LIVINGSTON, NJ – As part of an ongoing series of budget discussions at the Livingston Board of Education (LBOE) meetings this winter, Assistant Superintendent Lisa Capone-Steiger gave a presentation on Monday about some of the impactful changes recently made to special education programming within the Department of Student Services.

“One thing I feel very fortunate about is that with special education in Livingston, we have the capacity to make good decisions for students and families because we have the resources to do so,” said Capone-Steiger. “We have a full complement of child psychiatric specialists and related service providers, specially trained teachers, teacher assistants and everything in-between,” she said.

For the past several years, Capone-Steiger and this team have been working toward creating a complete continuum of special education service offerings for the approximately 850 students within the district eligible to take advantage of them. According to Capone-Steiger, that boils down to a 13.9-percent classification rate—a lower-than-average number when compared to the state average, which lies between 15 and 18 percent, she said.

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In keeping with the Student Services department’s commitment to “development, empowerment, engagement and achievement” for all students, much of the curriculum is aimed at giving students a variety of options from which to choose and is customizable enough to meet each individual’s unique needs.

For example, the Pre-K Continuum for students 3-to-5 years of age is run out of Burnet Hill School under the Pre-school Readiness Individual Developmental Education (PRIDE) program umbrella. Students can enroll for a self-contained, full-day program or a half-day, integrated program. 

PRIDE programs focus on language skills and a research-based curriculum.  They also afford students the opportunity to be mainstreamed so that disabled and non-disabled peers can learn together both in groups and individually. The program includes adapted physical education classes, specialized music sessions and a modified playground environment. 

As these students move on through elementary school, they can shift into the 1:1 Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) Program, which offers all of the above as well as implementation of assistive and adaptive technologies and a full complement of related services.

This year, a bridging of the gap between elementary, middle and high school programs has been more evident, as those who started in the ABA program have begun to move into Heritage Middle School.

For students who need it, there are restricted classrooms in which those with disabilities remain with their primary teacher for the majority of the day, but can also choose to mainstream.

Additionally, there is a Resource Center Program that allows students to be pulled out for one or more periods during the day to work on content-based curriculum with teachers across various disciplines who are highly specialized in those areas. According to Capone-Steiger, many of these teachers also have experience in behavioral interventions, so there is a greater balance of skills to benefit students.

The In-Class Support Program for K-12 students pairs general education and special education teachers together so they can co-teach a single class. Related services are also offered by a broad array of on-staff specialists, including speech, occupational, physical and music therapists as well as behaviorists.

Life skills and community-based instruction begins at the ABA level and continues on through high school. Here, students go on field trips that help them master small-to-large life skills: everything from being socially prepared to attend a birthday party to putting together a shopping list and going to the grocery store to prepare a meal for a large group of people.

Although refined several times since its inception approximately 20 years ago, Livingston High School’s Career Internship Program lets students apply what they’ve learned in a real-world job situation. The program gives students an opportunity to job sample and learn job skills that can range from commercial kitchen to office work.

The most recent addition to this program is an off-shoot Livingston Internship Program, which pairs student interns who wish to learn a trade such as electrical, grounds work or plumbing with building and maintenance crew staff at the schools to get practical, on-site experience.

“The completion of the continuum came with the addition of the Transition to Life Program for 18-21 year olds,” said Capone-Steiger. “This program has been very successful. These are kids are out on jobs pretty much their whole week.”

Falling within the realm of both general and special education, the final component of the continuum is the Social-Emotional-Mental Health Program, which was implemented a few years ago and is quickly expanding. 

This program involves clinical counselors who work directly with students and their families to provide mental health intervention and assist students with fragility issues so they can push past these to learn and achieve, Capone-Steiger said. Student Assistance Counselors—one at the middle school, one at the high school and one who transitions with the students as they graduate from one to the other—are available to address and follow up on those struggling with substance abuse and/or mental health issues over an extended period of time.

Although the continuum is essentially complete, Capone-Steiger said she is on a quest to improve upon the model and continue to grow the programs to meet the demands of the ever-changing community.

“We currently have four self-contained classrooms at Harrison School that are busting at the seams and one of the concerns families have is that their children won’t get to go to their home school,” she said. “We were waiting until we had a collection of students who might be within the same home school and needed special ed services to start another class. We’re thrilled to say that Hillside Elementary has the room, desire and staff to start a self-contained primary class where the students would stay together for a while in smaller classes that keep them close to their home school.”

The next board of education meeting will be held on March 5.