Early education program continues to grow

Program one of few budget additions

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

When her two youngest kids were toddlers, Julie Watson realized they were developing a little differently than her eldest son had.

“I could usually understand them,” Watson said, explaining how they later were identified to have speech delays. “But with other children, with other adults, they weren’t able to get their needs across.”

Watson said within a month of entering the Early Essential Education program, her kids’ communication skills improved. “As soon as they went in with the peers, they started blossoming,” she said.

The Early Essential Education (EEE) preschool program was allocated about $86,000 in new money in the proposed Williston School District budget before voters on March 7.

“Triple E,” as it is often called, is a publicly funded preschool program that exists to meet the special education needs of children age three to five. The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA) mandates states to identify children with disabilities and offer individualized plans to meet each child’s unique needs.

In each EEE preschool class, about half of students receive special education services and half do not. The law requires school districts to educate disabled students with their non-disabled, same-age peers, according to Carter Smith, director of student services for Williston schools.

“We have typical child models,” said Beth Peloquin, early childhood special educator at Allen Brook School. “It’s so that kids who are struggling can see other kids doing things that are maybe their goals.”

Students with a 40 percent developmental delay in a fundamental skill area are eligible for EEE services, Smith said. Skill areas include speech, language, gross motor (such as walking), fine motor (holding a pencil), self-help (dressing oneself), social, and cognitive. A medical condition that impedes learning also can qualify a student for EEE services.

The proposed EEE budget – $517,683 – is a 39 percent increase over this year, part of which is contracted salary and benefit increases. About $86,000 is “new” money would fund a new part-time (80 percent) licensed teacher and the equivalent of 1.5 teaching assistants. The additional staff would allow for one more preschool class to be added to the three already in existence.

Currently, of the 40 students receiving EEE services, only 24 of them receive services in the classroom setting; the other 16 are served by occupational, speech and language or other therapists at home or in another private setting.

For a few of those kids, their needs are better met outside the classroom; but for most of them, there simply hasn’t been space – or the staff – to have them join their peers in class.

An additional preschool class means most, if not all, of those students could get in-class services, Smith said. In-class services will reduce the need for various therapists to spend extra time and gas money driving to individual homes, Smith said.

“It’s going to be a more cost-effective way to serve kids,” if the budget is approved, Smith said.

Space for the additional class is still an issue; the program has been in a holding pattern, Smith said, as plans for a planned expansion of Allen Brook School were put on hold several years ago. In order to accommodate two morning and afternoon EEE programs three days a week, space will have to be squeezed out of somewhere, though administrators don’t yet know where.

“We just can’t wait any longer,” Smith said.

In the last three years, the EEE population has increased by 30 percent – from 31 to 40 kids. The number of students with severe disabilities, such as autism, also has increased, Smith said.

Williston School District’s EEE population is disproportionately higher than its counterparts in Chittenden South Supervisory Union (CSSU). Though Williston has only 38 percent of the CSSU kindergarten through grade eight population, the town has 58 percent of the EEE population.

No one is certain of the reasons for such a discrepancy, though administrators suspect Williston is a draw due to a positive reputation of special education at Williston schools and the high school, and proximity to the hospital.

Educators say an early investment of resources pays off in the long run.

“Our whole philosophy in early intervention is to beef up skills as much as we can,” Peloquin said, to “either alleviate how much intervention is needed in later grades, or eliminate the need for intervention later.”

Watson said without the in-class EEE experience her daughter, now a kindergartener, “ would definitely be struggling a lot more. I know she would. She would always be playing catch up. I think we started her off with more of a level playing field.