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County gets special ed pre-k

Special needs preschoolers serviced by the Covington County School System will soon have a new place to learn, thanks to a nearly $250,000 renovation project at the system’s central office.

The project, which is being funded by stimulus money specially designated for special education use, is in the beginning stages, and school officials are currently waiting to finalize renovation plans for the facility.

For special needs children, the education process begins early. From birth to age 3, those children are followed by the state’s Early Intervention program, which tailors services to meet individualized special needs. At 3, those students transition into their respective school system’s special needs pre-kindergarten program. Currently for the county school system, those services are provided in the child’s “least restrictive environment” which generally means daycare or a home-type setting.

With the improved facility, the possibilities for program expansion are endless, said Billie Thompson, special education program director.

“I guess you could say there is both a short-term goal and a long-term goal for the project,” Thompson said. “For preschool services, given the size of the county and the fact that our program covers the entire county, we needed a centralized location for the facility. That’s the central office.

“Over the years, the special needs preschool program has grown so large,” she said. “The number of autistic children and those with Asperger’s (a form of autism) and those with severe medical needs has increased. We need the right tools, the right technology and the right programs to make those students succeed. This project is our opportunity to purchase the equipment and design a facility that will do that — even in the day of proration. This is our one shot at it and we’re going to use it.”

Thompson said as of Oct. 1, the system was servicing 30 special needs preschoolers countywide.

“That does not include the speech impaired children we have,” she said. “All of those students are currently undergoing evaluation by preschool teachers in our break room, and that’s not conducive. In the short term, this project will give us an area to properly conduct those evaluations as well as a facility to small group interaction for preschool children.”

Additionally, the county system is working in conjunction with the Andalusia City School System to house students enrolled in the CAPE program, which provides specialized instructional services for children with severe behavioral and/or emotion problems. The facility will also feature a specifically designed classroom for those students.

Thompson said the facility plans should be finalized this month and bids will be let sometime next month. Construction “should hopefully” start in January, she said.

“Which means we might not be in it until this summer,” she said. The facility will also include a handicap-accessible kitchen area and break room.

The second part of the project is what Thompson calls “the long-term goal” and “perhaps the most exciting part” — a centralized preschool facility for both the county system’s special needs and “typically developing” students.

“State and federal guidelines mandate that you have to have the same number of ‘typically developing’ students as you do special needs students,” she said. “With that said, one can imagine the logistics of working out such a program when you think about transportation and staffing, but it’s definitely something we are looking at hard.”

Thompson said she has spoken with other systems that have implemented such a pre-k program.

“The majority of those who made it work have been city school systems,” she said. “It’s very difficult for a county system to make it work, especially one like ours that has so much geographical area to cover. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it’s going to take some work.”

Thompson said she and the county’s other educational professionals are up to challenge and are ready to get started on the entire project.

“My phrase is we’re looking for ‘state of the art,’” she said. “I think special needs kids deserve the best. I don’t think it has to be the most expensive. We need to get what we can afford and get what we need. Special needs kids need special things and the Covington County School System wants to make sure we’re doing that.”