Panel wants special-needs pupils to stay in town

BROOKLINE – A study committee has asked the school board to stop sending special-needs preschoolers out of town and instead to provide services at Richard Maghakian Memorial School.

The committee of educators and administrators, including a town resident who runs a similar program in Hollis, recently made a formal presentation to the board. They said the town could save money by establishing an in-house program that also charges tuition for children who don’t have special needs.

Under federal law, school districts are required to provide early childhood education to children with special needs, starting at age 2-1/2 and continuing until the student turns 21.

By law, children with special needs must receive education in the “least restrictive” environment. To meet this requirement, the committee wants to create a program that integrates special needs students with their “typically developing” peers, said committee member Maureen Chorma, who runs the Hollis preschool program.

Educators say both populations benefit from such a mix.

“I love the idea,” said Maghakian kindergarten teacher Barabara Koonz, who is also a member of the preschool committee. “The beauty of it is, kids come to preschool at your elementary school.”

The town sends 10 special needs preschoolers out of the school district at a cost of about $168,000. The committee estimates that providing preschool services at Maghakian would save the district about $34,000 when tuition revenue from non-special-needs students is factored in.

Seven to 10 students have been placed out of district each of the last four years, with most of them attending Sunrise Children’s Center in Amherst. The committee estimates the district will have eight special-needs preschoolers in the 2009-10 school year; some may still need to be placed out of the district depending on their specific needs, although most, if not all, students are expected to be serviced in the district if the proposal is approved.

The proposed preschool would offer programs to 3- and 4-year-olds four days a week for 2-1/2 hours each day.

Koonz said all children attending preschool at the elementary school are likely to have an easier time making the transition to the next grade.

In addition, special-needs children would be able to continue working with the same specialists, as well as the same speech, physical therapy and occupational therapy professionals, she said.

Chorma said research and best practices in the field of child development support the proposed plan. “Peers improve their empathy and understanding,” she said. “It makes a better human being.”

School board members were cautiously enthusiastic.

Board member Marcia Farwell, for example, said she supports the proposal “absolutely from an education point of view.” But Farwell worried that earmarking a classroom at Maghakian for preschool could end up costing the town down the road. “My concern is if we give over one classroom in the fall, anticipating a flat enrollment, and enrollment rises, then what do we do?” Farwell said. “I don’t want to get backed into a corner.”

Likewise, board member Jim Murphy said the board would continue to look at the proposal with an eye toward assessing potential costs, as well as savings.

“The important thing we’re looking at is that it’s a legal requirement to provide special education for preschool,” Murphy said. Murphy said if the board endorses the plan, it must explain to taxpayers that the school district is already paying to send special-education preschoolers out of town.

“This isn’t to increase tax exposure,” he said, emphasizing that, according to the proposal, an in-district special education preschool would contain costs for what is a mandated service.

If the school board decides to support the proposal, it doesn’t have to be presented as a warrant article at the annual school district meeting because the funding for educating special needs preschoolers is already in the budget and the change would save the district money.

However, the board may consider putting the issue to voters because of the scope of the change.