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Nassau BOCES plans to close special ed preschool

Jeannine Tucci with her daughter Olivia, 3, and

Jeannine Tucci with her daughter Olivia, 3, and son John, 9. John attended the BOCES Early Childhood Center for hearing impaired students. (Jan. 17, Photo Credit: David Pokress

Nassau BOCES plans to close its special education preschool in Levittown because of a $2 million annual budget shortfall and declining enrollment, officials said Thursday.

The Early Childhood Center, which opened in 1992, will shutter July 1, an upsetting development for some parents who may have to travel farther for their children to receive similar educational services.

"The decision about this program was forced on us by the state," Nassau BOCES Superintendent Tom Rogers said. "There's no one in this agency who wants to close the program."

Rogers said reimbursement from the state was lagging and has been flat for years. In November, he said, he sent a lengthy letter to Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. detailing the numerous problems with the funding mechanism for the program.

The state never answered, Rogers said.

State Education Department spokesman Tom Dunn, in an email Thursday, said that dealing with news outlets on the state's deadline day for approval of districts' teacher evaluation plans prevented him from answering questions about the Early Childhood Center.

Eight members of the Nassau BOCES board voted Jan. 11 to end the program.

Some members were choked up with sadness as they reached that decision, Rogers said.The program, located in the Gallows School on Farmedge Road, serves children ages 3 to 5 who have a variety of developmental issues, including speech and language problems and emotional disturbances.

The current enrollment is 108 students, 33 of whom would need to find a new school. The rest are aging out of the program and would move on to kindergarten in public or private schools.

The students receive a range of services from certified special education teachers; speech-language, physical and occupational therapists; psychologists; and teacher aides hired for expertise in early childhood education.

About one-third of the students affected have hearing impairments.

Parents of some of those children said the program has proved most successful in helping hearing-impaired students segue into a mainstream kindergarten.

"I feel like they left all of these kids out in the cold," said Jeannine Tucci, 44, of North Bellmore, a registered nurse.

With the center's closure, she must decide where to send her daughter, Olivia, a month shy of 3, who just started in the program. Officials told her to go to the Mill Neck Manor School for the Deaf, on the North Shore, about a 45-minute drive.

"I can't imagine putting a 3-year-old on the bus for that long," said Tucci, whose hearing-impaired son, John, 9, went through the program and is doing well in his fourth-grade class in the North Bellmore district.

The center also runs a program for deaf infants that will remain open but relocate. Officials said the new location has not yet been determined.

BOCES officials said there are several private providers who offer similar services for preschoolers with disabilities, and at least 10 providers for children with hearing impairments. They did not immediately respond to a request for a list of those providers.

Total enrollment at the center had dwindled over the years, another factor in the decision to close it, Rogers said.

At its peak, in the 1997-98 school year, the center served 297 students.

This fall, only 80 preschoolers registered even after recruitment efforts, Rogers said. Some students, as they turn 3, had entered the program since, but it wasn't enough to keep the center open, he said.

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