Advocates: Universal Pre-K Excludes Kids with Special Needs

Special education preschools throughout the city are shutting their doors and leaving students without programs this school year amidst Mayor de Blasio’s claims that all 4-year-olds in New York City are guaranteed a spot in preschool.

Known as §4410 schools, these privately-owned programs serve as contractors to the city’s public schools in a system that’s unique to the state. The New York State Department of Education reimburses the preschools for tuition and costs at a rate that has been frozen for the past six years— about $27,770 per student a year. Special education activists claim this has left the schools to operate at a loss, or close.

Jackie Cenzoa, founder of the Special Needs Activity Center for Kids, said it’s the state’s responsibility to fund the schools, but irresponsible of the mayor to discount over 18,000 New York City students in his claims.

“The kids that need preschool the most are not getting it,” Cenzoa said. “If you’re 4 years old and disabled in New York City, you have nowhere to go.”

Cenzoa started the after-school program in 2003 after having trouble finding activities for her autistic son, Joey, now 21. Still, Cenzoa said it was preschool that made the biggest impact for both her and her son.

“I don’t know what I would have done without these schools back then, and there’s certainly not enough of them now,” she said.

This year, six preschool programs closed, leading to a rally in front of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office last month warning that many more programs could be next. The state education department and the counties jointly spent over $1.4 billion on reimbursement in 2011-2012, according to the Preschool Tuition Reimbursement Study Report.

The State Comptroller’s office audited a group of these schools last December and found that their management had claimed nearly $42 million in reimbursable costs for personal expenses that included apartments, cars and travel.

The office did not return a request for comment on the audit, and the state education department could not confirm whether the audit was related to the frozen reimbursement rate.

Norvell Wiley, deputy press secretary at the New York City Mayor’s Office, said programs for special needs students are absolutely a part of de Blasio’s $400 million a year plan.

“Special programs for pre-K students with special needs is part of our Pre-K for All initiative, which was launched last year and fully expanded this month to serve all children,” he said in an email.

Neither Wiley nor his counterpart at the City Department of Education responded to a request for clarification on where these programs were offered.

The seeming disparity between what advocates say and what the mayor’s office states could be attributed to the particular needs of children with disabilities. Cenzoa explained that while preschools for typically-developing children can see up to 10-15 students per teacher, children with special needs often require a much smaller ratio of students to teachers and aides. According to the city’s implementation plan for universal preschool, the cost for each typical child is $10,239— less than half of the amount needed for a special needs child. These smaller, more expensive environments are not available at all schools, and even when they are, they still may not meet needs of individual children as recommended by their evaluations, leading to students waiting on placement.

Christopher Treiber, associate executive director for Children's Services at the InterAgency Council, said the low reimbursement also means schools lose quality teachers.

“Many of our preschools have lost a significant amount of teachers mainly because of pay,” he said. “Teachers are leaving for higher paying jobs with the DOE and other school districts. Pre-K for all has taken many of our preschool teachers because of the higher pay scale.”

Treiber also stated that the council, which represents many of these special needs programs in the city, no longer knows how many students are in need of placement, because the city’s department of education has stopped producing its Pupils in Need List.

Meri Krassner, who serves on the AHRC New York City Education Committee, believes it’s impossible to count the benefits of a special education preschool for a child.

“For us, it meant that my son had access to physical therapy where they worked to strengthen his weak muscles and loosen the tight ones,” she said. “They helped him learn how to walk which meant that he would not need barrier-free schooling after that.”

Krasner also explained the process that the school used to teach her son how to communicate without words, taking photos of his favorite toys, clothes and foods, and laminating them into cards to which he could point. From there, her son learned sign language.

  “That is just some of what special needs preschool can do for a child,” she said. “Close the gap with others and make life much, much easier for parents,”