LYNN — Faced with a tight deadline to adjust individualized education plans for more than 170 special education students in time for a change to the school district’s pre-kindergarten program next year, the School Committee opted to keep the current program model for an additional year.
The current two/three-day split for the 2019-20 school year will continue with plans to revisit a switch to what appeared to be the panel’s preferred five-day, half-day model in the fall.
School Committee member Donna Coppola said she’s received lots of feedback from staff that they don’t like the two/three-day split, in which students attend pre-K for two to three days a week. In addition, she was skeptical that special education students were receiving the services they needed, arguing that support staff may not be available on certain days of the week.
Phylitia Jamerson, Lynn Public Schools administrator of special education, told the committee last week there was not enough time left in the school year to make revisions to more than 170 IEPs to accommodate a switch in the pre-K program this fall.
Under the current model, there are seven self-contained programs for special education students, with students placed based on their IEP needs, and 12 integrated programs, a mix of special education and regular education students.
Typically, a special education student starts out in a two-day program and is then moved to a three-day. The five full-day classroom is reserved for students who need a higher level of support.
Last year, armed with information from school administration that there was not enough space in the district to accommodate a five-day model, the committee voted to extend the two/three-day split for another year. The committee had voted two years ago to switch from a five-day A.M./P.M. pre-K model.
“The idea was that if we create the two-day, three-day programs vs. the five-day A.M./P.M. programs, we could create more slots for students because there was no space for additional programs,” Jamerson said.
A switch to the two/three-day model created 39 more slots for students in its first year, Jamerson said, but attributed that more to switching some five full-day classrooms to a two/three-day classroom.
Administrative officials said last year an increasing number of special education referrals was making it difficult for school officials to find space in the Lynn Public Schools pre-K program.
By law, the school district is mandated to serve 3-to 5-year-olds who are eligible for special education, but Lynn Public Schools is not required to serve regular education students, who aren’t eligible to start pre-K until age 4.
Increasing special education referrals is still an issue the district is grappling with, said Superintendent Dr. Patrick Tutwiler, but he acknowledged there was some bad information given last year. There is enough space in the district to accommodate a switch to a five-day A.M./P.M. model, he said, but the question is what program would be more beneficial to students and parents.
“What we’re saying here is basically from an output standpoint, there isn’t a large difference between the two approaches,” Tutwiler said, citing statistics that showed similar fluency results and attendance figures. “There are pros and cons to both approaches. We can go either way.”
Jamerson said the two/three-day split allows for more educational time for students, along with more time to provide services to special education students, because a five-day program creates more breaks.
In addition, Jamerson said it creates fewer childcare issues for parents, but it makes for a long day for a 3-year-old with special education needs and lacks the consistency of consecutive days that a five-day model could provide.
School Committee member Lorraine Gately said her concern was there not being enough slots available with the current model for some 4-year-old regular education students from disadvantaged areas who can’t get the help they need at home.
“My big concern is what about those 4-year-olds in those communities,” Gately said. “We didn’t have the space last year, but we really did. We were all spoken to. No one spoke up. I mentioned we had space, but no one even looked. We were put into a situation now that we have to vote. Our backs are against the wall.”
Jamerson said she is passionate about those students also having pre-K, but the district has to follow federal law. During the last two years, the school district has received 520 early childhood special education referrals. Due to those numbers, a new early childhood education model had to be created.
If things continue down that path, the district would need to find more space for additional programs and would need to hire more staff, which it lacks the finances and space to do, she said.
To try to alleviate that problem in the short term, school administrators have opted to change two pre-K classrooms that will remain at the Early Childhood Center, which will become an eighth grade discovery academy next year, from a two/three-day split model to a two-day/two-day split in an effort to service more students.
But the problem with space, or lack thereof, isn’t going away.
“What I will commit to is being creative, turning every stone,” said Tutwiler. “There’s spaces in the city that may be available to us. Some of this is out of our control. Some of this has budget issues. What we’ve proposed with a two-day, two-day helps. This is a way for us to provide services without necessarily finding additional space.”