Overcoming obstacles: Kids benefit from early special education programs

Contrary to popular belief, special education is not a permanent tag.

Debra Beasley, director of special education for Goochland County Public Schools, estimated that 40 percent of Goochland’s 27 early childhood special education (ECSE) students will leave the program before kindergarten.

“We reevaluate them and then make a recommendation,” Beasley said. “Some children stay in the program, but many are able to enter the regular curriculum by the time they’re four. A lot of children are successful.”

Goochland’s ECSE program serves two to five-year-olds who are recognized by federal standards to have certain developmental disabilities.

“The theory is that the earlier you can reach a child, the better chance they will have to succeed,” said Dr. Linda Underwood, superintendent of schools.

According to Goochland records, ECSE students account for one percent of the total enrollment in Goochland.

Many ECSE students are speech and language impaired, according to Dr. Robert Grimesey, Orange County’s superintendent of schools, a school division that educates 28 ECSE children as young as six months.

Orange’s ECSE population accounts for half a percent of the total enrollment.

“Most children who receive [speech and language] services will no longer be identified with special education by the fifth grade,” Grimesey said. “It all depends on the severity of the disability, resources available, a variety of factors.”

ECSE students are likely to exit the special education program, but not all children will have the opportunity.

“Some students may have several developmental disabilities,” Underwood said. “Each [ECSE] student is under an individualized plan.”

Each ECSE student’s program is focused on the child’s specific needs.

“Some children may have  a speech disorder, but they may function well in other areas,” Underwood said.

In Louisa County, Sara Bright, director of pupil personnel services, said that Louisa’s ECSE program has grown to 34 students, but it has adequate staffing and space to meet future needs.

“Each year is different,” Bright said. “We are constantly looking for changes we might need to make, whether it’s reorganizing space to accommodate a specific situation, whatever it might be.”

Louisa’s ECSE population accounts for slightly more than half a percent of the total enrollment.

The ECSE program has been a growing concern for school divisions like Goochland, where the Goochland Elementary School Annex–the facility where ECSE students are taught –is at full capacity.

“We’ve actually had to rearrange some of our staff’s duties,” Underwood said, noting that schools are mandated to accept every child who is ECSE eligible, regardless of available resources.

Dianna Gordon, principal of GES, said that there is only one room available at the Annex, which is currently used for group activities. The Annex also houses the entire third grade, bringing the number of students in that building to more than 140.

“If we get any more, we’ll need to look at redistricting and portables,” Underwood said.

Gordon is especially concerned about space.

“Each day, they have to walk across the street to go to lunch,” Gordon said. “It’s a safety concern. We need a new school, the ECSE program is growing and we have to meet that growth.”

Meeting that demand is not optional.

Originally published in The Central Virginian

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