Dr. Angelo Vilardi is the superintendent of the Educational Services Commission of Morris County, and a veteran of more than 25 years in the field of special education. A graduate of Seton Hall University, with a master’s from Montclair State University and a doctorate from Nova Southeastern University, Vilardi has been a special education teacher, principal and superintendent in public and private schools. His interest in special education began when he was a child abuse investigator for the New York City Bureau of Child Welfare, an experience which moved him to focus his career on helping children in need.

The Educational Services Commission of Morris County provides a range of services to the districts of Morris County and the surrounding area, including special education and transportation services. The ESC also operates a school for special needs children in Morristown and provides special ed services to non-public schools on behalf of local schools.

Recently School Leader talked to Dr. Vilardi about special ed trends, and ideas for districts looking to both improve their special education program and contain costs.

SLOne of the perennial concerns of school districts is the cost of special education. What can local school districts do to contain costs?

AV There are a number of cost containment measures that districts have successfully used. A significant amount of funding goes to out-of-district placements. But the number of those placements has declined in recent years, due to several factors. One is that the state has provided funding for districts to start their own programs. Sometimes districts have a difficult time promoting their in-district options for FAPE (free appropriate public education). It can be difficult to demonstrate a successful model to compete with private placements, and bring students back from out-of-district, especially if the students are doing well in their placement. But successful districts have started preschool programs with the funding; that develops a continuum of services that address students’ needs in-district at the beginning of their education, and for many years to come.

Another cost-containing system involves using outside agencies for services that are difficult to find on a part-time basis. District can band together to hire special services personnel full-time, and then share them through interlocal agreements. Another option is to use public or private agencies to provide this service on a shared basis.

One model that we have been promoting for child study team services is to outsource evaluation to determine eligibility, as well as for annual and triennial reviews. The school district can focus on case management responsibilities and give the time-consuming evaluation process to an outside party. In the case of determining eligibility, it could facilitate an equitable and cost-effective process to enter students into the special education services continuum. In our neighboring states, IUs in Pennsylvania and BOCES in New York use this gateway approach to determine eligibility. This process also facilitates the critical timelines for compliance in special education.

SLWe often say that school board members are charged with seeing that their schools are well run, not with running them. How can board members ensure that their district has a high-quality program for its special needs students?

AV Much of what happens in special education is confidential, and board members may not have all the particulars of what programs are doing to address the needs of individual students. Board members can ask questions about why the district is sending so many students out of district, but that number does not address what has been done to satisfy the requirements for a free and appropriate public education.

The real information board members need is an idea of the scope of all the services that their district provides– both in-district with their staff and with shared staff (shared with other districts or with ESCs). The administration and the special services staff can provide a comprehensive overview of the legal requirements of FAPE, and how the district is addressing these in the development of IEPs for all the students.

SLYour organization offers part-time staff on a contract basis for districts, which may not need a full-time specialist in a field.  How does that work and what are the advantages to it?

AV Many districts share services, but they can often rely on county agencies, such as educational services commissions and special services school districts for direct services to back up their district services. Every county, except Hudson, has an intermediate unit which districts can reach out to for assistance. In the case of ESCs, every service is not offered, but cooperation among the county intermediate units can lead to solving problems which develop in an area in the state.

The concept of sharing particular special services personnel is accomplished through the establishment of a lead agency, either the district sharing with another district, or the ESC. The lead agency employs the individual or service provider, and the cost for the services are apportioned according the amount of use each district needs (i.e.: two days in one district, three days in another). This model is effective in that many service professionals are looking for full-time engagements, but in many cases the districts only require part-time services.

SLThere is increasing interest in BCBAs (board certified behavior analyst), but many people aren’t familiar with what they can do for students in a special education program. What services do they provide? Are BCBAs only for students with autism?

AV BCBAs in a special education program provide many different services, not only for the students but also for faculty and parents. In a school setting, these services include supervising behavior analysis providing ABA (applied behavior analysis) to students, administering assessments such as the ABLLS-R, VB-MAPP and the AFFLS. These assessments are critical to identifying important skills that need to be worked on by the student. These skills might include basic learning skills (receptive language, visual performance, imitation, vocalizations, play, social, group interaction, following routines, and expressive language), as well as academic skills, self-help skills and motor skills.

