A Peabody Public Schools program costing $700,000 a year may be serving as few as nine students, according to a consultant hired to assess special education in the schools.
The Community High School program, which is at Higgins Middle School, is designed for students described as having social and behavioral reasons for being segregated from their peers at Veterans High School.
The need for change regarding the school was brought into sharp relief in a report by consultant Michael Palladino, who, along with colleague Michael Neiman, had been asked by former interim Superintendent Herb Levine to examine the city’s special education programs.
“The school is at a crossroads,” Palladino told the school board last month, citing enrollment that has dwindled by as much as 70 percent in recent years. Palladino did not cite specific numbers, but the school reported having 26 students in March 2011, and School Committee member Beverley Dunne said the number approached 60 in 2006.
Officially, the program lists 14 students now, and Palladino pegged 15 as a break-even number.
As the number of students drops off, he said, “there is a threshold of diminishing returns.”
“You have to ask yourself — is it cost-effective?” he said. “Where did all the kids go?”
Student absenteeism is an issue, he said, and suggested that locating high school students in a middle school might be discouraging some from attending.
Teacher qualifications are also a concern, he said. Community High School operates independently, which requires several teachers to offer instruction in more than one subject area. But Palladino noted that some of the teachers are not technically qualified for the classes they teach.
“I don’t mean to say that the teachers aren’t good at what they’re teaching,” he said. “But they need to be licensed in the areas in which they’re teaching.”