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More than 200 kids are still waiting for special ed pre-K seats

June 25, 2019 Meaghan McGoldrick

While their peers attend universal pre-K programs across the city, many children with special needs are still waiting for seats.

New York City is in need of more than 400 special education preschool seats as of May 29, according to a recently re-released New York State Education Department memo.

While the city’s newest budget agreement allots for an additional 200 seats in September, the coming closures of two programs will cancel out more than 100 of those seats.

“We have heard from parents desperate for their preschoolers to get the help they need, but who have been sitting at home for months waiting for a seat, while their peers attend universal pre-K classes,” Randi Levine, policy director of Advocates for Children of New York, told the Brooklyn Eagle.

“Children have a legal right to these classes. While the city and state have many choices when it comes to early childhood education, providing preschool special classes to children who need them is not optional.”

The state Education Department has identified needs in Brooklyn School Districts 13, 14, 15, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22 and 32, with bilingual programs taking high priority.

New York City school districts. Map via New York City Department of Education

For Victor, a Gravesend boy with autism, finally getting into an appropriate preschool program made a significant difference, according to his mother.

In August 2018, the city Department of Education told Victor’s parents that, while he needed special placement, there were no seats available. It wasn’t until January — nearly half a year later — that Victor got into a new special education preschool program – on the other end of the borough, in Williamsburg.

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Victor spends around two hours on a bus, each way, every school day.

Still, it has been worth it, his mother said. She told the Eagle that Victor went from not sitting still, showing no interest in books and being unable to focus to actively participating in classroom activities, reading along with stories and communicating more effectively.

“My child is making so much progress in his preschool special education class, but he lost five months waiting for a seat,” she said. “We’ll never get that time back. I don’t want this to happen to any other child.”

Seventy New York-based organizations (including Levine’s organization) wrote to Gov. Andrew Cuomo on June 10, asking that he increase the reimbursement rates for preschool special education programs by at least five percent in order to incentivize the creation of new seats.

Special education preschool programs exist both within DOE schools and in NYC Early Education Centers. The latter are privately-run, community-based organizations (often called CBOs) that receive city funds to run and maintain their programs.

CBOs were an early model for making pre-K services accessible to all New Yorkers, and they still handle the majority of pre-K students. They also struggle with funding.

Related: “Universal pre-k expansion threatens critical partnership, school directors say”

“Despite the importance of these preschool special education classes, inadequate reimbursement rates have led to a shortage of preschool special education programs and hindered these programs’ ability to open additional classes,” the letter reads.

Despite the push, Cuomo only approved a two percent increase in the rates for the 2019-2020 school year – “the same insufficient rate increase as past years,” Levine explained, “and far less than the rate increase recommended” by stakeholders like the state’s Education Department, the Assembly and the Senate.

More than 60 preschool special education programs around the state have closed in recent years, including more than 30 in New York City. Advocates say another two in Manhattan will shutter by the end of the month.

The updated state Education Department memo comes even after the city’s Department of Education opened new preschool special education classes for 330 children between January and April of this year – something, Levine said, that points to just how great the need is.

But, according to the DOE, more students with Individualized Education Programs are enrolled in pre-K (and 3-K) than ever before. An IEP is a roadmap for special education. A student with an IEP has special needs, but may also be enrolled in standard classes.

“Across the 3-K and Pre-K for All expansion, we have more than tripled the number of children with IEPs attending free, full-day, high-quality 3-K and pre-K,” DOE spokesperson Danielle Filson told the Eagle. “That number is approximately 6,000, up from 1,700 before the pre-K expansion. This includes substantially increasing our offerings of special class and special class integrated settings in DOE schools.”

Still, Levine contended, one child in waiting is one child too many.

“For children with autism and other disabilities, receiving intervention as early as possible is critical. Parents, desperate for their children to get help, have instead watched their children languish while waiting for seats in preschool programs,” she said. “The DOE must ensure there is a preschool special class seat for every child who needs one.”

The 70-group letter comes almost a year after Councilmembers Mark Treyger and Stephen Levin made a similar push for more preschool special ed seats.

Cuomo’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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