Special education is a complex and often costly aspect of the public school system. In order to improve upon its existing programs, Darien Public Schools commissioned a study to examine how the program can be tailored to fit each student's needs.

Superintendent of Schools Stephen Falcone said the study, which was conducted by Tom Badway and presented during last week's Board of Education meeting, was completed last year in an effort to take a closer look at special education.

"We chose to look at special education because it's not an area that typically gets as much attention," Falcone said. "Special education represents one-fifth of the school budget and 11 percent of the school population."

Falcone explained that Darien is part of a tri-state consortium that agrees to look at specific programs each year. However, the consortium usually focuses on programs such as language arts and math, Falcone said. For that reason, Darien decided it would be beneficial to see if there were areas in the special education program that could be improved.

Special education is further complicated by the amount of federal and state legislation that dictates how programs are handled and how disabilities are classified.

As part of the Badway study, Darien developed a series of goals and objectives for improving special education. Two of the areas Falcone said the schools focused on was developing a handbook for the Planning and Placement Teams and making sure the regular education and special education programs are working together and rather than running on parallel paths.

He said Darien excells at keeping students with disabilities in the district.

"One of our goals is to educate students as close to home as we can," Falcone said. "The law requires that we educate students in the least restrictive way as possible, but we have some students who might not normally stay in their district who attend our schools."

Educating students with disabilities in the least restrictive manner means the student must be taught as close to the home district as possible without sending them to a school that is miles and miles away.

Identifying and developing a plan for a student with disabilities is challenging because every student has different needs, Falcone said.

"Part of the process is understanding what that disability is," Falcone said. "Some of the disabilities can be categorized as a learning disability but there can be varying levels of severity."

Some of the disabilities Darien see in the schools are children with processing issues who hear the information but then have trouble articulating what they were told because the information becomes jumbled in their head, and others have Dyslexia and reverse letters and numbers, Falcone said. Because each disability is different, the schools must be prepared to handle the varying degrees of frustration students have as a result of their disability.

"Some of these students are at a place where they have learned to deal with their disability while others become frustrated and act out as a result of that frustration," Falcone said.

Darien provides different levels of support for the students so that those who need a teacher to help articulate their thoughts receive the necessary support and not become as frustrated, Falcone explained.

"One of the things we say is that just because you have a learning disability, it doesn't mean you get this specific program," Falcone said.

The Badway study is helping to ensure Darien isn't shoehorning students into a particular program simply because they have a certain learning disability, Falcone said.

Each special education student has an Individualized Educational Plan developed by a team of parents, teachers and administrators to ensure their needs are being met. However, the IEP is not limited to special education.

"The IEP is what we do with the 20 to 25 students who are in the regular classroom," Falcone said. "Teachers develop a plan so they can meet the needs of each of their students."

The laws governing special education are complicated and strict about how the student's education is handled, Falcone said. Administrators are required to notify parents by letter five days in advance that a meeting is scheduled and the minutes from the meeting must be released no later than five days after the meeting, Falcone said.

"We have very rigid time lines and if we don't adhere to these time lines we could potentially have a due process violation," Falcone said. "There's a lot of data keeping and paperwork," Falcone said in reference to adhering to state and federal laws for special education.

Teacher certification in the state of Connecticut also requires all teachers to attend a 30-hour special education course in order to keep their certification, Falcone said.

As information is pulled from the Badway study, Falcone said the hope is that the schools will bring all of the teachers and administrators together so they can work together to make the education process the most effective it can be.