Special needs students stay in district - learn academic, career, and life skills
Christopher Wacha, assistant principal at the Haledon, North Haledon and Prospect Park regional high school, said the Manchester Program saves the district at least $300,000 a year, a conservative estimate based on the $50,000 minimum it would cost to transport and educate the 23 participants out of district. Keeping them at their home school costs $690,792 from September through June.
But the success of this program, Wacha and other educators said, is more than the savings it brings to taxpayers. "Without that program, almost every single one of them we'd have to send out," said Wacha.
School social worker Jamie Cerelli talked about the friendships that never happen locally when kids go out of district for special education, and the Manchester extra-curricular activities they may never get to join. "They take the same classes another freshman or sophomore would take but the biggest benefit is they are in district," said Cerelli. Social connections "are hard when they're taken out of district sometimes," she said.
Eric Taylor, 24, liked the Manchester program so much became an aide and works with the students. As he sits at a dressed-up lunch table with the students and lends a hand where needed, Taylor reflects on how the program made a difference in his own life.
"It helped me mature. It helped me be a better person in life and taught me a lot of respect," said Taylor, who said he enjoys seeing the students' new accomplishments, whether it's reading or opening a combination locker.
Students of the program are finding employment as they have received career exploration through job sampling. Cortazzo said students go out in teams, but as they show skills and interest in a specific area, they get a solo internship, which a job coach coordinates.
"We have some great mentors out in the community," she said, giving special mention to the Walgreen's in Haledon.
Mitchell Badiner, director of instruction at the Bergen County Special Services school district, said the Manchester program started in 2007 as "a true collaboration between districts to provide an inclusive education option keeping kids in their home school and receiving appropriate education services."
Natalia Harris, 18, of Haledon, is getting experience from three internships through the program. She said she has gained the confidence to consider going to college someday.