Northampton Updates Early Childhood Special Ed To Be More Inclusive

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By Stefanie Jackson – Northampton schools Director of Special Programs Keren Plowden has proposed a more inclusive educational program for toddlers, partly in response to an increasing number of referrals the school division is receiving for special education services for 2- and 3-year-olds.

Virginia is the only state that requires schools to provide early childhood special education to children with disabilities as young as age 2, Plowden said.

The child must be age 2 by Sept. 30 of the school year in which he or she begins receiving services.

The Northampton school division historically has provided early childhood special education for children ages 2 to 5 in small groups or clusters, with 4-year-olds separated so they can fully participate in the Virginia Preschool Initiative, Plowden explained.

That left a group of 2- and 3-year-olds with disabilities in a self-contained school environment with little opportunity to interact with other children their age who are developing typically.

The Virginia Department of Education requires all school divisions to offer early childhood special education in the “least restrictive environment,” and the inclusion model is part of the continuum of services for all age groups.

That prompted Plowden to propose a new program for 2- and 3-year-olds with and without disabilities.

“The toddler program provides play-based instruction five days per week in order to target all developmental areas with a focus on communication, interactions with peers and adults as well as fostering growing independent skills,” she wrote in the program overview she presented to the school board July 15.

Each class will be limited to eight students, including up to four children, or about half the class, who will be peer models.

Northampton can serve up to 16 students, or eight each at Occohannock and Kiptopeke elementary schools. The toddler peer models at each school will be selected through an application and developmental screening process.

Peer models must “demonstrate developmentally appropriate speech, language, and social skills.” They must communicate clearly, interact well with others, model cooperative behaviors, and follow directions.

Any child who demonstrates a developmental delay in one or more areas during the screening process will be ineligible for the program.

Applicants must live in Northampton County and provide proof of residency. Due to the new program’s limited capacity, no out-of-zone or out-of-county applicants will be considered.

Toddlers are not required to be potty trained to participate.

However, parents should keep in mind that the toddler program is “not daycare” but an educational opportunity, Plowden said.

No application is required for students with disabilities.

The program will be facilitated by an early childhood special education teacher, instructional assistant, and any related service providers, Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., or in accordance with the IEPs (individualized education plans) of participating students with disabilities.

Breakfast, lunch, and transportation will be provided, and the program will be free to all participants.

Some school divisions charge tuition for 2- and 3-year-old peer models. (Public schools provide special education services and pre-K for free, but the universal pre-K program is available only to 4-year-olds.)

The leadership team that previewed Plowden’s proposal recommended “absolutely” not charging tuition for students participating in the toddler program as peer models, said Superintendent Eddie Lawrence.

The program will be implemented at no additional cost to the school division, using only budgeted staff and resources.

However, Plowden hopes for the continued growth of the special education program, which is a goal in the Northampton schools comprehensive plan, she said.

The school board voted unanimously in favor of the proposal, allowing Plowden to continue developing the toddler peer model program and begin getting the word out to parents and the community.