By Stefanie Jackson – Northampton County Public Schools was one of three school divisions chosen to pilot a new early childhood education program, Director of Special Programs Keren Plowden announced to the school board Dec. 12.
“I was really honored. … We were picked out of all the divisions in the commonwealth as one of the few that were ready to begin this work, and so I was really humbled by that and really excited at the opportunity,” she said.
Northampton County, Frederick County, and Charlottesville, Va., were chosen out of 133 Virginia school divisions.
The program will seek to make the educational practices used in Virginia public schools consistent from pre-K to 12th grade. The Northampton school division will get additional funding and coaching for its participation, Plowden said.
Two days earlier, Gov. Ralph Northam announced $94.8 million in new funding for early childhood education, which will give at-risk three and four-year-olds access to early learning programs.
Virginia ranks in the bottom third of states for investment in early childhood education, which 72% of three-year-olds and 24% of four-year-olds from economically disadvantaged families cannot access, the governor’s office reported.
Nearly half of Virginia children enter kindergarten unprepared to succeed in school, according to the Virginia Kindergarten Readiness Program.
The governor’s budget includes $59.5 million for the Virginia Preschool Initiative for at-risk four-year-olds, increasing spending per student, providing class-size flexibility, and eliminating waiting lists.
Another $26 million will pilot the expansion of the Virginia Preschool Initiative for three-year-olds.
“We all know the earlier we can get supports and things in place, the better the outcomes are for everyone,” Plowden said.
Virginia is the only state to offer public education programs for special needs students as young as age two, she added.
Northampton schools are currently serving 241 special education students – students with disabilities who have IEPs (Individualized Education Plans).
With average daily membership dwindling below 1,500, nearly 15% of Northampton students receive special education services.
The majority of Northampton’s special education students, about 30%, have specific learning disabilities.
About 24% of special education students fall under the category of “other health impairment.”
School board member Nancy Proto, a retired school psychologist, said that category usually includes a large number of children diagnosed with ADD (attention deficit disorder). Plowden agreed.
Nearly 15% of special education students have “developmental delays,” a term often used to describe children as young as three who exhibit delays in development but have not been diagnosed with a specific disability.
About 12% of special education students have a speech impairment, nearly 9% are autistic, and almost 5% have an emotional disability.
The following categories each include 3% or less of Northampton’s special education student population: intellectual disabilities, multiple disabilities, hearing impairment, orthopedic impairment, and traumatic brain injury.
The special education program currently does not have any deaf, blind, or visually impaired students.
A medical diagnosis alone does not qualify a student for special education. There must be evidence that the disability impacts the child’s education, Plowden noted.
Proto added that students who have suffered from trauma, also called adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), are often misdiagnosed with ADD because both conditions cause similar symptoms.
She explained how symptoms of childhood trauma could be mistaken for an attention disorder: “The part of the brain that controls impulsivity has not been developed because they have been traumatized.”
Plowden agreed ADD and childhood trauma have “overlapping characteristics or similarities. … I think it’s something that this community is going to have to continue to look at.”
“It does concern me, and it’s not just Northampton. This is a national issue, where we’re seeing a significant rise in that particular … over-identification of ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and ADHD symptoms.”