Another important role for the BCBA is identifying “function of behavior” and providing Behavior Intervention Plans to help the students with challenging behaviors. The importance of function of behavior is to help the student replace these inappropriate behaviors with appropriate behaviors, while meeting the same function that the student is seeking out. Students with personal assistants that were once challenging may become prompt-dependent on that person and that is another area that can be worked on by the BCBA.

Prompt fading and appropriate ways to teach skills are important when working towards independence and are often not thought of within a general special education teaching program. The techniques used by a BCBA are scientifically proven to teach students the concrete skills needed to perform life functions independently while gaining skills needed to make friends, take care of their personal hygiene and gain access to a less restrictive environment. A role of a BCBA is to teach socially appropriate behavior to individuals.

BCBAs are often thought as only working with students diagnosed with autism, however it is not an autism-specific credential. BCBAs work on teaching social skills that are necessary to interact with peers and gain new friends. While working with the special needs population, the BCBA also works to improve independent living skills such as toileting, brushing teeth, getting dressed and even learning basic routines. A BCBA can help other special education students by training the faculty in the school on the best approach to work with that student. Based on their individual needs and barriers, a treatment plan can be written, while giving some guidance to the staff that directly interacts with that student and providing an intervention that is helpful and productive. Students will learn independence, social skills, and how to deal with frustration appropriately while allowing them to form bonds with peers.

SLMuch has been done to focus on providing services to students in the early years– pre-K through the elementary grades. Why do districts also need to focus on the programs for students who are heading into the pre-adolescent and middle school years? What types of special concerns do they have?

AV The special education needs of identified middle school students are vastly different from elementary students. Special education students once suitable for inclusion with elementary peers have greater difficulty adjusting and being included in the teen years. This is the time we see many districts reaching out for other programs and services, which focus not only on adolescent development, but the extended vision of what services special education students will need as they approach high school. The ESC sees many referrals for placements and transitional services for these students aging up. We see there is a greater emphasis on programming which assists students in making the next step as they age out of services provided school districts.

SLWhat can districts do to help special education students prepare for the future as they get older?

AV Students have to become involved in transitional activities, which begin the process of preparing special education students for postgraduate experiences. Many students will be able to participate in college entrance exams with extended time, and many college offer special assistance for students identified as eligible for special education services. The students who are not on this track have additional opportunities. The Boggs Center on Developmental Disabilities of the Rutgers Robert Woods Johnson Medical School offers certification programs for administrators and teachers in transitional programming for special education students. The program features models of one-on-one and group training, in school and community-based instruction, so districts can develop program options in consultation with parents and child study team members. The prime focus of all of these activities is on the development of community partnerships with local businesses and health providers. These programs have been able to form a much-needed bridge from school to the world of work and life in the community for students with special needs.

SLWhat role does assistive technology play in special education, and what are the trends in that area?

AV The use of augmentative communication systems for individuals who are unable to communicate by other means has been steadily increasing over the last 30 years, as both technology and research has risen to the challenge. Augmentative and alternative communication can be defined as any instructional technique, device, or system that serves to support and bolster communication in individuals with multiple sensory, physical, and cognitive impairments. This can include tangible and tactile symbol systems, choice boards, object prompts and symbols, physical modeling and prompting, and any number of techniques reliant on computer or microswitch technology. Microswitches are typically used with those students with the most limited physical range of motion; these devices control for fatigue by allowing the manipulation of technology with the least expenditure of energy. The ultimate goal of augmentative and alternative communication devices and systems is to provide the student with the means to communicate effectively with others, sharing in the countless emotional and social benefits that can come from interaction with another person.

SLYou have been in the field of special education for several years? What have been the most significant changes you have seen in your tenure?

AV Mental health, anxiety disorder, home instruction, suicide, depression, social media influences in the lives of our children have all placed more responsibility on the special education personnel in the districts.

In 1975, when IDEA was passed, the federal laws which mandated special education programs focused primarily on the identification of students in need and the development of programs to address those needs. The basic child study team was charged with those tasks, and for many years was able to function within specific parameters of their educational expertise. Now that role has expanded, and will probably continue to expand as the demands for higher educational standards intersects with the issues that are developing in our social fabric. I see that agencies, like ours, as well as the school districts, are continuing to expand their expertise to deal with students in need of services beyond the traditional special education offerings.

Janet Bamford is NJSBA’s manager of communications and publications.