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Monday, November 19 News

Parents, staff fight decentralization of childhood center

FAIRFIELD — Growing enrollment in the school district’s Early Childhood Center has officials taking another look at how, and where, the program is housed.

Parents and staff, however, pushed back at Tuesday’s Board of Education meeting on any possible plans to decentralize the special education preschool program to several different elementary schools.

“My daughter is now in middle school,” said Longview Avenue resident Christy Vitale, who is not related to the school board member by the same name. “What I have learned is that the integration of services at the ECC is so incredibly unique.”

Instead of just one speech therapist, for example, she said, there are two or three therapists with different specialties working with your child.

“There are tons of skill-sets working together,” Vitale said.

Superintendent of Schools Toni Jones said no decision has been made, and one won’t be made until at least November.

“We have some challenges that are very much facility-driven that are impacting lots of aspects,” Jones said.

She said an additional ECC classroom was added at Stratfield School during the 2017-18 school year because there was not enough room at the ECC facility at Fairfield Warde High School.

Last year the enrollment grew by 41 students during the school year. This year, there are 128 students enrolled, and that includes 25 children at Stratfield. The program is open to students with special needs beginning at age 3. There are also opportunities for “typical” children to enroll in the preschool to serve as social role models.

Kristen Bruno, the special education coordinator, said enrollment changes throughout the year and children come to the preschool program in several different ways, including the state’s Birth to Three program.

“Our current challenges is our facility at Fairfield Warde is at capacity,” said Robert Mancusi, special education director. “Our class size is larger than we’d like; our ratio is smaller than we’d like.”

Ideally, he said, the district would like to have a 50/50 ratio of special education and typical children in classes.

A letter signed by all of the teachers and staff at the ECC implored the Board of Education to stick with a centralized program.

“Our children and families are vulnerable,” the letter states. “This is their first experience with the special education process. It is very important to us that we provide them with the care and counsel they need to navigate what is often a difficult time.”

The letter said the centralized ECC provides a comprehensive program with a holistic approach for each child and includes monthly assessments of the children and monthly parent workshops.

“I have had a child go through ECC for two-and-a-half years,” board member Trisha Pytko said. “It is nothing short of a miracle what you guys did with my daughter. I want to see this program stay centralized. I know firsthand the work they do.”

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Pytko said perhaps instead of looking at it as a capacity issue, they should be looking at another facility for the ECC, or perhaps split it into two locations.

“We already have something that works,” she said. “Why change the model.”

Mancusi said they are looking at the ECC programs in different districts, including Greenwich, Darien, Trumbull and Milford. Some, he said, are centralized programs, while others are decentralized.

“We’re not saying the centralized model is failing the students in any way,” Mancusi said. “The challenge right now is the facility is impacting our ability to provide the program.”

Board member Jeffrey Peterson said he would like to see if there are advantages to one model over the other, and whether there is any way to expand the program’s space at Fairfield Warde. Chairman Phil Dwyer agreed that one part of the presentation over the next few months should be expansion capabilities at Warde.

There will be presentations on a timeline for any change to the program, as well as a financial analysis, Mancusi said.

greilly@ctpost.com; 203-842-2585

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