Wilton schools adjust to growing special ed needs

WILTON — Meeting the growing needs of special education students in relation to budget considerations continues to offer both challenges and creative opportunities for Wilton Public Schools.

Andrea Leonardi, assistant superintendent for student services, shared details with Board of Finance members last Thursday, Feb. 6, about how the Genesis Alternative School in particular is helping assuage costs, while inviting more displaced students back to town.

“When I look at the big good news items for this budget, I have to say Genesis,” Leonardi told financiers during their visit to the Board of Education to hear details on Superintendent of Schools Kevin Smith’s proposed $84-million budget.

The school board has indicated it will likely affirm the $83,989,144 budget request when it votes on whether to approve at its Feb. 20. meeting, having expressed unofficial but unanimous approval for the proposal as it stands.

While the request represents a 2.58-percent increase over the current $81.9-million budget, the initial $468,000 cost of Genesis was approved separately as an allocation from the town’s Charter Authority last year. By direct comparison, this year’s budget request, which already includes $600,000 for Genesis, represents a total increase of just under 2 percent overall.

Leonardi told finance board members that Genesis is playing a key part in both cost savings and cost avoidance for this next budget.

“I think we are realizing both of those targets,” she said, with both tuition costs for outside placement and consultation costs each reduced by over $400,000 in the new budget.

Outplacing students for alternative programs the town is unable to provide comes at a cost of approximately $120,000 per student, Leonardi said, including about $70,000 for the therapeutic day placement and $30,000 for transportation, as well as additional add-ons that can include extended-school-year services and specialized services such as speech and language help.

While it initially began last year with just five students, Genesis currently has 17 — a number Leonardi said was beyond expectations, as the district did not solicit families to return.

“I would say about five of these students would have been outplaced,” she said, even calling that estimate “very conservative” and noting this adds up to approximately $600,000 in placement costs.

The current budget proposal anticipates 20 students, but Leonardi said the school could hypothetically serve up to 25 if it was pushed to the maximum.

“More and more families are coming back to look at it,” she said, explaining that while it’s unlikely juniors or seniors would want to transfer back in at this late date, there is a large number of students in middle school who will find Genesis a perfect setting for their high school years.

Leonardi described several areas of special needs students the district is looking at as numbers of students requiring services increases, including those with social and emotional needs.

“That continues to be an alarming trend, not only here,” she said, citing students who have difficulty managing with stress and peripheral issues, specifically in the high school.

“That’s been an area of great concern for us and one of the driving concerns for the creation of the Genesis program,” she said, noting “students who are unable to manage the social milieu of a big school” given various issues.

There are also those with specific learning disabilities and others who have struggled with unexplained underachievement — those with high cognitive abilities but challenges in their executive functioning.

“I can’t tell you exactly why,” Leonardi said, “but I can tell you it is something we are addressing.”

“I’m not convinced, personally, that we have hit the sweet spot in really understanding when children have a disability,” she said, noting that the subtleties of identifying students correctly is something they continue to work on in the district.