District 65 Early Childhood Center is at the JEH School Administration Building.

Evanston/Skokie School District 65 is nearly at the maximum allowed number of students with disabilities at the Joseph E. Hill Early Childhood Center.

Because of that influx, the district now plans to send a traveling team of special education staffers to private and community preschools, to provide services to some of the children ages 3-5 at those other facilities.

“Youth special ed referrals keep coming,” says Sharon Sprague, the District’s Director of Early Childhood Education.

The JEH/ECC program has 317 students, ages 3-5. Eighty-nine, or 28%, have Individualized Education Programs, service plans for a variety of disabilities. And the number of preschoolers with those IEPs keeps growing.

“We have more students with IEPs than we have the physical infrastructure to support,” Sprague says.

State regulations require no more than a 70/30 percentage ratio of general education to special education students in a classroom. (Students with speech IEPs are not included in this ratio. District 65 has a number of those students as well).

With gen ed numbers down, even among preschoolers, the increasing total of children with IEPs means some classrooms will top the 30% special needs maximum unless something is done.

While the state may grant waivers from the 70/30 ratio, and District 65 has received them in the past, it’s not seen as ideal, and not as a long-term solution.

District 65 had considered adding classrooms at JEH/ECC this year, or using empty classrooms in other school buildings, but Assistant Superintendent Romy DeCristofaro says the system is going to what’s called an “itinerant model,” where eligible children “stay in their preschool and the itinerant team goes to them.”

That team will be made up of a special education teacher, a speech therapist, an occupational therapist and a social worker.

Nine preschools have agreed to partner with the district on this, although the program will be phased in slowly, perhaps one or two children at a time.

Most preschoolers with special education needs will continue to attend JEH/ECC.

Leia Perkins, D65’s Coordinator of Individualized Education Services, says many families of special needs children “are excited that they are getting to stay” in their present preschool, rather than having to leave that school and enroll at JEH/ECC permanently, or go there part of the day for special services.

The D65 officials noted one case where a preschooler attended a community facility starting at 7 a.m. so the parents could go to work. That child was then transported to JEH midday for special education, and then returned to the community preschool for the rest of the afternoon and parental pickup.

That’s a pretty grueling day for a little kid.

A big question in all of this is why are special needs/IEP referrrals increasing in preschool, while the overall student population in District 65 is declining?

Sprague says Evanston has seen “a lot more special needs students moving into the district,” perhaps as part of families searching for a good program.

Another reason, as with so many other education issues, could be “fallout from COVID.”

Sprague notes that some children who would have been enrolled in preschool had to stay home during the pandemic, and then some parents still did not send the kids once preschools reopened.

Now, Sprague notes, some of those children who are now coming back are developmentally delayed due to the long layoff.

As of now, the itinerant team model is just for the rest of the current school year.

But DeCristofaro says “we hope it will be a positive thing for the future. We hope families will be happy.”

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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1 Comment

  1. I am happy to hear that D65 is keeping some kids with IEP’s in their private preschools. This model has been used in other neighboring districts for a long time. It can work very well. When done well, it benefits all the students in that classroom. It does require a robust well written IEP. It also needs a carefully designed plan that puts the right supports in place. The itinerant teachers and therapists need some flexibility in their schedules so they can truly be the support the student and the school needs. When this does not happen, preschools get frustrated. They could then push back.

    I am assuming that the JEH program can only have 70/30 split between students with and without IEP’s based on their current licensing. Let’s be clear however. The state does allow early childhood classrooms where 100% of the students have IEP’s. So, if necessary early childhood rooms that have 100% of its students with IEP’s could be added into elementary buildings that have space.

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