While school populations decline, special needs are on the rise

SHERIDAN ROY

STAFF WRITER

At a recent board of education meeting, a presentation of the school district’s special education programs highlighted the national trend of growing needs that the school system must meet for its students.

Special education coordinators Sonya Kunkel and Cathy Goralski gave the presentation to the board and explained the several tailored programs that the school system offers to students based on grade level and needs.

“We continuously monitor the effectiveness and viability of our programming. Data is collected and reviewed regularly,” said Kunkel. “Our data has indicated that preschool enrollment is increasing. It has also indicated that our programs are nearing or are at capacity.”

Kunkel said that prevalence rate is increasing, too. Essentially, the number of students needing to be placed in special education programs is on the rise—especially students with autism spectrum disorder.

“Since 2013, the number of students with autism spectrum disorder has increased by 36.6%,” Kunkel said. She explained that in order to meet the needs of students, the school system must make sure it has appropriate program options and maintains quality control.

Programs within the district include: an integrated preschool program that provides for Southington’s youngest students, ages three and four, who arrive from birth-to-three referrals; LAUNCH which provides for students up to fifth grade; LIDS which provides for students in grades kindergarten to second grade and third grade to fifth grade; EASE which provides for students in grades six to eight, TEAM which provides for students grades six to eight, ACHIEVE and CLP which both provide different skills to high school students; and STELLAR which helps students beyond high school who have met SHS graduation requirements.

Board members thanked Goralski and Kunkel for the presentation and insight into the growing needs of students within the district.

“I am amazed at what we are offering our students in Southington,” said board chair Terri Carmody. “I wish every other board in this community would be aware of this to know the cost of special education to our school system, and to understand where our money is going, the program we are offering, and the mandates we have to meet. Our needs are growing tremendously and we need money to fit those needs.”

Board member Bob Brown said the costs related to special education should be pointed out when it comes time to present the budget request to the board of finance.

“The huge increase in needs for our students needs to be pointed out, and the budget implications of that,” said Brown. “There are expectations on the budget without understanding the needs of our students. Our job is to take care of our students, and it costs money.”

Superintendent Tim Connellan said it will be discussed when he gives his budget presentation that the department has been working on.

“The issues that students have to come to us with have become more complex over the years,” said Connellan. “The autism spectrum disorder is only one area, but it’s literally like 180 degrees—some students who are presented with the diagnosis of autism can be students who are incredibly bright and high achieving, and on the other end of that, we have students who can be completely nonverbal and have significant communication deficits, and everything in between.”

Connellan said the district works hard to meet the needs of every student. He pointed out that having special education programs within the district are indeed expensive, but save significant amounts of money to the town by keeping students within the school system.

“We have to meet the needs of our students, but without these programs, we would be paying for them to be in placements out of our district,” he said. “There are significant savings that have to be realized by the town because these folks have put these programs in place for students.”

The superintendent’s budget presentation is scheduled for Thursday, Jan. 9 at 7 p.m. during the regular BOE meeting at the municipal center. After that, there will be two budget workshops that the public is encouraged to attend. The first one is scheduled for Jan. 14 at Hatton Elementary School library, and the second is Jan. 16 at the municipal center. Both workshops start at 7 p.m.

To comment on this story or to contact staff writer Sheridan Roy, email her at SRoy@SouthingtonObserver.com.

Leave a Reply