NISKAYUNA — Parents and staff members of a Niskayuna special education program for older students learning how to work and live independently are urging the school board and district officials to not move the program from downtown Schenectady to the high school.
As part of a litany of budget cuts, district officials proposed ending the $30,000 annual lease with SUNY Schenectady to house the district’s Community Transition Program at the college’s Center City building. The program, which has 12 students, serves youth with special needs who have aged past traditional high school but still receive school district services until they are 21. The specialized program, which splits student time between classroom instruction and job placements, draws some students from other districts in the region.
Parents and teacher aides involved in the program, though, have argued the proposed change of location would fundamentally alter the character of the program and diminish the service it provides to students. Students in the program spent their time at the high school, parents argued, and are benefiting from a setting that is based in the community, where they can practice navigating the cityscape, engage with college students and experience life outside of the school.
“The benefits of being in the community, I cannot even express them enough,” said Marcy Bulger, who has a son who recently finished the program and a daughter expected to enter the program; she herself works as a teacher assistant in the program. “The benefits of being in that downtown community has changed lives, and I cannot express that enough. It changed my son’s life, and I want it to change my daughter’s.”
Bulger said the program’s downtown Schenectady location provides a home for students to feel ingrained within the broader community. She said students can walk to job placements, access public transportation, visit restaurants and experience a new level of maturity in life. Bulger said she is particularly concerned for students who, after finishing their time at the high school, have spent the past year in the program based downtown. She said moving back to the high school would be devastating for students who had the chance to experience the program outside of the high school.
“I just feel like it’s a huge step backward,” Bulger said in an interview Tuesday. “The idea you can have a community-based program at the high school just doesn’t make sense.”
Pressure has mounted on board members and district officials to find an alternative to ending the lease. Half of the eight public comments submitted to the school board this week urged the board to preserve the program and its downtown classroom.
“Having the transition program housed at the SCCC Center City location allows for these students to feel like they are at college and are able to succeed with their education past high school,” Deborah Pfohl, also a teacher assistant in the program, wrote in comments submitted to the school board this week.
Craig Hamelink, whose daughter is part of the program, in comments he submitted to the board said the program has “worked wonders” for his daughter and helped prepare her for life beyond Niskayuna schools.
“Maybe most importantly, they are surrounded by the adult world, all day, every day versus being inside of a high school, with younger people in a different universe,” he said in his comments.
District officials at Monday’s board meeting fielded questions from board members about the program and the trade-offs of canceling the lease and potentially moving the program to the high school. Camille Harrelson, the district director of pupil personnel services, who oversees special education programs, said if the district relocated the program’s classroom, students would still go out into the community for work placements and field trips. She also said housing the program at the high school would make it easier to allow the students the chance to continue working through the state’s Regents courses if they want to continue pursuing a Regents diploma.
“By bringing it back to the high school, the only thing that is going to change for our students is sitting in the SCCC classroom,” said “The integrity of the program will stay intact, which I think is the most important thing for our students.”
But board members pressed for more information about the program’s finances – questioning whether the district earned revenue by hosting out-of-district students and whether those placements were at risk if the program moved locations. They instructed district staff to search for other sites or see if SUNY Schenectady would be willing reduce the rental rate. Some board members echoed the views of the parents of program participants, noting that the location outside of the high school offers benefits to students in the program that go beyond the cost of the lease.
The community transition program also had a champion in the form of student board representative Anjalee Modasra, who said her sister was a part of the program last year and called it one of her sister’s favorite parts of being a student in Niskayuna.
“I know that she looked forward to being at SCCC every day,” Modasra said during Monday’s board meeting. “It was something that brightened her year last year.”
Some parents said they would consider pulling their child from the program if it were moved to the high school or advocate for the district to pay for a placement in another community-based program. Mary Ruby, whose 19-year-old son started in the program this school year after four years at the high school, said her son has gained independence and an ability to express his wants and desires more than in the past and that going back to the high school would be a major step in the wrong direction.
“There are so many opportunities with having that location,” Ruby said of the downtown site. “That location is like the hub of what the program is demonstrating: the program is about realistic life skills, accessing the community and developing social equality within the community.”