It was revealed earlier this month that the Kingston City School District has been cited by the State Education Department (NYSED) in 2018 for a third straight year in as needing intervention in its special education program.
New York as a whole was deemed a “state in need of need of assistance” by the U.S. Department of Education due to insufficient services and low performance of students with disabilities relating to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). For the past five years, the federal government has had the authority to require states to draft corrective plans that yield success or spend portions of their federal IDEA funds in specific ways.
Kingston was one of 44 districts across New York to fall short of expectations in the NYSED report, one which had the Board of Regents expressing concern at their monthly meeting on Monday, March 11.
“We’ve been in this cycle for a while, and it’s a critical kind of situation,” said Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa. “Part of what we need to make sure is this becomes center on a regular basis, obviously the sense of urgency is critical.”
KCSD Superintendent Paul Padalino on Wednesday acknowledged that the district has struggled in keeping up.
“It’s three years in a row,” he said. “It’s a situation we have to deal with, and as our student population in special ed grows, more and more of our students are being identified as students with disabilities, and more and more disabilities are surfacing that weren’t necessarily there in the past. More of them are around social and emotional needs and trauma-based education. We’re starting to take a real hard look at what are these social and emotional needs, and what are the traumas that many of these students are coming with. Some disabilities stem from kids coming to school with trauma in their lives that impedes their learning.”
Among the changes the district has undertaken is reconfiguring how special education is addressed at the administrative level. This started with the elimination of the position of assistant superintendent for special education, most recently held by Wilford LeForestier, who has since gone on to become the director of the Wildwood School in Schenectady.
Padalino said that eliminating the position and sharing the responsibilities with the assistant superintendents of elementary and secondary education should help break down an isolation he likened to the storage of grains.
“Our feeling is, we’re trying to eliminate silos,” Padalino said. “A lot of times special ed kind of stands out there on its own, and people think of them as kids who belong to special ed. They don’t belong to special ed, they belong to all of us. And curriculum is curriculum, and we modify curriculum to meet the needs of our kids. Being able to have that conversation is very productive.”
Michele Hirsch is a family peer advocate with Family of Woodstock, a member of the Kingston Special Education Parent Group, and the parent of a student in the KCSD’s special education program. Hirsch said she was disappointed to hear about the district’s “needs intervention” classification, but not necessarily surprised, especially as it came at the elementary level. Hirsch said the services and continuum of services offered at the secondary level are greater than they are at the elementary level, where she said the district was either unwilling or unable to help.
“As a parent, we had a very, very difficult three years for my daughter in getting her the services that she needed,” she said. “We actually had to ask for outside evaluations to be done at district expense. I had to hire a lawyer. Finally things worked out.”
Hirsch, who’s the Democratic candidate this year for the Common Council from Ward 9, said she was concerned about the prevalence of students being incorrectly declassified by the district as no longer in need of special education services.
“I’m seeing kids that are getting declassified going from preschool into kindergarten,” she said. “These kids never should have been declassified.”
Padalino said that one of the district’s goals was to serve students in their special education program for as long as necessary, but not to keep students in the program who might no longer require it.
“I’m always concerned that special ed becomes a black hole where students become classified by a committee on preschool education at three years old or four years old, and then that’s what they are, as if there’s no opportunity for us to shore up their weakness and get them out of the special ed identification,” Padalino said. “Anyone who is taken out of special ed if they’re declassified, they still qualify for services that were available to them in their IEP (Individualized Education Program) for a couple of years.”
Padalino agreed with Hirsch that offering more services to the district’s younger students will be beneficial to everyone.
“It’s a long term investment, but one of the things we’re doing that will help is opening our pre-K center in September,” he said. “Frequently, students come to us with learning deficits, not learning disabilities. But a deficit masks itself as a disability pretty easily. Getting as many of those four-year olds in the door as we can will probably keep them out fo the special education identification area, but will also help us identify earlier those kids that need it. That’s your sweet spot, your first couple of years of school.”
While Padalino said the district favors taking a collaborative approach, Hirsch said the district could be doing more in-house.
“If we created appropriate programs in our district we could wind up saving money,” she said. “We have a lot of students with autism, and they don’t have any autism programming in this district.”
According to the draft budget for the 2019-20 school year, the district’s costs related to programs for students with disabilities are expected to increase by 8.09 percent to $38,637,766.
“This is a trend every year, but it’s a little higher this year than usual,” Padalino said during a school board meeting earlier this month. “We’re finding students with more needs, more intense needs. And finding other ways to work with them sometimes involves programs that we don’t have here in the Kingston City School District, so it includes intensive work here in the Kingston City School District that drives that cost up.”
Padalino this week said that the district would continue working with the Mid-Hudson office of the state’s Regional Special Education Technical Assistance Support Centers to help correct the problems identified by NYSED, and would continue working with Ulster BOCES to help shape their elementary level behavioral education program.
“I think a lot of it is just adjusting to the change in our population,” Padalino said. “And adjusting to the new disabilities that are presenting themselves.”