WEST MILFORD What's the largest department in the West Milford School System? Is it English, math or history? Anyone who guessed those choices would fail the test. According to Howard B. Heller, the system's director of special services, it's the special education department. While the school system has 4,719 students in eight schools, it has 842 students, or 18 percent, who are classified as needing some type of special education instruction, he says. Of those 842, some 720 are special education classified students and another 122 are speech classified (eligible for speech and language services) students who only require services of a speech and language specialist. Educating those students are some 135 staff members spread through the system's eight buildings. Most are special education teachers, but there also are aides and five child study teams. One team is in the high school, one in Macopin and three teams share responsibility for the six elementary schools. Then Heller also has eight full-time and one part-time speech and language specialists. He also oversees two physical therapists, an occupational therapist and a certified occupational therapy assistant. For those who attended school before the 1970s, special education didn't exist. While some school systems had limited programs, the federal special education act didn't become law until 1979, said Heller. "This was a landmark law that stated for the first time that all children, regardless of handicap, were entitled to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE). Which means that a school district is responsible for providing services for every child in the district, and if doesn't have services, they are financially responsible for placing a student out-of-district that provides the services," said the director. "The majority of our (handicapped) students are called learning disabled students." With proper supports, accommodations and modifications each student spends the majority of their school day within the regular education sector, and "are fully capable of going on to graduate from high school and on to post high school training and educational opportunities. In fact, school districts are now responsible for developing transition plans to better ensure their future plans beyond the high school level, and that planning begins at the age of 14," Heller noted. We have services for children aged three to 21 who evidence learning or behavior problems. Our goal is to provide a system of free, appropriate special education and related services in the least restrictive environment to our preschool, elementary and secondary students. He said the system offers special eduction classes for preschool disabilities, learning and/or language disabilities, cognitive impairments, behavioral disabilities, and multiple disabilities. "In addition, the district serves as an in-district satellite program site for a preschool autistic program that is operated by the New Beginnings Special Education School, a state department of education approved out-of-district special education school. That school's main campus is in Fairfield, but rather than sending preschool autistic students all the way to Fairfield, working with the New beginnings, we established a classroom in one of our regular schools," the director said. It's human nature that people feel their doing a good job, but the state education department doesn't leave that to chance. During the 2003-2004 school year, the District's Department of Special Services and actively engaged in the Special Education Self-Assessment, as part of the New Jersey Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs' mandated comprehensive monitoring process. At a cost of $12,000 in state assessment funds, an outside consulting firm, Sampietro and Giardella Associates of Manahawkin was commissioned to conduct a study of the program's effectiveness. Did the department pass inspection? "There was nothing glaringly out of compliance," said Heller. "Out of 500 indicators, there were only 15 areas that called for an improvement plan. For example, the district needed to establish procedures for use and training of surrogate parents for classified students. "A surrogate would be someone to provide care when a parent is not available. In 13-and-a-half years, we've never had the need for a surrogate parent. Most of these improvement plans have already been accomplished. Surrogate parents have already met with the Association for Special Children and Families, an advocacy group for children with disabilities and their parents and we have arranged for three of the board members of the association, who are (already) parents of disabled children, to serve on an active list if a need arises for their service," he said. What were the conclusions of the report? "The department was found to be in overall compliance with federal and state special education codes and was providing a quality service and receiving a high degree of positive parental feedback," Heller said, adding: "The results of the Self-Assessment were most positive." He said parent surveys by S&G indicated "a high degree of parental satisfaction with special education programs and services and with parental involvement." The study found that "Of the 500 indicators that comprise the State's Special Education Assessment Document, only 15 required a Plan of Improvement to ensure full regulatory compliance. "That's important because there are school districts that will have 100," Heller stressed. "We are being monitored by state and we expect to be in full compliance when the state review team spends a week in the district in February."