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RI: 10,000 preschoolers eligible for SPED screening; only 2,100 were screened

Mar 9, 2023, WPRI, Rhode Island: ‘Heartbreaking’: Dozens of RI children with special needs not receiving education

Junie-Fed Michel was worried when her son Junich turned one — and then two — without speaking.

“I thought it was normal for a child when they turn one to start saying some words,” Michel told Target 12 in an interview at her Providence home. “Juju didn’t say anything.”

Last fall, Michel met with Providence public school officials to assess Juju, and they concluded he was significantly behind his peers developmentally. They agreed to enroll him into federally mandated special preschool education beginning in November.

But four months later, Juju still hasn’t received any education — potentially in violation of federal law — and advocates warn that every week which passes could harm his ability to catch up with his peers for the rest of his life.

Juju is now three and a half, and he’s still nonverbal

“As a mother, I’m telling you it’s a heartbreaking situation,” Michel said. “My child is about to turn four, he cannot get the service that he needs and they keep turning me down. Nobody cares.”

Michel and her son are at the forefront of a burgeoning crisis in Rhode Island public schools where education leaders are failing to find and hire specialized teachers for preschool-aged children with developmental delays.

And while education officials insist they have tried multiple strategies to incentivize educators to help fill the gap, Target 12 has learned there are at least 34 Providence children, ages 3 to 5, who have developmental delays but are currently not receiving services required under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA….

Education leaders acknowledged the vacuum puts Providence at risk of violating federal law, and that families could file lawsuits as a result. …

Top education officials don’t have a lot of answers, and are struggling with how to meet a demand that’s been growing during the pandemic. And they estimate the problem will only get worse in the coming months and years, as the issue spreads to other Rhode Island school districts. …

As Target 12 first reported in November 2021, hundreds of newborn to three-year-old children were put on a waiting list to receive Early Intervention, a state-run program also mandated by the federal government, for infants and toddlers with developmental delays. Early Intervention waitlists are technically illegal, according to advocates. …

Sandra Stuart, the chief student support service officer for the Providence Public School Department, acknowledged 34 pre-K students across the city have IEPs but are not getting the services they are legally obligated to receive….

Stuart said they currently have two classrooms ready to be filled by three- to five-year-old children with developmental delays, and they’re trying to open two more. But they don’t have teachers and support personnel to staff the classrooms, which sit empty….

State education officials said they first learned about this problem last May, and Infante-Green said she was alerted to the shortage of preschool special education teachers in Providence after last school year….

Salganik called the pre-K problem a “bill coming due” from the Early Intervention crisis. State officials could not provide an updated number of children waiting to receive those services, but the waitlist stood at nearly 900 families as of last November. A spokesperson said new data should be available by the end of March.

Daycare settings with specialized staff are uncommon, he said, often requiring parents — like the ones Target 12 interviewed — to stay out of work while awaiting special education classroom placements for their children….

The request for proposals for the contract contained a staggering statistic: of the approximately 8,000 to 10,000 Providence children ages 3-5 eligible to be screened for disabilities, only about 2,100 were screened last school year….


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