A Better Start for Preschoolers with Special Needs

Children with special needs often can’t get appropriate support when they enter preschool. That’s part of the reason why a child in preschool is three times more likely to be expelled than a child in a K-12 school, says Deborah Fitzgerald, a professional development specialist and coach for early childhood teachers. 

Even when a school district’s Committee for Special Education approves a preschooler for special services, often there’s no community specialist available to provide them, says Fitzgerald, who is also executive director of the Cub Care Children’s Center in Vestal. 

To address this problem, a group of preschool directors in our region has partnered with the Community Foundation to create the Early Childhood Capacity Building Fund. Housed at the Community Foundation, the fund supports a professional development program and related services for preschool staff. Teachers can learn how to assess the special needs of students who enter their programs, how to plan modifications in the classroom for those kids and how to make a successful application for services. 

The fund also provides specialists to develop service plans for children and then make three follow-up visits, using a coaching model to help staff adjust the plans as needed, Fitzgerald says. “That direct support is huge.” 

With $27,000 from the Community Foundation, in 2014 the fund launched a three-year pilot, offering training to staff from preschool programs throughout the Foundation’s five-county service area. The 12 preschools that took part saw a significant improvement. “There were no children expelled,” Fitzgerald says. 

Based on the success of that pilot, the fund has attracted another, larger grant—up to $30,000 per year from the Klee Foundation to support the capacity building initiative for the next five years. Because the Klee Foundation operates only in Broome County, for now, only preschools in that county can take advantage of the program. But the fund is looking for further support, Fitzgerald says. “We are going to pursue some connections in Tioga and adjacent counties, and we would create pools of funding for those areas as well.” 

The issue the fund is addressing can’t be solved once and for all, Fitzgerald says. “Building capacity never ends, because you’re always being exposed to children who have new and different needs.” So the people behind the fund will need to keep developing strong relationships, she says. “In order for this to become a long term solution, it will require community support.”

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