Maragos: Preschool education plan needs improvement

Nassau County Comptroller George Maragos has released a report titled “Opportunities for Improving Preschool Special Education Outcomes for Nassau County Children.”

A press release said the report finds that Nassau school districts lag New York State (NYS) in placing three and four-year-old special needs children in optimal learning settings. Federal guidelines indicate that preschool students with special needs can benefit most when taught in integrated early childhood settings alongside typically developing, age-appropriate peers. Only one Nassau school district exceeded the NYS average for placing children in integrated settings. Nevertheless, our special needs children still achieve average developmental benefits

In 2014, Nassau County served 5,249 three and four-year-old special needs children at a total cost of $100.7 million.  The average cost per student was $19,186, but private center-based programs charge as much as $52,000 per child.

“Nassau school districts pride themselves on being some of the best in the country for K-12 learning,” Comptroller Maragos said. “The same, however, cannot be said for our special needs children. We should aim for better than average results for all of our children.”

The data available indicates that Nassau County school districts underperform the NYS average with respect to placing students in integrated settings.  Less than one in four Nassau preschool special education stu-dents (22%) attended a regular or integrated preschool class from 2011-2012 through  2013-2014, compared to 43% of students across New York State and 42% of students nationwide.

Within the County, placement results vary dramatically from district to district.  At the low and high extremes, East Meadow school district placed 3% of special needs students and Island Park placed 49% of special needs students in regular or integrated preschool classes.

Despite Nassau’s below-average integration rates, special needs students reach the NYS average for skill development. Countywide, more than 50% of Nassau County’s students reached age-appropriate development in any of the three main skill categories by the time they finished pre-school.

State and local school administrators surmise that low integration rates may be due to the lack of availability of classes where children with special needs can learn alongside typically developing peers, and to parents’ and administrators’ belief that the more intensive instruction provided in separate classes is more beneficial for many children. Integration also appears to be impeded by the NYS Education Department’s lack of regular feedback to districts on the merits of integration and to lagging districts on their performance compared to their peers.

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