Education.
But moving a child with special needs back to a public school can be a tough sell for some parents, according to Joanne Quinn, head of the Autism Project of Rhode Island, an advocacy group for families and children with autism.
"It is very stressful because in order for that kid to be out of district things had to have been really bad," said Quinn.
Quinn says parents are often reluctant to move their children out of programs that are working, especially if they’ve had a bad experience in the past. It can be terrifying for a parent wondering whether a new program will be a good fit.
"Because when things aren’t working it’s exhausting, it’s stressful, and you have to start again looking for the answer. So when something’s working, it’s very stressful to change it, more so on the parents sometimes than the children," Quinn said.
Still, Quinn says, it may be worth the risk. She’s seen Bradley’s program work well for students in East Providence, and she says the ideal is to have students in their regular public school and getting the social, emotional and academic support they need to be successful.
Lifespan officials say the Bradley classrooms are designed to do just that, and while they may not be right for every student, they believe they can help many students stay in public schools, and hopefully help the schools better serve all students with disabilities.