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Chelmsford, MA: Preschool sees more disabled students; increased number with autism

Aug 28, 2018, Chelmsford Wicked: Chelmsford, region eye preschool needs …CHIPS is the preschool program offered by the Chelmsford school district. According to coordinator Russell Hoyt, about half the students enrolled are students with various levels of disabilities or challenges. “That ranges quite a bit,” said Hoyt. “It could be a child with a speech delay or mulitiple disabilities. It really runs the gamut.”… As the school year was getting ready to start, Hoyt said about 145 students were enrolled. The last year’s preschool enrollment was 160. The average classroom is limited to 15 students in an integrated classroom. “You can have up to 15 if you have no more than seven on an Individual Education Plan [commonly called IEP, for special needs students.]” As the program name implies, the goal is, wherever possible, to include special needs students with their mainstreamed peers. Hoyt joined the school district last year; this year will mark his first full year as the coordinator for CHIPS. “I think we want to do a better job of having an assessment of all students, whether or not on an IEP. We want to have a nice preschool report card, that helps parents understand skills [the children] are developing for readiness for kindergarten.”… The CHIPS program includes seven classrooms. Each has its own teacher. Five of the seven classrooms are the fully-integrated model. There is a morning and afternoon offering. There are 16 paraprofessionals. Transportation is not provided unless a special needs student requires it. Hoyt said the preschool follows the “least-restricted” environment. “You start off looking as if they didn’t have a disability, in any way, shape or form,” Hoyt said. Services are added as a child’s needs are identified. Hoyt said there has been a steady growth in preschool enrollment over the past three years. “We have increased staffing,” Hoyt said. Among the growing needs are those for increased number of students on the autism spectrum. “If you look at the research, the autism population does seem to be increasing.” Another need, Hoyt said, is for children with emotional and behavioral challenges -- for which the school district has implemented a new program for elementary school-level students. These services already exist at the middle and high school level. Hoyt said it’s not entirely clear why this need is increasing, but there are many possibilities -- including the increased dependence on technology for communication. “They are exposed to a lot of things going on in the world. There is not a lot of filtering going on. If the parents are watching the news, it seems like the children are exposed to it, right alongside of them.” Hoyt said from time to time, the CHIPS program receives a student who has been dismissed from one or more previous preschools due to behavior issues and coping mechanisms. “We work to develop programs to help children,” Hoyt said. Looking ahead at opportunities and challenges, Hoyt said, “I feel like I’ve walked into a gold mine,” citing the level of skill of the teachers, and commitment to early childhood development….

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