COLUMBIA — Columbia Public Schools is looking to serve an increasing number of students with special needs through plans for a new early-childhood special-education building.
The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has agreed to cover the expense, which the district would pay back over an eight-year period.
Linda Quinley, the district’s chief financial officer, said that Columbia Public Schools prefers to purchase a new space rather than lease one but that the district cannot afford to do either independently.
Quinley said that the upcoming closure of the Moog School of Columbia increases the need for early-childhood special education in Columbia. In general, the number of young children in the city with special needs is increasing.
Dana Clippard, director of special services for the district, said that like increasing rates of childhood autism and diabetes, there is an increase in the number of children with hearing impairments in Columbia.
Quinley said that as of December 2010, the district’s early-childhood special-education enrollment was at about 215 students.
Clippard said that, compared with last fall's district-wide numbers, about 25 more students are expected to receive early-childhood special-education services this fall. In addition, about 20 student evaluations for special services were scheduled for this summer as of June 9. The evaluations may or may not result in those students qualifying for services, she said.
Clippard said the district does not typically see this kind of increase in enrollment from one fall to the next.
“We would consider this, from fall to fall, a pretty significant increase,” she said.
Children who qualify for early-childhood special education start receiving services when they turn 3, Clippard said. They age out of the services when they reach kindergarten, which is typically around age 5.
Columbia Public Schools' plans for the new building include five classrooms and an indoor activity area for occupational therapy, physical therapy and gross motor-skill development, Clippard said.
She said three of the five classrooms will be designated for children with hearing impairments, two of which are new classrooms and the other is a relocated class from the Field building at 1010 Range Line St.
She said these rooms would have acoustic elements to absorb sound and maximize students’ hearing.
“We’re going to have carpeting to absorb sound,” Clippard said. “Solid doors versus hollow doors to reduce sound.”
Clippard also said students with hearing impairments would have opportunities for one-on-one time with a speech pathologist to build oral communication skills.
Clippard said the district identifies and evaluates students for special services throughout the year to determine how best to serve them. The programs are designed according to students’ needs.
“We’re building these classrooms responsively based upon our student population,” Clippard said. “Their needs determine what the classes look like.”
Although the new location would use a preschool curriculum, Clippard said the students’ goals would be individualized.
“It's not curriculum-driven,” Clippard said. “It’s child-driven.”
The new location would have many of the same characteristics as a preschool, but Clippard said she wouldn’t call it one.
“It’s not just an ordinary preschool,” she said. “It’s special education services. It’s a different experience than a typical day care or preschool.”
As for students without disabilities who would attend the school, Clippard said the district has never had problems filling these spaces.
“They’re really quality learning environments,” she said.
Clippard said the staff at the new location would be highly specialized and would include occupational therapists, physical therapists, speech language pathologists and educators for students with hearing impairments.
“They’re still going to sing songs and play games, those developmentally appropriate activities you see (in a preschool),” Clippard said, but some students will work with specialists to develop necessary skills.
The time students spend in school also differs from a traditional preschool setup. Clippard said this is based on what each student is working on.
“The amount of time children attend is based upon the goals they have and the services they need,” she said.
Quinley said the new location is expected to create jobs for about three full-time teachers and one part-time teacher, as well as a few instructional aides.
Quinley said it is still too early in the process to know how much the new location would cost the district.
She said the district’s estimated 2011-2012 budget for early childhood special education is $3 million, up from last year’s $2.8 million. She said the entire operating budget for Columbia Public Schools in the upcoming year will be about $156 million.
Quinley said the district may lease or buy a new building. One possibility is Curiosity Castle, a child care facility in the Vanderveen subdivision at 3900 White Tiger Lane.
“We’re just looking at the building,” Quinley said.
Michelle Baumstark, coordinator of community relations for Columbia Public Schools, said it seems that the Curiosity Castle building would meet the district’s needs.
Quinley said the district needs to sort out funding questions and get into a new space in time for the upcoming school year.
“It will definitely be a scramble,” Quinley said.
Although the district is leasing the Early Childhood Education Center at 4001 Waco Road, it is too small to serve all the children who need services, Baumstark said.
Clippard said the Early Childhood Education Center would continue to operate in addition to the new facility.
“We’ve had early-childhood programs for years and years,” Clippard said. “But what we are experiencing now is growth, so this will allow us to continue to provide high-quality early-childhood special-education services for students in the community.”
Missourian reporters Katherine Wall and Briana Altergott contributed to this article.