Braintree's Granite Academy Fights for Funding
Granite Academy is among dozens of special education schools across Massachusetts that are requesting more money from the state.
Students at Granite Academy in Braintree, only feet from Weymouth across from the South Shore Animal Hospital, learn grammar, math and science, take art classes and are taught how to cook grilled cheese, play basketball and build things out of wood.
Like every child in Massachusetts, the middle and high school students at Granite Academy are entitled by law to receive a free, public education. They come from across the region, from 26 school districts, and, like most kids, become angry, sad or excited, needing time by themselves and help from counselors.
The few dozen students enrolled here are split between "West" and "East" campuses, providing slight differences in care – differences that may be invisible to an outsider, but profound to children whose outbursts require vastly divergent approaches. An East Campus student may, for example, be suffering from major depression or schizophrenia that sent them to the hospital again and again before ending up under the guidance of Granite Academy's Jane Beckler.
"[Students'] psychiatric issues are very complicated, but they tend to internalize," Beckler, the academy's East Campus director, said. "It's a big challenge for our teachers, but that's the work we do. That is what we have to challenge ourselves with."
Granite Academy is one of 89 schools that belong to the Massachusetts Association of 766 Approved Private Schools, serving publicly-funded students with severe disabilities. Some schools specialize in sexual aggressiveness, blindness or mental retardation. Based in Braintree and requiring approval from the town's school committee for its curriculum, Granite Academy enrolls students with a broad range of issues, from hyperactivity and bipolar disorder to learning disabilities and trauma.
The school also relies on Braintree to funnel a portion of its funding from the state and federal governments through Chapter 70 education money. For this coming budget year, Gov. Deval Patrick has proposed Braintree receive $12.2 million from the state for schools altogether, up from $11.5 million for the 2011 fiscal year, which ends in June.
Maaps launched an "All Kids Count" campaign this year to equalize the funding for special needs schools and restore what's called a "circuit breaker" account, in place since 2004 to provide additional state dollars to public school districts to help pay for the cost of out-of-district special education students.
Since fiscal year 2009, when the account received $230 million, funding for Chapter 766 schools has dipped considerably. The state provided $133 million in both 2010 and 2011 fiscal years, though some of that difference was made up for with federal stimulus money. For the 2012 budget, Patrick has proposed $213 million, an $80 million increase from last year as part of a multi-pronged strategy to "close the achievement gap." But he also included a freeze on the amount of tuition the schools can charge.
"It's a chronic drag," Granite Academy Executive Director Jim Bertram said of the year-to-year budget uncertainty and the freeze's effect on teacher retention. He said the fact that teacher salaries in schools like his are typically $25,000 less than public school educators' leads to high turnover, creating instability for children who normally don't deal well with upheaval.
"That impacts unavoidably on the quality of services we can provide," Bertram said. "One of the reasons school systems refer students to schools like this is for the stability, and sometimes the stability is undermined."
State Secretary of Education Paul Reville, in a recent blog post on his department's website, said the governor "has acknowledged a steep reduction in federal support for special education" and that his budget "keeps faith with our aspirations for excellence in education and our future with targeted increases for strategic education reform efforts."
Maaps was able to successfully urge lawmakers last year to grant a slight, 0.75 percent increase to cover inflation rates and is working again this year to get House and Senate members to agree on a 1.69 percent increase, generating an extra $8 million across its members schools, the association's public advocacy director Lauren Burm said.
On Feb. 14, local legislators, including Braintree Democrat Mark Cusack, will meet with current and former Granite Academy students, teachers and parents as lawmakers prepare to weigh in on the governor's budget for the fiscal year starting July 1.
Specializing in Difficult Cases
When a public school system is unable to provide appropriate services for a child, because of moderate to severe mental disorders, development problems or behavioral issues, that student is typically referred to a Chapter 766 school.
Parents are given a list of facilities in the area, which they then visit to decide on a best fit. Some children require schools that specialize in speech therapy or violence prevention. "We are generalists," Bertram said, serving a "huge range of needs."
"In that sense, we're very much like a public school."
Maaps is also working to consolidate busing, a particular concern for students who may have a tough time sitting still for just five minutes at a time. On a typical day at Granite Academy, as many as 20 vans arrive at 2 p.m. to pick up only about 50 students.
"We're not just dealing with regular kids," Burm said.
Children attend Granite Academy from all over the region, including Quincy, Hingham, Holbrook, Milton, eight from Weymouth and a high school senior from Braintree who recently graduated from the program back into the public school system.
West Campus, where East students also come for lunch and extracurriculars, offers a variety of elective opportunities beyond the core curriculum of reading, writing and arithmetic.
Tactile activities, especially, help many students settle down and focus, said West Campus Director Amy Barber, who is licensed in mental health counseling in addition to her master's degree in education. "Art, clay, painting - all of that is used," she said.
