Special ed. director offers program insights, updates

Officials hope to educate more special-needs children in-district


JACKSON — With one out of every 94 children in New Jersey diagnosed as having autism, the Jackson School District is aiming to provide the least restrictive environment for these students and others with learning disabilities.

“It means a lot to me as a director and also as a parent of a child in Jackson Township, who has a disability, to receive all the support from the Board of Education,” said Richard Labbe, director of special education for the Jackson School District at a presentation at the township branch of the Ocean County Library on April 17.

As an educator and parent, Labbe said he can speak from a variety of perspectives when it comes to working with children with disabilities

The goal, he said, is to implement initiatives that will address their diverse needs.

“You have to be individualized every single day and as often as you can, because every one of the students is uniquely different and so are their needs.”

Being a special education teacher is probably one of the most difficult jobs in education, he said. However, it is by far the most rewarding.

Labbe said educators get to see the same rewards that parents receive every single day.“

We chart, cross data, monitor the progress and we celebrate the successes,” the director said. “Those little successes are triumphs for us as educators.”

Labbe, now in his second year in the Jackson district, said the district must be inclusive to the maximum extent, and that means kids with disabilities must be with students who do not have disabilities.

“It says that in the New Jersey Administrative Code, and we need to develop a plan in order to implement that, because our kids deserve that,” Labbe said. “General education students have to be prepared as well [to interact with children with disabilities], because we live in an integrated society and environment.”

Labbe said the district has reduced the number of special education students in self-contained classes.

The district is also working toward bringing back some township students who are in out-of-district, private facilities, where they have no opportunity to be educated with students in general classrooms, he said.

“They have to be brought back here into their neighborhood schools, into our district, where they have the potential to work with students that do not have disabilities,” said Labbe. “Part of that continuum change [means that] we are build[ing] capacity for one specific population of our students, and that is our autistic students that were formerly [placed] out of district in middle and high school.

“We are proud to say we started this year with an initiative to plan it,” the director said. “We did many things, and thank goodness for the ARRA, American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, federal stimulus grant.”

The Jackson district realized the importance of being able to spend the grant money on its students with disabilities, he said.

“A lot of other districts took that money and put it to other things, and during this fiscal crisis there may have been a reason to do so,” he said. “But this money was intended for kids with disabilities, for new programming and new initiatives, and we felt we owed this to our students.”

Labbe said the district used the money in various areas, including hiring inclusion facilitators who work hand in hand with teachers to make sure the district is providing the appropriate accommodations and support that the children need to be successful in the least restrictive environment.

The district has also hired some transition facilitators to assist high school students with disabilities after graduation, he said.

“So often our high school students [are] sitting home doing nothing after they graduate. We needed to begin the process of transitioning them to adult outcomes, and we needed the person who would spearhead that and assist our child study team members and our teachers with that, too.”

Labbe said the district also consulted with a full-time behaviorist, because the children, particularly the students with autism, are coming back from out of district to a less restrictive environment.

The district needs to make sure that it is providing not only the language development that these children need but also the social skills, Labbe said.

“We also need to work on some of the stereotypical behaviors that come with autism,” Labbe said.

“There is a new threshold, [called] anxiety, which is a huge aspect of children with autism,” he said. “The latest research said that 85 percent of children who have autism, suffer from anxiety.

“We must address the behavior, the social and emotional development, and we need to address anxiety in the process.”

Labbe said the district has purchased special software that allows teachers, paraprofessionals and parents to go online for professional development and help.

The district also purchased the software Ripple Effects, a positive decision-making program. It is being used by guidance counselors and social workers and for social skills counseling.

He said he hopes the Board of Education will be adopting new curricula, which will include social skills.

“We also need to address anxiety, and that must be included in the curriculum,” he said. “Teachers must teach social skills and coping skills every day in an integrated, dynamic environment.”

Labbe also said there is a need to be more diverse when it comes to literacy. He referred to the Read 180 program, which fosters vocabulary and comprehension, as well as literacy programs that are needed in order to be ready for the Read 180 program.

In Jackson, 10 percent of the students in the district are eligible for special education through the classification of autism. That number can increase to 12 or 13 percent if children are included who have Asperger’s syndrome or other related disorders.

“We need to develop programs to address the needs of these students,” said Labbe.