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.”
In an interview, Superintendent Joe Mastrocola said this review is part of an effort to discover where savings can be made.
“I need some time to analyze the report,” he added, saying that he needs to confer with the department’s special education professionals to determine what direction will best help Peabody’s student population.
School Committee members already had some concerns about the school, but the dwindling numbers seemed to sharpen the board’s attention.
“Something’s changed,” Dunne said. “When it’s going down to these levels, we have to look at that.”
She speculated that the drop in attendance could be caused by some teens going into other programs, including a night school provided by the city and the Peabody Learning Academy at the Northshore Mall, which is supported by Simon Properties.
“We definitely have to look at the cost,” she said. “But knowing what it cost to send (special needs) kids out of the district. ... We need to look at the benefits to the student, as well as the cost.”
In some cases, she said, medical needs could be involved. Other systems have seen cases where a single special needs student runs up costs exceeding $100,000.
“When the numbers are that small,” School Committee member Dave McGeney said after the meeting, “maybe outsourcing is the way to go. ... It’s an extraordinarily high cost per student.”
The issue of putting high school kids in a middle school has been raised before, and McGeney suggested that it might be the major reason for the program’s apparent failure.
“When the kids have been at the Higgins for three years, they don’t want to go back to the Higgins,” he said. “... They want to be with their peers.”
McGeney believes that Palladino gave a fair estimate of the community school’s daily attendance.
“Nine is what actually shows up on any given day,” he said.