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What 'Special Needs' Means: Stamford Students Across the Spectrum

At Tuesday night's Board of Education Fiscal Committee meeting, the group was faced some troubling facts in that they were soon going to be short on classrooms seats for students with special needs like autism—and the committee looked to bring back progra

Currently, Stamford's public school system has 2 special needs preschool units within the district—one general special needs program located at Stillmeadow Elementary and an autism spectrum disorder-specific program at Westover School.

On Tuesday night, Special Education Services Director Wayne Holland said Stamford would need two more classrooms for the coming students the district would need to house. They currently have 88 seats in the programs with 24 vacancies coming up. Holland knows for certain that 21 of those seats are already filled.

"This summer, starting July 1, we will have our team working," Holland said during the committee meeting. "There will be children turning 3 in July and we have to be prepared to have them in their seats in September. There is no where else to put the next child after we fill those three empty seats."

The board immediately began playing around with ideas for a rough solution. Could they rent space form an existing building? Was a new building feasible? Where would they get money for not only the space, but for the teachers, special needs nurses, all the additional requirements for a special needs classroom.

"I felt supported," Holland said in an interview after the meeting. "The concern is, 'What are we going to do for our children in Stamford?' first, and then to look for the dollars. This board has been that supportive all year long. Even though expenses have gone up, they look for a way to cover the cost."

Rough estimates run the range of $250,000 to $500,000, but those numbers are all ethereal. The committee will come together again in June and hope to have a game plan outlined that will both provide the space and the funds to provide for the children.

Additionally during the meeting, Jerry Pia, Chair of the Fiscal Committee, brought up the idea of bringing back a program that used to be called Extraordinary Learners. The program, for gifted and talented students, was a nice counter-balance of providing for the special needs of those students who would utilize an additional outlet or atmosphere in situations where they excelled.

"If I've heard this once, I've heard it once a week—so I've heard this once a week for the past four years," Pia said. "'Can you guys come back with some kind of...gifted and talented [program?]' It was a really, really good program and we've let it die out."

Interim Superintendent Dr. Winifred Hamilton said the efforts of the board are, in her estimation, par for the course for that they have been able to accomplish.

"I don't think that's an anomaly with this board," she said."I think that this board has always said 'What do we need to put the students first?' Being fiscally responsible does not mean that you're not child centered. I think you prioritize your expendituires and I think making sure we're taking care of the needs of students and making sacrifices other places is what we're going to do."

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