Is your school district spending a fortune on out-of-district placement? In many parts of the country, the cost of tuition plus transportation is $150,000+ per student. This staggering expense is particularly painful because it’s a large piece of the budget supporting a very small percentage of the student population.
The worst part is, expensive out-of-district programs are not always in the best interest of the students, either.
Administrators may feel like there’s no alternative for students with physical and emotional disabilities. But there is another way: by providing the necessary support services within the district, you can better serve the needs of students and families without busting the budget.
Here’s why and how to do it.
Returning students to their home district is a win for all
Some special needs students, especially those with emotional disabilities, can be better served in their home district with the right supports in place. Here’s how students, families, and school districts all benefit from bringing students back from out-of-district placement:
Benefits for students
- Chance to participate in extracurricular activities and social opportunities
- Improved social skills with more interaction with a variety of students and school staff
- Better opportunities and more real-world experiences to prepare for the world beyond school
Benefits for families
- Seeing their child enjoying interactions with peers in their home community
- Having a more positive school experience
- Reduced anxiety and more hope about their child’s future
Benefits for school districts
- Take back a significant chunk of the budget spent on out-of-district placement
- Serve a broader population of students (as well as special needs students) with mental wellness support programs
- Meet the requirement to educate students in the least restrictive environment
Out-of-district placement: the right way to frame the discussion
Getting everyone on board with bringing a student back to the district starts with how you framed the situation from the start.
In discussions with the child study team, the family, and the student, always talk about an out-of-district placement as a temporary solution to address the current need. It’s not a permanent step but a tool to get the student back on track.
As the student makes improvements, the goal and the intention should always be to return them to the home district. At every IEP meeting with parents, be sure to revisit your documented goals for the student and how they are progressing toward those goals.
It also helps to keep the student and the family involved with the school district even while the student is placed in an outside program. Invite them to participate in clubs or attend functions like dances, games, and performances. Make an effort to help the student and the family feel that they still belong.
Best practices for bringing students back
1: Identify the best candidates
The ideal approach is to bring back a small and manageable group of students and then build on their success. Review your caseload to look for students who are most likely to succeed in-district with the right supports in place:
- Students making consistent progress in their therapeutic program who are ready to transition back to district with additional support
- Students with emotional disabilities such as anxiety, depression, and emotional dysregulation, who can succeed with in-district mental health support
- Identify and plan for natural opportunities for transition, such as between middle school and high school.
It will be easier to identify the best candidates if you are frequently checking in with all students in out-of-district placement, maintaining regular contact with parents, and visiting outside schools to learn what’s happening there.
2: Remove obstacles and add supports
In theory, students are placed out-of-district to get services and supports that are not available in their home district. To successfully transition them back, you’ll need to provide equivalent supports, plan to accommodate their needs, and provide opportunities that the student is not currently getting.
Be creative. Find out what’s working for students you want to bring back, and think of creative ways you can meet the need. I know of one case where swimming was an important tool for a student. The district didn’t have a pool, but they could get membership to the nearby YMCA, allowing that student to return to the district and keep making progress.
Be proactive. Plan for accommodations that will ensure the student’s comfort level and success at school. Do they need a private place to blow off steam? Do you need to shift their schedule a bit to avoid crowded hallways? Can you find a way to have all their classes in one place with reverse inclusion? Accommodations like these can enable students with emotional problems to do well in school with their friends in their home district.
Provide MORE. School districts generally have more resources and opportunities for students than small specialized programs. So expand those opportunities for students with disabilities: let them learn life skills like cooking, managing money, interacting with other people. Give them chances to be involved by helping out with sports equipment, taking care of a garden, or running a snack stand.
You’ll also need to expand your knowledge and capabilities for mental health counseling and managing emotional issues. With the budget you’re saving on out-of-district tuition, you can bring in on-site mental health clinicians and provide training on mental health issues for school staff.
3: Get everyone on board
Transitioning a student back to district requires a team effort: the case manager, child study team, teachers, family and student must all be on board and working toward the same goal.
How do you convince everyone that your plan is a better solution for the student? Show them what they stand to gain:
Students get to make friends, enjoy school activities and have a more “typical” life. With supports they can improve academically and even have a chance to go to college.
Parents get to see their kids happy, more confident and better adjusted. Plus, school programs give their students opportunities to learn skills that lead to jobs and careers. I personally know students who were hired by the district after graduation and were able to join the union.
School staff get help from the mental health experts you put in place… not only for the returning students but for ALL the challenging students they work with. Mental health training also helps build their confidence, competence, and job satisfaction.
One final tip: setbacks are part of the process
Sometimes it’s two steps forward and one step back. That’s ok! Trial and error can help you discover what works. And it’s a lesson in the power of persistence and building resilience.
I’ve been through this process countless times and I can promise you that the rewards are worth the effort. If I can help in any way, please feel free to reach out. You’ve got this!