March/April 2019 Issue
March 02, 2019

Long Island coalition brings attention to state’s special schools

Author: Matt Smith
Source: NYSUT United
special acts schools
Caption: Left to right: Vinell Saunders; Kate O'Hara; Judith Thompson; Diane Diculescu. Photos by Becky Miller.

A coalition on Long Island is bringing together NYSUT members who work in special schools to raise awareness of the challenges confronting these institutions. The goal is to persuade state lawmakers to provide the resources necessary to ensure students with physical and emotional disabilities have the same opportunity to succeed as students in traditional schools.

“Albany needs to be aware of the financial difficulties that schools like mine face,” said Vinell Saunders, a social worker at Woodridge Children’s Center in Freeport, which works with emotionally disturbed students whose needs are too great to be served in regular school districts. “If we have the financial resources we need, we can do so much more.”

New York’s special schools are funded through a state-government mechanism that typically lags two years behind, often forcing them to grapple with severe budget shortfalls. Because these institutions have no taxing authority, they are often forced to pursue loans just to make payroll and keep up with escalating costs.

The endless financial constraints often leave special schools contending with buildings falling into disrepair, a lack of equipment and resources necessary to meet students needs, and significantly lower pay for teachers than in traditional schools, resulting in widespread turnover.

Mill Neck Manor School for the Deaf on Long Island, for example, has gone more than a year without a principal, and high teacher turnover has stretched remaining staff thin, making it difficult to provide students with the attention and services they need.

“We have not had any salary increase in eight years,” said Diane Diculescu, a speech therapist. “We love our jobs, and we stay because we love our students. It is a career that not everyone can do. But we really need a (budget) increase.”

By bringing together NYSUT members who not only work in the same field, but face the same challenges, the Long Island coalition — made possible by a solidarity grant from NYSUT’s Board of Directors — aims to identify challenges and work collaboratively to find solutions.

At a recent meeting in Melville, coalition members received guidance on the rules and laws that they live by as private sector employees.

And they were urged to use their voice at events such as NYSUT’s recent Special Schools Lobby Day at the state Capitol.

Kate O’Hara, a preschool special education teacher at the Children’s Learning Center, Cerebral Palsy Association of Nassau County, said without the appropriate level of staff, her school falls short of the required teacher-to-student ratio, often leaving no one to teach core classes. “Right now we don’t even have a physical education teacher,” she said.

Judith Thompson — a rehabilitation specialist for United Cerebral Palsy of Long Island and president of the United Center Employees Association — said the persistent funding shortfalls make it difficult for schools like hers to meet the individualized needs of students — many of whom cannot be cared for by their own families.

“They need residential homes, they need a place for them to be safe,” Thompson said. “They need education and staff, like me, who stand for them and help them to be as productive as possible.”