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Special needs preschoolers on rise in city

Schools strain to make room for preschoolers

By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / February 26, 2012
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The number of preschoolers with disabilities in the Boston public schools has surged more than 50 percent over the last three years, an unanticipated increase that has prompted school officials to scramble to add classrooms.

With the bulk of the increase occurring this year, school officials have opened nearly two-dozen new preschool classrooms since September - far more than the two or three it usually adds during a school year to meet a federal mandate to teach children with disabilities as soon as they turn 3.

In a dramatic move earlier this month to make space for up to 15 new preschool classrooms, the School Committee approved the immediate reopening of a Dorchester elementary school it had closed just eight months ago as part of budget cuts.

So far, the School Department has nearly 700 students with autism or other disabilities in its preschool programs and is expecting to enroll about 75 more by the end of the school year. By comparison, preschool classes wrapped up three years ago with 482 students with disabilities.

“The main challenge we have run into this year is space,’’ said John Verre, assistant superintendent for special education and student services. “We’ve been combing buildings for empty classrooms or rooms that could be converted into classrooms.’’

The increase comes at a steep price: Spending on preschool special education programs is expected to reach nearly $10 million for the next school year, a 28 percent increase from the 2008-2009 school year. Overall, the city is anticipating spending almost $198 million on special education across all grade levels next year.

There are myriad theories for the growth in preschoolers requiring special education. Chief among them: Advances in medicine that have allowed infants born prematurely or with potentially life-threatening conditions to survive, often with a host of developmental issues.

Special education advocates have also been raising awareness among parents that 3- and 4-year-olds with disabilities are legally entitled to enroll in city schools before kindergarten.

Boston school officials, in turn, say they have been more aggressive this year in holding screenings in various neighborhoods to identify toddlers with disabilities so they can enroll in the system.

This comes more than two years after the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education in a routine review found that Boston frequently violated state and federal laws by failing to immediately place children with disabilities in preschool. Last fall, as children still lingered on waiting lists, an education advocacy organization filed a federal lawsuit against the city.

“I think the School Department has the desire to serve these children, but the district has fallen short in ways where the children are paying the consequences,’’ said Julia Landau, a senior project director at Massachusetts Advocates for Children, the Boston-based nonprofit that that filed the lawsuit. “I think that’s a tragedy.’’

Despite this pressure, officials say that the primary motivation behind their more aggressive tactics has been the desire to get the children into preschool so they can gain a stronger academic footing before they enter kindergarten.

Because of its outreach in neighborhoods and other efforts, officials expected more 3- and 4-year-olds with disabilities to enter the system this year, but the actual enrollment has far outpaced the projections.

One aspect of the increase - the growth in children being diagnosed with autism - remains a mystery as medical experts, parents, and advocates research and debate a number of potential causes. Autism is a developmental disorder that impedes one’s ability to communicate and is often marked by awkward social interactions and repetitive behavior.

Currently, the city has enrolled about 150 preschoolers with autism - up from 75 in October 2008 - representing one of the largest categories of preschoolers with special needs.

Preschool can be a boon for students with disabilities, providing them a head start on their education. Some students with less severe developmental delays, such as speech disorders, do so well they no longer require special education once they enter kindergarten.

Boston scatters its preschoolers with special needs across more than 100 classrooms. Most of these students are taught in separate classrooms, and class sizes can be small. No more than eight students are allowed in classrooms for autism, which are staffed with a teacher and two aides.

Tynan Elementary School in South Boston began the school year with two classes for preschoolers with autism, and then added a third classroom in December. Now principal Eileen Morales is trying to determine if she has space for a fourth classroom this fall.

Earlier this month in a preschool class, five students with autism took turns with an iPad, learning how to count and to develop fine motor skills with their fingers as they tapped images of balloons, crocodiles, and cupcakes or guided together the pieces of a puzzle.

“Good job,’’ teacher Jane Good said in an encouraging voice as 4-year-old Jair Garcia-Bientez successfully completed a puzzle.

With other children, Good gently straightened their index fingers and helped them drag the images.

Across the state, the number of students between the ages of 3 and 5 who require special education has increased only slightly from 14,754 during the 2008-09 school year to 14,915 this year. But within that population, one segment - students with autism - has grown notably.

Like Boston, many school districts are struggling to evaluate and place students with disabilities in preschool programs in a timely fashion.

Only 80 percent of students eligible for special education services received them by their third birthday during the 2009-10 school year, down from 94 percent the previous year, according to a report this month by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. The report partially attributed the slippage to staffing shortages.

But in Boston, the problem goes beyond placement. Some students, once they are enrolled, are not receiving all the services they should. Verre said there are about a dozen preschoolers with autism who are waiting for a behavior specialist because the contractors who provide that service need to hire and train additional staff.

A Dorchester mother, who requested anonymity, has been waiting nearly three months for a behavior specialist for her 4-year-old son, after a previous specialist abruptly stopped working with him.

“When it stopped, he regressed,’’ the mother said, wiping away progress he had made in listening, staying calm and speaking some words. “He used to be a good boy.’’

Now, she said he repeatedly wakes up during the night, cries, screams, breaks things, kicks people, and tries running into the street. It’s the latest setback he has experienced in preschool, which began with a three-month delay in securing a seat more than a year ago, the mother said.

Verre said he expects to have the behavioral specialists in place in the next few weeks, and that the expansion of preschool classes this year should position the district well in handling next year’s enrollment needs.

Carolyn Kain, chairwoman of the Boston Special Education Parent Advisory Council, said the School Department is responding to the increasing demand as best as it can, and that the growth may also reflect greater acceptance among parents that the diagnosis of a disability can be a vehicle to getting the help their children need.

“Hopefully if kids are getting intervention earlier, many will not have to continue the services later on,’’ Kain said.

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.

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