The academy's culinary arts program features field trips to hotels and restaurants, and a kitchen where students learn to cook, from grilled cheese to shepards pie. "They make the food, do the shopping, do the cleanup," Barber said. "A lot of the students really thrive on the culinary program because it's hands-on."
Outside in the parking lot there is a building wall, an extension of an indoor classrom where students can craft things out of wood or put together plumbing systems. During the winter, some students pack extra clothes to venture into the cold and build snowmen in the school's relaxation garden.
Life skills are also stressed, Barber said. One teacher on a recent January morning had students learning to write checks on giant white pieces of paper. One kid wrote his out to a homeless shelter, another to his family's T-shirt company.
Barber said she is a "firm believer in allowing students to have a voice," and that includes a suggestion box where homerooms – with names like the LA Lakers, Mandarin Dragonets and Draco – collect and then review ideas.
An L-shaped room across from the suggestion box is for "re-grouping," a term coined by a student because the phrase "time-out," everyone agreed, was too childish.
Conor Sheehan is West Campus' "milieu coordinator" – one of two at Granite Academy, where there are also six full-time therapists, three for each building. Milieu is a French and Dutch word meaning "environment." For Sheehan, it means that he makes sure the physical set-up of the building, along with behaviors of students and staff, are suited for harmony and safety.
Oftentimes, when children arrive at Granite Academy, they are straight from a lock-down at a hospital, Beckler said, ranging from a few days to one or two years. Bringing them back into the day-to-day world of history lessons and social interaction can prove long and arduous, though the payoff can be immense.
"It's not unusual to have kids that aren't functioning at all," Beckler said.
A History of Financial Pressure
The difficulties facing maaps schools go back much further than the current budget campaign.
Granite Academy was founded in 1981 as Massasoit School, focusing on troubled inner city kids, students with "really, really problematic issues," Bertram said. "A long, gradual proccess" followed, by which the school came to enroll more suburban students and then, in October 2010, officially adopted the name Granite Academy for the entire campus.
Over many of those same years, from 1992 to 2007, the rate of infants in Massachusetts born at a low birth weight and prematurely increased 34 percent and 45 percent, according to maaps, while at the same time infant mortality dropped, leading to more moderate to severely disabled children in the school system.
The Education Reform Act of 1993 introduced changes in Massachusetts affecting charter schools and standardized testing, among other initiatives. Since then, maaps schools' funding has remained stagnant, while public schools have received billions of dollars in additional funding to keep up with reforms.
Every student at Granite Academy, for instance, takes MCAS tests (Bertram said he is proud of his school's results) and receives a high school diploma from their hometown school system upon graduation. All core lessons are taught, regardless of disability, though some allowances are made, such as for extended testing periods.
Chapter 70 state funding provides $13,500 for each student who needs to be placed in another district – up to 1 percent of a district's student population, according to data provided by maaps. The "circuit breaker" account is designed to reimburse districts 75 percent of the total, but cuts over the past two years have reduced that to 40 percent.
Special education received three times less in fiscal 2011 than general education from the federal stimulus, and received a 42 percent cut from the state, according to maaps, compared to a 2.5 percent cut in the general school budget. "All students in our state – regardless of their physical or mental challenges – have a right to a good and equal education," James Major, Executive Director of maaps, said in a statement.
Bertram, like many Chapter 766 school directors, has to make up for much of these differences by private fundraising. In 2009, maaps schools raised $21 million through private donations to subsidize public school students with severe disabilities, according to the association, and more than $220 million over 17 years.
Unable to cope in regular classrooms and unable to find the appropriate services in a collaborative program at their public school, students and their parents turn to schools like Granite Academy, where class sizes are smaller, behavioral experts are available all day, every day, and the environment is prepared for emotional rollercoaster rides.
"When public schools pick up the phone and call private special education schools, they have a reason," Bertram said.
Success stories can be dramatic.
Several years ago, a 16-year-old girl enrolled at Granite Academy with debilitating self-esteem and depression problems. "I loved art and drawing," she wrote in an essay provided by Beckler, "but in all of my art classes I would throw away my drawings because they [were] so bad and showed how untalented I was."
But gradually the school's staff pulled the girl out from behind her emotional and physical veil (her long, black hair draped in front of her face), and away from her belief that she was a "worthless human."
"After I said any negative thing about myself, which was very often, the teachers and staff would drop everything and would make me say three positive things about myself," she wrote.
Today the young girl is a 22-year-old woman, soon to turn 23, taking classes at Quincy College and working with kids ages 6 to 12 with issues much like her own.
"To leave people I love and go off into the unknown, to me it seems insane to do," she wrote two years ago. "[But] I will always have this school and all the staff that have saved my life deep in my heart and I know I will never, ever forget the love and kindess they have shown me."