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May 3, 2004

Room for Growing

From: Lowell Sun, MA - May 3, 2004

Reopened school, new space help Lowell serve more special-ed students and spend less


LOWELL Troy Nguyen, a 4-year-old tyke on a tricycle, is pedaling furiously around the gym at McAuliffe Elementary School.

His grin alludes to his complete absorption in the moment, forgetting for at least a few seconds the cochlear implant surgically implanted on the back of his head.

"Troy's option, if he wasn't here, would be a 45-minute ride away," McAuliffe Principal Pamela Simpkins said. "That would be an hour and a half every day that he's missing stimulation."

Lowell is making headway in what seems to be every public school system's goal: providing more services for special-education students in their home district.

Special education is one of the biggest bills for schools to pay and one of the toughest areas of service to provide.

Many districts can't find or afford specialists trained to help students with disabilities ranging from attention-deficit disorders to severe physical handicaps. They end up shipping students to other districts or private schools, and footing the bill for the services and transportation a total that is usually much more costly than if the district were able to provide the services itself.

Finally, Lowell can and to a greater extent than it ever has before.

Construction will start this summer at the McAuliffe to expand classroom space for its program for hearing-impaired children, potentially tripling its capacity.

The Leblanc School, a former elementary school, reopened in September to house a special-needs program for high schoolers. A federal grant pays for nearly everything except the building's electricity and heat. Without it, Lowell would have spent about $1 million to educate the 32 special-needs high-school students there or send them out of district.

The proof that it's working is in the budget.

For the first time in a long time, Lowell's special-education costs did not go up this year. The total held steady at about $18.6 million, compared to an almost $2 million jump the year before.

"That's unheard of," Lowell Superintendent of Schools Karla Brooks Baehr said.

Lowell currently serves just over 1,900 special-education students. About 80 of those kids receive services out of the district at a total cost of about $3.9 million. The cost to send one student out of the district can range from $20,000 to more than $60,000 per year.

By expanding its capacity, there is also potential for Lowell to make money on giving services to special-education students from other communities.

McAuliffe teachers already welcome a hearing-impaired student from Dracut every day. Simpkins expects two more out-of-towners when the program expands next year, and those students' home districts will pay Lowell for providing services that they cannot.

"We have the staff. We have the support," said Nichole Bergeron, who teaches the deaf and hard of hearing at McAuliffe. "I think it has unlimited potential."

There is also plenty of room at the Leblanc if need be.

"We're still enrolling students, and we have the capacity to go upwards," said Jane Campbell, school coordinator.

And, said the superintendent, Lowell is right to prepare.

"There is an increasing number of youngsters with issues," Baehr said. "This is not a dwindling population."

But with the right help, it's a population with potential just waiting to be tapped. Ten-year-old Casey Millette is profoundly deaf in both ears, but thanks to the patience and dedication of her math teacher and interpreter, she is just as much a part of her mainstream classroom as the next student.

"I want to be a doctor," she signs to a visitor, fingers flying. "Also, I do karate."

Simpkins looks on, remembering when Casey first came to the McAuliffe without any language skills.

"It was really hard to tell what her potential was," Simpkins said. "But it's been marvelous to watch her progress. She's going to set the world on fire."

Rebecca Piro's e-mail address is

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