2008-06-26 / Schools

Parents press for longer special-needs program

Union contract, lack of funding complicate school board decision
BY JESSICA SMITH Staff Writer

MONROE - Though school officials voiced support for expanding the hours of the extended school year (ESY) program for special needs students, they were uncertain last week about whether it is feasible for this summer.

"Any kind of extra education that we can give children, I'm always supportive of, but the problem with this is that it's a very short period of time," board President Amy Antelis said. "There are a couple of components involved. It's a lot of hard work."

Board of Education members voted unanimously June 12 for school administrators to investigate what it will take to implement the program's growth, and whether it would begin this summer or next.

Superintendent of Schools Ralph Ferrie declined to comment on officials' findings last week, as they were to be presented by administrators at the Board of Education meeting scheduled for last night, after press time.

The analysis came as a result of requests from district parents to add two hours per day to the existing schedule for the summer program, which encompasses four hours a day for six weeks, from July to August. After several parents stated their concerns at the June 12 meeting, board member Marvin Braverman made a motion that administrators look into the expansion.

Joseph King, director of pupil personnel services, said he and other administrators had gathered a large amount of data, and met with concerned parents to glean their input.

"We meet with the requirements of the law, and we look to expand our programs in all areas - but in appropriate ways," King said.

Antelis pointed out that if the program was not up and running this summer, it would be in place by next year.

Anthony Prezioso, a district parent pushing for the program's expansion, stressed the importance of the extended hours beginning this summer. Though the law provides for a maintenance program for the students over the summer, he said meeting with that minimum does not suffice.

"These kids are not cars," Prezioso said. "They need a fully structured program. This is not a legal issue ... it's a moral issue. You don't offer someone medicine when they're sick a year from now, you give it to them now."

According to Antelis, who said she has a daughter with special needs, staffing issues present the biggest complications involved, because of the necessary labor negotiations with the Monroe Township Education Association (MTEA) that would arise from the addition of program hours.

Teachers in the program are under contract for the current schedule until the end of next June. If school officials decide to initiate the expanded hours, a sidebar contract would have to be negotiated, according to board member Kathy Leonard, also co-president of the Monroe Township Special Education Parents Association (MTSEPA).

The current contract states that for every hour of contact with students, teachers are to be compensated for 10 minutes of class preparation time, board member Rita Ostrager said. As a result, the proposed addition of two hours would not come at face value in terms of compensation.

The six-hour day would also bring about the addition of a lunch break for program teachers, Ostrager said. This begs the question of who would fill in during those breaks. While subjects like art, music and gym could be taught by existing teachers in those areas during the lunch breaks, Ostrager pointed out that those teachers may not be trained for working with special needs students.

Leonard shared her concern.

"Routine is essential - the sameness," Leonard said. "We need some continuity with the staff."

While Prezioso held the same sentiment regarding the importance of routine for students with special needs, he addressed it from a different angle. He said these students, who attend school in the district from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. during the school year, should be able to keep that schedule during the ESY program.

As the parent of a son with special needs, Prezioso explained his stance. He said his son has made positive progress in the district, but the advancements might not last without the expanded program.

"When he's on summer vacation, he loses some skills," Prezioso said. "All these kids do, even on weekends."

According to Leonard, a number of outof district schools provide six-hour days for students during the summers. Though she said she sees the value of the added hours, such a program has to be implemented with the proper amount of planning involved, which often takes time.

"I would like to see it this year, but I would like to see it done correctly this year," Leonard said. "I don't just want to house the kids for another two hours. I want a quality program."

Funding the program is another consideration. The expansion was not included in the school budget, as the possibility is just now being explored, but Ostrager said that would not rule out starting it this summer.

"There's always flexibility in the budget," Ostrager said. "It's a $95 million budget, and we're talking about tens of thousands of dollars here."

Early this month, Prezioso and about five other parents in support of the ESY expansion put together a petition and presented it to the board, he said. While the issue was not included on the agenda for the following board meeting, Prezioso said, the group decided to attend the meeting and make their voices heard.

"I felt like it was being pushed aside," Prezioso said.

Ostrager and other board members said they are taking the matter very seriously, but reiterated the need to ensure that everything is in place before making the change.

"I looked at it [as], these are the neediest kids we have in our district," Ostrager said. "These kids need a tremendous amount of help. ... I think it's the obligation of the school district to provide for the educational needs of all our students. I understand the administration has been working very, very hard on this in a short timeframe."

While Ostrager praised the efforts of administrators, Prezioso lauded her efforts.

"She's a godsend," Prezioso said. "So are Marvin [Braverman] and Kathy [Leonard]. If they weren't persistent, I don't think we could have done it without them."

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