Schenectady County

Special ed transition not smooth for all students returning to Schenectady district

For most of the special education students moved back to the Schenectady City School District this y

For most of the special education students moved back to the Schenectady City School District this year, the money-saving move was a success.

But two of the 42 children hit serious problems, to the point where 5-year-old Ben Hotaling was sent home for more than a week while the district scrambled to find a better program for him.

Jessica Hotaling knew the move would be a difficult transition for her autistic son, but she didn’t expect Ben to begin to throw temper tantrums to the point where the school repeatedly called her to take him home.

Ben, and several other 5-year-olds, were moved from a special-education program run by BOCES that they had attended for kindergarten. They were placed in a special education first-grade classroom at Zoller Elementary School, where a new program was designed to be as similar as possible to the one they’d had with BOCES.

The moved saved $600,000, and it worked for 40 of the 42 children who were moved.

“Overall, we believe it’s going very well,” said Ann Jackson, district director for student support, “but we have had a few kids we’ve taken a closer look at. Some of the students probably needed something a little bit different even when they were at BOCES.”

Ben didn’t adapt well. It started with temper tantrums.

“They physically restrained him. They said at one point they needed two people to restrain him,” his mother said in disbelief. “He’s 5.”

Being held down made Ben afraid of his teacher. One day, he told his mother: “They hate me because I don’t know how to be good.”

It was clear he needed something different. The Zoller classroom was far noisier than his BOCES classroom had been, and students moved around more.

Then, his mother said, he realized how to get out of the stimulus-heavy situation: He’d throw a temper tantrum, and she’d be called to take him home.

“It was reinforcing a behavior in which if things didn’t go his way, all he has to do is pitch a fit and you call Mom and he gets to go home, which was perfectly fine with Benny,” Hotaling said.

Eventually, he was suspended — although Hotaling says she never received any paperwork saying that. She said the principal simply told her last month that it would be “better” if Ben stayed home until they found another program for him.

Although that decision may be unusual, it’s true that it takes time to get approval for special ed program changes, Jackson said.

Principals and teachers can meet to make small changes — such as directing an existing aide to give a student more attention — but they can’t add services without an official Committee of Special Education meeting.

After two months, the CSE met to review both of the students who were not doing well in their new program here. One was given more services. The other — Ben — was moved to another Schenectady elementary school. No student has gone back to the BOCES program.

To make such changes within 10 weeks of the first day of school is relatively quick for CSE reviews, but it was an agonizing wait for Jessica Hotaling.

After a few days’ absence in late October, she sent Ben back to school after meeting with his doctor and changing his medication. Although his teacher reported that he was having “a great day,” she said, she was called to take him home early anyway because he had been suspended.

A week later he was finally moved to a more structured program at FDR Elementary School. Hotaling thinks that program is a good fit for Ben, but she wishes they had moved faster — or not moved him from the BOCES program at all.

Last year, he adjusted slowly to the school setting, but the worst that happened was that he crawled under a table and hummed, she said. Teachers tried to show him how to deal with noise and other stimuli that autistic children often find distressing. Their goal was to get him to eventually cope without hiding under tables.

“Previously, he would be taken to a quiet room to calm down,” she said. “He steadily improved last year.”

Teachers never called her to take him home and never reported restraining him, she said.

But Jackson said it’s far better for Ben to be in Schenectady schools — even if it took 10 weeks to get him into the right program — than at another school in a far-away suburb.

It’s not just the money, although that was the motivating factor in this case, she said. As soon as school officials said they would create more special education classrooms here, Jackson pulled up the records of the students who were being sent farthest away.

She particularly wanted to bring back the students learning in Voorheesville, which is so far away that most parents never get there for meet-the-teacher nights, concerts and plays.

Even worse, the distance means that the student usually doesn’t get to participate in festivals, barbecues and other events held after school.

Some of the BOCES sites also don’t integrate the special education children into concerts and other group events.

In Schenectady, Jackson said, all the special education students participate. “They’re part of that spring concert. When the puppet show comes in, they’re part of that process. Their artwork is up on the walls,” she said.

And, most importantly for students like Ben, being at a Schenectady elementary school means it will be far easier to ease into mainstream classes when the time is right.

There are still 166 Schenectady students attending BOCES special ed programs as far away as Guilderland, but no one is in Voorheesville now, Jackson said. Only a few of those cannot be helped in Schenectady — there are some in psychiatric centers and other highly supervised programs. The rest could come back, if there were enough classrooms in Schenectady’s schools.

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