Sunday, December 14, 2008

NYC parents upset about closing of preschool for children with disabilities

From The New York Times Dec. 14. In the picture, two parents of Little Room students, Ebony Santos, left, and Matilda Garrido, with some of the children in the program, which helps 3- and 4-year-olds who have speech and language delays.

Behind a red door at the Brooklyn Heights Montessori School, a half-dozen preschoolers who once struggled to talk merrily sang “Jingle Bells” the other morning.

They are among 27 special needs children enrolled in the Little Room, which takes its name from the small room where it started in 1970 and has become a nationally recognized program for 3- and 4-year-olds with speech and language delays across Brooklyn and Manhattan. But the fate of the much-loved program, which one expert said is more difficult to get into than Harvard, is unclear, as the school that has long run it, Brooklyn Heights Montessori, has decided it can no longer keep it in its red-brick complex at the intersection of Court and Bergen Streets.

On Tuesday, the school’s 23-member board of trustees is to decide whether to move the Little Room or to close it down, possibly as early as next summer. After a series of tense exchanges between Little Room families and school officials, teary parents begged trustees at a meeting last week to reconsider.

“It’s heartbreaking because there’s nothing else like it around here,” said Kara Bohnenstiel, an artist whose 3-year-old son, Myat Haggart, is one of nine children who had been expected to stay in the program for another year. “I don’t know what we will do if they close it. There’s not going to be time to find another place for one oddball year.”

Dane L. Peters, the head of school, said that the Little Room does not fit in with Brooklyn Heights Montessori’s future plans, and that the school has been filling a gap between the program’s expenses and reimbursements from the state. Tuition for special education students is free.

“It is extremely difficult because there’s an inherent culture in this school to embrace diversity,” Mr. Peters said. “But the trustees have to look to the long-term sustainability of the school, and if the school is to grow and thrive, it sometimes is confronted by challenging decisions.”

In New York City, 27,047 preschool children receive free special education services, a number that has increased by nearly 2,000 a year recently, according to state education statistics. The city and state finance 152 programs operated in both public- and private-school settings.

The Little Room is one of the most popular and best regarded, not just for those enrolled but for dozens of other families who receive evaluations and support services at the school.

Patricia Shubert, the state’s coordinator for special education in the city, said that the Little Room would have to give 90 days’ notice before closing, and that the state would help place children elsewhere. “We don’t get too many closings,” she said. “They are few and far between.”

Brooklyn Heights Montessori is known for its progressive, nurturing approach to education; teachers go by their first names and students do not receive grades. There are 257 students from preschool through eighth grade, and tuition ranges from $22,900 to $27,200; last year, 140 2-year-olds applied for 20 spots.

Mr. Peters said the school receives $1.2 million annually in state aid for the Little Room, which has a staff of about 25. But he said the school, which has an endowment of $1.8 million, typically spends $100,000 per year from Montessori tuition revenue to restrict class size to nine — under the state limit of 12 — and to pay Little Room teachers salaries comparable to those of other faculty, among other expenses.

State education officials said the school already received additional money for smaller class sizes, but could appeal for a higher rate of reimbursement than the current $128 per child per day, something Mr. Peters said the school was considering. Little Room parents have also offered to help raise money.

The board of trustees began discussing the future of the Little Room last year as part of the school’s strategic plan, forming an eight-member task force in August. A copy of the plan mailed to families this summer included a reference to the school’s evaluation of the Little Room.

But some Little Room parents say that they were never directly informed that their children’s program was in jeopardy, and discovered it only last week after meeting with the program’s director, Sonia Nachuk, who left Friday to take another job.

“Before this all happened, this felt like a safe and comfortable place, but now it just doesn’t feel great anymore for me,” said Matilda Garrido, an administrative assistant whose son, Ander, 4, is in the program. “They’re a private school, they can do what they want, but the way they are going about it means the program will be destroyed.”

Todd Drezner, a video producer whose 4-year-old son, Sam, has autism, said he felt that parents had been excluded from the decision-making, which suggested the school was not interested in continuing the program.

“I think everybody recognizes there are challenges, but if their preschool was having similar problems, they wouldn’t close their preschool,” he said. “What they haven’t said is that as difficult as it may be to run this program, it’s worth the effort, and that’s very upsetting.”

Mr. Peters said the school had planned to involve parents in the decision, but sped up the process after Ms. Nachuk’s resignation.

Helene Banks, a corporate lawyer who is president of the board, said the trustees have been listening to parents, faculty and other educators and would consider their views. “I do think that the board will act in the best interests of the school; I am certain of that,” she said.