LISBON - Preschool students served currently by the county Board of Developmental Disability next fall will all attend preschools run by the Education Service Center instead.
After a report by Superintendent William Devon Tuesday, the board voted to transition its preschool licenses to the ESC, which already operates preschools, including programs for special needs students, in nine of 11 school districts in the county.
Devon said the move allows for more students to be served. Currently, the Robert Bycroft program can handle 16 students. There must be one teacher for every eight students. He pointed out an ESC developmental disability preschool program in Wellsville serves 30 students.
The current Robert Bycroft program is a six-hour program, but Devon said roughly only three hours of that is instructional time. The rest is bathroom breaks, breakfast, lunch and nap time.
Students ages 3 to 5 attending the Robert Bycroft program ride buses for up to 90 minutes from areas throughout the county. Because of a perceived stigma, Devon said, some parents will not send their at-risk students to the Robert Bycroft School. He had considered having satellite programs in other places, but would be crossing into areas already served by the ESC.
By comparison the students attending the ESC programs will be able to attend closer to their homes and the program is designed as only a three-hour program.
Robert Bycroft Principal Cheryl McGrath said currently there are 30 to 40 children in the county who are believed to need a developmental disability preschool program but are not being served at all. She said she feels transitioning the program to the ESC will allow more students to be served.
The Robert Bycroft preschool costs $670,000 a year, some of which is covered by state funding. However, Devon said money was not the important part of the equation in making the decision. He believes most if not all the teachers from the Robert Bycroft preschool program will be able to transition to continue to work in other positions at Robert Bycroft. He plans to go speak with those teachers today.
"I'm not trying to close Bycroft," Devon said after the meeting. "I'm trying to enhance Bycroft."
He added that in the past when money was not an issue, everyone could do their own thing. But now it makes more sense to share resources with the ESC as they have when they appointed McGrath as both the Columbiana County Director of Special Education and the Robert Bycroft Principal.
Instead of focusing on preschool, Devon said they will look to grow the transitional program. That program, which assists developmentally disabled students ages 14 to 21, has increased interest. The idea is to build in those students the skills they will need to participate in their community, find employment and live independently.
While Devon and the board seemed happy with the change, Ann Davis, a 24-year teacher of the program plus a parent and a grandparent all spoke before the decision was made about the big difference the Robert Bycroft program has made for those attending there.
Kristin Thompson said she is a very satisfied parent of the Robert Bycroft program. Her son went there knowing only five words and not potty trained. Davis told her when her son started he would be talking by Christmas, which she did not believe at the time, but he was. He now talks in complete sentences and at age 4 can read sight words.
"He finally said 'Mommy, I love you,'" Thompson said of her son's progress.
Thompson's son attends speech therapy, occupational therapy and physical therapy, all programs which Devon said will still be available at the ESC program. However, Thompson questioned how everything her child is receiving in six hours can fit into three hours.
"We are glad they are branching out to help other kids," Thompson said, "but they should leave (the Robert Bycroft) program alone as a model."
Lezlie Thompson said she had a son with special needs who is now a productive adult. Now her grandson is attending the preschool program and she has seen a big transition in how he now interacts with other children. She said the problems for special needs students have not changed through the years.
"These special needs kids need this to become productive adults, not pushed (to compete with other students) or pushed aside," she said. "It's about what's best for the children."