Henrico County is proposing to spend $1.6 million to hire about two dozen special education teachers and support staff for next school year as the system looks to reduce the number of students it sends to expensive specialty private school programs.
Five committees created last fall — following a report by former state Education Secretary Anne Holton that was critical of the county’s special education program — said hiring new teachers isn’t enough.
The study led by Holton recommended that the school system close or overhaul the Virginia Randolph Education Center, which, according to the report, is in poor condition, has a disproportionate amount of African-American students, and few adequately trained or fully licensed special education teachers.
A committee assigned to study the report’s recommendations for the publicly run specialty center for students with learning and behavioral problems told the School Board on Thursday that the division should improve the center’s programs, make sure its teachers are appropriately trained, and keep it open year-round to reduce student regression.
“The ultimate belief is we can serve all our students in-house,” said Mac Beaton, director of career and technical education and a member of the committee.
The county sends more than 200 students to private specialty schools, such as the Faison Center for autistic students. That’s more than all other localities in Virginia other than Fairfax County, which has about four times as many students with special needs. Over the past five years, the cost of placing students at specialty private schools has doubled from about $5 million to $10.5 million.
At Thursday’s meeting, Assistant Superintendent of Exceptional Education Nyah Hamlett said it costs about $70,000 to send a student to a private program. The state covers about two-thirds of those costs.
Speaking to the Henrico Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, Hamlett said other recommendations from the five committees could potentially reduce the cost by sending fewer students to private programs.
“If we’re able to expand resources at VREC and serve more students, that potentially could be an additional placement option for students,” Hamlett said.
The committee that spoke to the School Board on Thursday also suggested that school system leaders prioritize a marketing campaign to shed the Randolph center’s poor reputation when it comes to special education services and highlight its significance as a historical landmark named for a legendary early-20th-century African-American educator.
The Holton report includes comments about perceived racial and economic disparity at the school, noting that several families that were interviewed for the study said wealthy families from western Henrico would not tolerate sending their children there.
“While this sentiment may be due to a number of factors, it appears to be at least partly due to those parents’ concerns about the quality of the program and facility,” the report says.
The school system has the option to send students to private specialty schools if administrators and parents agree that is what is most appropriate, but county officials say they believe it is better to keep children in inclusive settings in its own programs.
Four of the five committees have submitted their reports so far. The fifth committee, focused on parent engagement, will present its report to the School Board later this month. Hamlett said the committees will continue to meet through the year to refine their recommendations and discuss how to implement them.