Special needs kindergarten numbers on rise in county

Staff writer

School districts across Venango County are already experiencing an uptick in registered kindergarten students for the 2018-19 year who will require significant special needs services.

News of the increase in numbers came at the Franklin School Board meeting Monday night, where board President Brian Spaid noted 66 incoming kindergarten students who have either been identified or have shown signs of needing special services.

That number is already double the district’s average range of 30 to 35 incomers with special needs. Spaid listed 38 of 57 registered kindergartners at Central Elementary, 18 of 40 at Sandycreek Elementary and 10 of 26 at Victory Elementary who will require services.

“This is an extremely serious community issue and concern. This sounds like this is going to be the trend as (students) come in,” said Spaid.

While roughly one-third of the 66 students will only require speech services, the overwhelming majority display signs of behavioral issues that include kicking, biting, spitting and a lack of toilet training, said Spaid.

Student support services director Denise Phipps said nurses and school psychologists will work to determine which students are experiencing medical versus behavioral issues in order to address them properly.

Phipps also discussed the possibility of the addition of another paraprofessional to each kindergarten room and the creation of a transitional kindergarten program to be housed at Central Elementary.

The cost of the transitional program, including hiring a teacher, could be $135,000.

Phipps said the average cost of placing a student with special needs outside of the district is $40,000, and the transitional program would eventually pay for itself.

While limited space is available at Central, the board discussed utilizing a computer lab or one of the art and music rooms.

Phipps cited some of the behavioral issues as stemming from abuse and neglect experienced at home, adding that other schools throughout the county are noticing an increase in students with special needs.

“It’s a trend. Child Development Centers is seeing the trend,” said Phipps. “I think we need to be proactive.”

Countywide problem

Other school districts like Cranberry noted an upswing in students with special needs, where 24 of 82 registered kindergarten students for next year will require services.

Last year, there were 11 kindergartners with special needs, said Jodie Chittester, director of special services for Cranberry School District.

“We are doing what we typically do – evaluating students and seeing what services they need,” said Chittester.

In her time as director, Chittester said Cranberry has not run a transitional kindergarten program.

Oil City School District reported low numbers of incoming kindergarten students with special needs, although it is known to have a number of students who don’t register until the summer, said Tracy Delmonaco, the district’s director of special education and student services.

Thirty-five of 86 registered students so far have been identified as being eligible for early intervention services. Last year, the district had 39 kindergarten students with special needs, averaging between 39 to 44 students annually, said Delmonaco.

Delmonaco also noted an increase in the number of students identified by Child Development Centers as having concerning behavioral issues.

Oil City Superintendent Pat Gavin noted an increase in kindergarten students with individual needs and said the district has discussed additional programming.

“We do have supports in the classroom and outside supports who come in, and that seems to be addressing concerns. The students end up making pretty good progress,” said Gavin.

The superintendent noted a lack of maturity and social readiness in some kindergarten students and said work is being done to prepare them socially.

Delmonaco said the district has utilized a transitional kindergarten program in the past, which turned out to be ineffective.

“What is effective is early intervention and starting services early on through Head Start and pre-kindergarten because once children are identified through early intervention, that guarantees kids are on the radar to get services in place,” said Delmonaco.

Valley Grove was the sole school district in Venango County to report consistent numbers of incoming students with special needs.

“We were aware that neighboring districts did (have increased numbers), but our numbers are pretty constant with what they’ve been in the past,” said Amber Nolan-Johnston, the special education supervisor at Valley Grove.

Students with special needs are typically serviced through speech and/or learning support classes. Those with greater needs receive support through Intermediate Unit 6 or at a neighboring district that has additional services, said Nolan-Johnston.

“We had really successful meetings with early intervention students and their parents. I feel like we’re setting those kids up for success, and we’re going to be off to a good start,” she said.

In his talk of the increasing numbers at the Franklin board meeting Monday, Spaid noted the problem as sobering and one in which the group will continually work to address.

“It’s an eye-opening issue as board members, and it’s a community-wide issue,” he said.