Submitted by Julia McCann, Greenwich
Recently, some important and significant changes are being proposed by the Greenwich Public Schools (GPS) for its preschool classroom that require your attention.
During recent Board of Education meetings, these changes have seemingly been supported by many Board of Education members, however, we believe the extent and scope of these changes have not been fully communicated to the community nor the families of current preschool students, limiting their ability to fully understand the ultimate impact it will have on the education of our youngest and most vulnerable students.
Key points (additional explanation of the changes and associated student impact can be found below the bullets).
● GPS is proposing a significant increase in the preschool classroom size to up to 17 students, with up to 8 special education students per classroom – a 50/50 ratio of special education to general education students (without any increase in staff)
● The proposed change will significantly and negatively impact students with special
education needs – specifically:
o Special education services offered and the quality provided will decrease
o “Carryover services” will decrease
o Access to, and communication with teachers will decrease
● The proposed change will significantly and negatively impact general education students – specifically:
o Staff attention to and engagement with students will decrease
o Academic rigor in the classroom will decrease
● The overarching safety of both general education students and special education students will be impacted by the proposed change
● The solution is clear:
o Additional classrooms need to be opened when a maximum of 6 special education students per classroom will otherwise be exceeded
o Additional teachers, professional assistants, and therapists (speech, OT, and PT) need to be retained in order to ensure caseloads do not exceed that which is sustainable in order to deliver the mandated services to the preschool students
o Make your voices heard by emailing Dr. Jones, Dr. Heiligenthaler, Joe Baynes and members of the Greenwich Board of Education (email addresses below)
The GPS preschool program is an integrated educational environment. This means the classrooms contain both students who are developing typically as well as students who are experiencing delays/disabilities. Students who are identified with delays or disabilities receive special education and support services (e.g., speech/language therapy, occupational therapy, and physical therapy).
All GPS preschool teachers are both special education teachers and general education teachers, meaning they provide individualized support to the children with special education needs while also acting as the full-time preschool teacher for all students in the classroom.
Historically, in order to meet the needs of all students in the preschool classrooms, the number of students with special education needs were capped at 4-5 and general education students at 11 (for a total of 15 students). The classrooms were staffed by 1 special education/general education teacher and 3 professional assistants. When classrooms reached 4-5 students with special education needs per class, a new classroom would be opened to accommodate more students. This allowed the integrity of each preschool learning environment to be maintained.
Unfortunately, opening additional preschool classrooms was seen as costly. To avoid this as much as possible, in recent years (2017-2023), when classrooms reached 5 special education students in a class the cap was simply raised to 6 and then 7 students per class (instead of opening another classroom). Currently, all GPS preschool classrooms have a cap of 7 special education students and 9 typically developing students, however, staffing has not increased.
In an alarming turn of events, it is now being proposed by Greenwich Public School District that the amount of students with special education needs per classroom be increased yet again and that each classroom adopt a “50/50 model” with a cap of 17 students. This would mean 8 children with special education needs in each classroom. It should be noted, that as recently as 2016, preschool classes had a composition of 4 special needs students and 11 typically developing students with 1 teacher and 3 paras. The newly proposed GPS model is a 100% special education student increase with no additional staffing (no additional teachers, professional assistants or therapists) since 2016.
How these changes impact students with special education needs:
● Decrease in special education services that can be offered/provided to each student: As numbers of students with special education needs increase and staffing stays the same, it is unrealistic to assume the same quality and quantity of therapy and support can be given to students. Teachers, assistants, and therapists are a limited resource with limited time and with increased caseloads, they will not be able to offer the same amount of time to the students (e.g., less individual therapy, less sessions, less service hours).
● Decrease in the “carryover services” that classroom-based staff can provide regarding speech, OT and PT – both special education staff and professional assistants are trained to implement speech, OT and PT support in addition to the specific therapy each child gets. This is an important part of a child’s special education program and allows them to practice their speech, occupation, and physical therapy goals consistently and frequently all week. With increased special education students and unchanged staffing, the same attention to the carryover of these skills cannot be provided. These skills would not be able to be specifically practiced each day and limit a student’s development.
● Decrease communication and access to teachers: with increased student numbers more time will need to be dedicated by teachers and therapists to providing services and prepping for the students needs. With such large numbers of students, less time can be offered to communicating with parents via meetings, phone calls, and emails, or providing home support (such as offering resources). Student success is often supported by the parent’s ability to carry over and practice skills at home. Teacher and therapist will have very limited time to support parents with the increase to their caseload.
● Safety concerns: The safety of all students and staff is a top priority. Unfortunately, the proposed changes to classroom size and special education to general education student mix will be a huge stress on the resources of a classroom (i.e., not enough staff to reasonably keep students safe) and student safety could be the collateral damage of a poorly thought out new model.
How these changes impact general education students:
● A decrease in the amount of time and consideration that can be afforded to a student because staff will undoubtedly be preoccupied with the students who have special needs (special need services are federally mandated and must be provided)
● Decreased academic rigor in the classroom: Recently, GPS has advertised their implementation of various curriculums and learning programs that promote academic rigor in their preschool classes. If the newly proposed preschool model of 50/50 is adopted, the amount of time spent on general education instruction will be reduced and our children will have less opportunity to have quality instruction that meets their diverse learning needs.
● Safety concerns: All preschool students are young and can be impulsive. All students required continuous monitoring for safety. Students with special needs may require increased support to maintain their safety. Is the safety of all students being seriously considered when GPS proposes such a significant increase in the amount of special education students in a classroom without any mention of how physical and safety needs of all students can be met?
The desire to keep the preschool operating costs down is ultimately driving this new change to the preschool model. Opening more preschool classrooms when current preschool classrooms reach 6 special education students is the only appropriate way to 1) provide adequate special education and therapeutic services to special education students, 2) maintain the integrity of the general education curriculum, and 3) provide a safe learning environment for all. However, opening new classrooms has become too costly for GPS and the Board of Education, and they are willing to risk the aforementioned factors to keep the budget low.
It should be noted that general education students pay tuition to attend the public school, and any parents may be wondering why their tuition is not satisfactory to provide an appropriate and safe learning environment for their child. Surprisingly, preschool tuition goes directly to the Town of Greenwich and, unfortunately, not only is it not used to fund the preschool program, but it is not even utilized by the Board of Education.
If the preschool is struggling with adequate funding, why hasn’t the school district requested the preschool tuition money to help offset some of the costs to keep the preschool ratios lower?
Increases in the GPS class ratios is taking away from our students’ academic success across both special education and general education. Our preschool teachers, therapists, and staff will be stretched even thinner, which will decrease their ability to support students to the fullest and may ultimately impact students in having quality teachers and paras leave the program and district.
Please help us make our voices heard by emailing Dr. Jones, Dr. Heiligenthaler, Joe Baynes and members of the Greenwich Board of Education and telling them why you disagree with these changes.
Please come to the board of education meeting on Thursday 1/18 at 7:00 pm at Central Middle School and share your concerns regarding this negative impact on our preschool
program. To speak at the meeting, you must sign up by 12:00 noon on Thursday:
CC: Greenwich Board of Education members, Superintendent Dr. Toni Jones, Chief officer of Special Education Dr. Stacey Heiligenthaler, GPS Preschool Coordinator Joe Baynes