A School Emphasizes Nurturing

C.D.C.H.’s small size helps special needs; districts’ officials question cost
Hannah Salazar, a 5-year-old student at the Child Development Center of the Hamptons, read in the school’s library last week. Durell Godfrey

      Early on the morning of Nov. 19 at the Child Development Center of the Hamptons, 16 kindergarten students wriggled in tiny electric blue chairs, maybe half a foot off the ground, as one of their teachers, Hillary Paul, led the class through a series of daily prompts.

       The class, made up of 13 boys and 3 girls, discussed the days of the week and the months of the year before finally counting the days of the month, from the 1st of November to the 19th.

       “You guys are getting so good at counting,” said Ms. Paul. Meanwhile, her colleague Mercedes Parris also sat in the semicircle, helping to ease a child into the morning by rubbing his shoulders and giving him an extra dose of encouragement.

       In the kindergarten class, the majority are regular education students, with a small percentage classified as special education. None receive one-on-one support. The Child Development Center of the Hamptons, a charter school on Stephen Hand’s Path in East Hampton that utilizes a co-teaching model, places two certified teachers, one typically in possession of a special education certificate, in every class.

       The effect is warm and intimate, with children, no matter their needs, receiving a steady stream of individual attention.

       Though C.D.C.H., the only charter school on the South Fork, got its start in 1997 as an alternative for children with special needs, specifically a mother in search of an appropriate place for her autistic son, it now enrolls a significant number of regular education students — nearly half of the 80 students from kindergarten to grade five. It also operates a tuition-based preschool, which is separate from the charter school. It currently enrolls 38 children.

       “A lot of our parents know us by word of mouth,” said Patricia Loewe, the school’s education leader, a position she’s held since last fall. She formerly worked in Montauk, overseeing that district’s special education program. “For children with special needs, often earlier is better. If we can intervene as soon as possible, there’s a good chance of a student not needing those services down the road.”

       The building, whose design resembles a spacious airplane hangar, also houses additional on-site services, whether for speech, reading, occupational therapy, or psychological counseling.

       For children in need of additional interventions, the school offers a special class. It now enrolls seven students, with most of them also having an individual aide, in addition to the regularly assigned special education teacher and teaching assistant. The class offers multiple opportunities for socialization with peers, whether during art, gym, or lunchtime.

       “We don’t have the layers of bureaucracy,” Ms. Loewe said. “It’s a smaller setting, with more opportunities for more nurturing.”

       At present, 14 different eastern Long Island districts send children to C.D.C.H., from Montauk to Brookhaven and several points in between, as long as they meet the 50-mile radius requirement, according to Christopher Long, its chief operations officer. As a charter school, it is managed by Family Residences and Essential Enterprises, a not-for-profit organization based in Old Bethpage.

       But for sending districts, the alternative is not without attendant costs. Ms. Loewe said a certain diplomacy was required, and that it was, at times, a sensitive issue. As a public charter school, the matter is parent choice, and a contract is established between each of the sending districts, which in some cases are also required to supply transportation should a child’s needs dictate it.

       “We’re impacted because we pay tuition. The services are costly,” said Eric Casale, the principal of the Springs School. Each year, the district sends between 15 and 19 students to C.D.C.H. “A lot of the supports we have here in the building and it doesn’t cost us extra if the students need speech or therapy. If they attend C.D.C.H., it costs us more.”

       According to Thomas Primiano, the district’s treasurer, Springs currently enrolls 19 regular education students at C.D.C.H., where, for the 2012-13 school year, tuition rates were $21,775, with the Springs School paying more than $370,000 in all. Last year, New York State gave Springs $922 in tuition assistance for each of the 19 children — a total of $17,518.

       East Hampton, meanwhile, paid $270,919 last year to send 10 regular education students to C.D.C.H. and $110,672 to cover the costs of enrolling 4 special education students, according to Isabel Madison, the district’s assistant superintendent for business. As with Springs, last year East Hampton received from the state an annual reimbursement of $900 for each child.

       “It does have a financial impact on the district,” said Richard Burns, East Hampton’s superintendent. If we have to budget $500,000 for C.D.C.H., it’s a significant amount of money.”

       In recent years, as with many of the surrounding districts, C.D.C.H. has seen an increase in its Latino enrollment. Ms. Loewe estimated that its Latino population approached nearly 50 percent. As a result, the school recently hired two bilingual staff members, including one who sits at the front entrance and is able to communicate directly with Spanish-speaking parents.

       According to the 2011-12 New York State Report Card, the most recent available, the average class size was 12 students. Only 8 percent qualified for free or reduced-price lunches in a student body that was 55 percent white, 34 percent Latino, 5 percent multiracial, 3 percent black, and 3 percent Asian.

       After fifth grade, Ms. Loewe said, most students return to their home districts, and most with little difficulty. In future years, some members of the administration can see the school expanding until at least the middle school grades, helping to ease the eventual transition.

       No matter the cost, Gail Simons, a Montauk resident, sees C.D.C.H. as a badly needed resource. She enrolled her son, a special education student, in 2003. She said that it saved his life, helping to bolster his confidence and self-esteem.

       “The school deals with children as they are,” Ms. Simons said. “There are no labels. They are only treated as individuals. There is no bullying. Everyone is accepted for who they are — and not just accepted, but celebrated and loved.”

       Since graduating, her son now attends the Montauk School. Though he has since adjusted, she described the move as a bit of a culture shock and said that the transition had been a somewhat rough one. Mostly, she is grateful for the socialization her son received at the development center. “He would have ended up in a far worse place,” she said. “It would have been detrimental for him.”

       Along with several other parents, she can also see its utility for typically developing children. “In learning alongside nontypical children, it can be a good learning experience in terms of building empathy and compassion,” Ms. Simons said.

       Back in the building this November morning, during an observation of a fifth-grade class, the co-teaching model was in full force during a math lesson. The class of 18 was roughly split into thirds — with a third performing at grade level, a third approaching grade level, and a third receiving remediated instruction. Besides the two main teachers, five paraprofessionals circulated throughout the room, working one-on-one with nearly half the class, many seated at separate desks.

       It should be noted that when asked to observe the co-teaching model, the school granted two 10-minute observations — one of the kindergarten and another of the fifth grade.

       Jessica Tuthill, who is in her fifth year as president of the school’s parent-teacher organization, has enrolled her son, Hunter, who has autism, since kindergarten. Now that he is 10 and in the fifth grade, she is weighing whether to hold him back another year to delay the transition to another school.

       Mrs. Tuthill, a resident of Sag Harbor, doesn’t know what her family would have done were it not for the school. “They take special-needs kids and integrate them into a regular education model,” she said. “I never felt like he wasn’t accepted. Of all the quirks that he has, they’ve always found a way to work around it.”