It can be a little game that school officials reluctantly play. They have students who stutter, struggle with dyslexia, or can’t write fast enough to take notes in class.

Are these children disabled? Not really. In many districts, however, these students would have to be classified with a learning disability before getting the help they need.

When Colts Neck Superintendent Dr. MaryJane Garibay reviewed this district practice, she asked, “Why?” Why should children be forced to “fit into a category” to get services?

“Sometimes, it’s about thinking about things differently,” she said in an interview with School Leader. Garibay and her director of special services, Dr. Richard Beck, decided that they would change the way they used speech therapists, physical therapists and occupational therapists already on staff in the 973-student, K-8 Monmouth County district.

“We got away from a ‘waiting to fail’ model, and we’re offering services to students who show weaknesses before they reach the point of severity that they would be considered disabled,” Beck said.
That’s why the Colts Neck program — “No IEP Needed” — was given a 2019 Magna Award by the National School Board Association (NSBA).

The NSBA’s 2019 Magna awards focused on equity in education, recognizing innovative district programs that remove barriers to achievement for vulnerable or underserved children. Colts Neck was a first place winner of the NSBA’s Magna Award for best practices.

Two Colts Neck programs were cited by the NSBA, the MOVES program (Motor Opportunities Validating Education Success) and the SAID program (Speech Articulation Intervention and Development).
The MOVES and SAID programs provide early intervention for speech impairments, motor planning/executive functioning, and fine motor weaknesses. The initiatives provide students with therapeutic support, while reducing the number of students classified as “disabled” by half.

Garibay said she was proud to receive the award, and Beck said that teachers, staff and parents are “blown away” about the success their children are experiencing, without having to go through all the red tape of being classified for services.

“The program has been overwhelmingly well-received by everyone involved —by parents, by the staff, and by the teachers,” Beck said, “because they are seeing results.”

Those who receive therapy are experiencing academic success, he said.

Providing the services through the new programs does not cost more money, Garibay said. The therapists and other professionals are already on staff.

What the district has done, she said, is relax the requirements needed to get services. Now, if a child requires help, it’s provided as soon as needed.

Granting access to services in a more efficient manner also avoids the unfortunate games some administrators have to play to help their students.

It was wrong, Beck said, to label students “disabled” just to help them.

“In looking at that, we didn’t see any justifiable reason why that has to be the case. If a child has a weakness and needs some intervention or support to remedy that, and the child doesn’t meet the full criteria to be considered disabled, for us, it was ethically inappropriate to give them a disabled classification just to get them services that we could offer them anyway,” he explained.

The programs have been running for three years. Therapists track individual student progress.
Under the SAID program, 34 students are now receiving services.

Under the MOVES program, the district has been able to reduce the number of students receiving services through “504 plans.” A 504 plan ensures that students classified as “disabled” get the help they need. Before the MOVES program, Colts Neck had 68 students receiving services under 504 plans. By June 2018, the district had reduced that number to 31— a decrease of more than 50 percent—­ and eliminated speech-only IEPs.

Garibay summed up the district’s new view of connecting students with therapy.

“Rather than asking ourselves, ‘What are we required to do by law?’ we ask ourselves, ‘What else can we do?’

“We saw a need here,” she said.

Now, instead of asking “why,” when Colts Neck students need therapy, teachers and administrators say, “Why not?”

Alan Guenther is NJSBA’s assistant editor.