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PRESCHOOL CLASSES EARNING MONEY FOR NIAGARA COUNTY

NEWFANE - There are story times, snacks and painting and coloring - just like any other preschool class.

But some Niagara County preschool classes are different; they earn money for Niagara County.

Two preschool classes in Newfane and one each in Lewiston and Niagara Falls combine typical 4-year-olds with those needing special education services, and they are staffed by employees of the county Health Department's Speech, Hearing and Language Center.

The Newfane and Lewiston-Porter school districts use state aid to pay the county for the services.

The state Education Department pays the entire tuition for the special needs children enrolled in the Health Association class. Typical children are paid for by their parents, although the county Social Services Depatment may assist those who have low incomes or are otherwise eligible for public assistance.

Wendy H. Harris, director of child learning centers for the Health Association, said the parents of typical children are charged the association's usual rate for day care services, which is $106 a week. Social Services pays that rate in whole or in part for those parents who are eligible for its aid.

The county could come out as much as $47,400 ahead of its expenses this year, according to Daniel J. Stapleton, the Health Department's director of financial operations.

The classes are set up for 14 children - eight "typical" children and six special education children. Seven county employees work in the program. There are three in each of the half-day classes - a teacher, an aide and a speech therapist.

Two of the employees pull double duty, working in Niagara Falls in the morning and at Lewiston-Porter in the afternoon.

Newfane has two of the classes at its Early Childhood Center on Godfrey Road. Assistant Principal Amy Cavaretta said the district has been offering the program for seven years.

Lewiston-Porter's class at North Elementary School was inaugurated with the beginning of the new school year this month, according to Judith A. Condino, the district's director of special education and instructional services.

"It's wonderful. Everyone seems totally thrilled with it," Condino said.

"All the classes are what the state calls "preschool integrated classes,' " said John J.M. Reardon, the director of the Speech, Hearing and Language Center.

Reardon, who left county government Friday to become deputy director of United Cerebral Palsy in Niagara County, said the Health Department conducts screenings of children whose parents fear they are not developing normally.

The screenings check motor, language, social and communications skills. "The general ability to learn or progress normally is what we're looking for," Reardon said.

Cavaretta said, "If they notice delayed speech problems, auditory delays, like if you don't think your children are listening, if they're having difficulty comprehending, that's something the parents should be concerned with."

The free development screenings for children up to age 3 can be arranged by calling the county Health Department at 278-8728.

Condino of Lew-Port said, "We worked with Niagara County Speech, Hearing and Language for years in terms of their providing us with preschool special education services."

A child flagged by the screenings could be eligible for speech, physical or occupational therapy at home, or they could be considered for one of the spaces in one of the 2 1/2 -hour, five-days-a-week classes, based on action by a district's Committee on Preschool Special Education.

Reardon said a lottery is sometimes involved if the demand is too great.

Cavaretta said Newfane parents have to fill out forms, and the district favors children of single parents or those in financial need for the available spots in the classes.

Reardon said, "Lew-Port and Newfane have given their parents the option of putting their kids with us or in a class of all typical kids."

Condino said, "We had no preschool program before this. This is the only program this (state) grant funds. . . . The Board (of Education) has told us if State Ed (the state Education Department) stops funding pre-K, we won't have a pre-K program."

Condino said Lew-Port offers a morning pre-K class taught by district staffers, which includes two or three special needs children. But she said they have "less intensive needs" than those in the afternoon county-staffed pre-K class.

As of last week, there were six special education slots in the afternoon class, but one was vacant.

"I would challenge anyone to pick out those kids," said Condino.

Jennifer Lonnen, a county speech therapist who has worked with special needs preschoolers at Newfane for three years, said the integration occurs when she or other therapists are not working directly with the special needs children.

"They get the integration during play time, during gym time," she said. Those are half-hour sessions. Gym periods are held three days a week, and playground time is offered on the other two days.

Cavaretta said special needs children's tuition for the classes is paid by the state, and the universal pre-K grant to the district covers the cost of the "typical" children in the classes.

Condino said, "The grant requires that you put aside 20 percent of the amount to collaborate with an existing agency."

Stapleton said the county is paid $2,700 for a "typical" child attending one of the integrated classes at Lew-Port. Newfane pays $900 per "typical" child.

Stapleton said the county's current tuition rate for the preschool classes is $11,492 for a full 12-month year. But he added, "The average child doesn't attend for the whole 12 months. It varies widely, based on when they're diagnosed."

Stapleton calculated the classes' costs and projected revenue, something he said he had never done before, at the request of The Buffalo News.

He said the county estimates $152,000 in revenues for the two Newfane classes, compared with $130,000 in costs. For the Lew-Port class, the revenue estimated was $90,000, against $68,00 in expenses; and in the Health Association class, the revenue estimate was $69,700 against $65,000 in cost.

However, Stapleton said those are based on every child staying in for 12 months. "We will not have these surpluses. We will definitely have smaller surpluses," he said.

Lonnen said her daily presence is augmented by visits twice a week from occupational and physical therapists.

She said the occupational therapist helps children with "activities they would need to participate in class, like cutting or stringing beads."

The county also provides audiology and counseling if the children need them, Lonnen said.

The therapists also work with children to adjust what Lonnen called their "arousal level."

"Some of the children we have are under-aroused and they look like they're falling asleep. They can't pay attention," she said. One of the techniques is to bounce them gently on a ball.

Other children are "over-aroused." Lonnen said, "They can't sit still." One of the methods used to calm them is to gently stroke their backs, she said.

e-mail: tprohaska@buffnews.com