Early screenings for Kindergarten bound special education students singled out these children and deprived them of a valuable rite of passage, according to a group of parents who spoke to the Onteora Central School District board of education on June 18. Parents complained that their children had been excluded from the annual spring Kindergarten screening by the earlier process. The screenings are a state mandate designed to identify children with special needs, to see if they are developmentally capable of dealing with Kindergarten. And Pre-K students who had been previously evaluated and had an Individual Education Plan (IEP) were not invited to either the earlier or more traditional screening process.
A group of parents and one Pre-school teacher attended the board meeting protesting the changes in the process, claiming that they were discriminatory. Parents with special needs students who were directly affected spoke to Woodstock Times or through other parents with the promise of anonymity. Often parents with special needs children do not want it known because of misunderstood social stigma, or a possible school community backlash. The goal is to mainstream these students and the problem is being singled out by omission. Plus, parents had also come to look at the screening process as a time meant to be special, a rite of passage.
Parent Alisha Fusco told the board, “I can’t imagine the sadness some of the new students are feeling about this separation process because that’s what it is, separation, segregation, it’s ludicrous and offensive to me and it’s not even my child.” Her child with special education needs is going into first grade and went through the traditional screening process with other children. “Please give these children the kindness and respect that you showed me and others in the past,” she said.
Onteora Superintendent Dr. Phyllis Spiegel-McGill took responsibility for what happened and, during a separate meeting at Central Office, called it a mistake. “I clearly would not ever purposely…[hurt] anybody’s feelings. That’s not who I am, that’s not how I operate.”
She said there was a larger than usual volume of special education children coming into Kindergarten with multiple needs. She instituted the change so that children without IEP’s in place had a screening in winter, so that education modifications could be put into place early, and that children who already had IEP’s would have an annual review, but without a screening. “That’s where my mistake was, was to not allow parents the choice (to have the screening). It was never to segregate,” McGill said.
McGill does not share the same view of Kindergarten screening with parents. She explained it as a “child-find,” process, where the State mandates, “how children are doing in preparation for Kindergarten and making sure children who may have a disability are potentially identified for evaluation, so they come to school with an appropriate program for them.” Parents on the other hand not only see it as a developmental screening process, but a way to meet other parents, acclimate their child to the school, teachers, professionals and discuss needs whether developmental, social or medical.
“I probably over compensated and hurt some people’s feelings because there is a social component of parents bringing their kids to Kindergarten screening,” said McGill.
Self contained classrooms
Additionally, McGill was worried about inviting the students to a school for the screening that they might not end up attending. The district no longer has a separate classroom for elementary children needing more than what a mainstream classroom can offer (known as self-contained classes). Some of the children, but not all, would not be placed in their home district school based on educational need.
As a result of the early screening and evaluation process, though, both Woodstock and Phoenicia school will each have a self-contained classroom based on developmental need, but will continue to teach State Standard Curriculum. Children currently sent out of district to BOCES programs will also return.
McGill said when it was known where the children would be placed, they had a day in the spring for the special education children to visit, see their classrooms and meet teachers. But this didn’t go over too well either. Valerie Storey a parent with children in the district including one with special needs said, “This separate but equal gathering falls short of the opportunity and anecdotal information that could be obtained by teachers to benefit our students.” Storey helped organize the May parent group in which these complaints surfaced. Having an open house with only special education children left some parents feeling different, targeted, isolated and segregated. “No family should have their child feel isolated and unwelcome solely because they learn differently,” Storey said,
McGill said that the screening process showed that not all of the children could transition well but she agrees that a blanket approach was wrong. She said she still believes early screening is important for early intervention. However in the future parents will be given a choice as to whether they want their child to participate in the spring Kindergarten screening.