Dec. 2 is Special Education Day in Recognition of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Signed in 1975

While Dec. 2 is recognized as National Special Education Day throughout the country, every day is focused on meeting the educational needs of students with special needs across New Jersey. The administrators, teachers, and staff at the eight districts composing the New Jersey Joint Council of County Special Services School Districts make sure of that.

Dec. 2 is a significant day in special education, because on this day in 1975, the country’s first federal special education law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), was signed, giving all children access to free and appropriate public education regardless of their disabilities. Since 2005, the 30th anniversary of IDEA, Special Education Day has celebrated progress made, but also raised awareness of current challenges and issues faced in special education.

“Special education is always a work in progress,” said Dr. Howard Lerner, chairman of the Joint Council and superintendent of Bergen County Special Services School District. “We always work to improve programming, improve supports, and advocate for our students. That’s why the Joint Council is so important. This organization gives us a unified voice as we work to stay on top of policies, trends, and emerging ideas and issues.”

Collectively, the Joint Council’s eight county-based districts serve approximately 3,900 students with significant disabilities and special needs throughout New Jersey. District administrators work together to make county special services school districts the best providers of highly specialized placements for these students.

“Working collaboratively with colleagues from across the state to discuss issues and gain knowledge of best practices and innovative programs has helped me create better programming within our district,” said Jack Swain, superintendent of Salem County Special Services School District.

“I believe we’ve had a significant impact on special education in New Jersey through the Joint Council,” said Tara Bohan, director of instruction for Bergen County Special Services School District. “We have the ability to speak as one voice to address a host of issues that directly impact special education and the students who have benefitted from the advancements we’ve advocated for and brought forth over the years.”

The Joint Council not only works to give county special services school districts a more powerful voice, it also showcases the transformative programming districts offer. Each member district aims to raise awareness of its goal to work with local school districts, students, and families as dedicated partners in educating and empowering individuals with significant disabilities and special needs.

“I’m most proud of the fact that Bergen County Special Services School District continues to change and adjust how we meet the educational needs of the students from the local districts we serve,” said Bohan. “Over the years we have moved from a strictly receiving school district into an entity serving students through an ever-expanding spectrum of programs and services, such as contracted services and consultant programs provided within local schools; we also have regional and stand-alone programs.”

“Through the Joint Council, we celebrate and share one another’s best practices, successes, and innovations and ways to improve upon our mission, purpose, and value to the state, students, families, and staff,” said Dr. Christopher Nagy, superintendent of Burlington County Special Services School District. “Our school district is at the cutting edge of innovation, which is evident by the number of new programs created during the pandemic. The district is the recipient of a number of honors pertaining to areas of communication, creativity, and responsiveness to students.”

The Joint Council also won accolades from the New Jersey School Public Relations Association for school communications for both its website and social media, which help raise awareness of the strengths of New Jersey’s county special services school districts. They also give the districts platforms for advocating on behalf of their students, families, and staff and sharing best practices.

Despite the wins and how far special education has come since 1975, Joint Council members keep moving programming and approaches forward, determined to help every student reach his or her fullest potential.

“I personally want each of our students to experience the best we have to offer socially, educationally, and physically,” added Swain. “I want to ensure that as many of our students as possible gain the life skills and potentially vocational skills to work toward independence and thrive. These students deserve the best we have to offer.”

“My goal is to be a better educator tomorrow than I was today and push our district, our staff, and our students to work at their very best levels while embracing the disruptions that inevitably come along the way,” added Nagy.