School administrators defend transfer of handicapped class

| 22 Feb 2012 | 08:16

    At issue is whether moving handicapped pre-teens to Middle School makes sense, By Tom Hoffman SUSSEX — Plans by the Sussex-Wantage Regional School District to transfer six handicapped children from an elementary school to the Middle School next fall makes sense, district officials say, since the school district strives to place age-equivalent students in the same schools with each other, according to state guidelines. During a meeting with members of the local media at the Board of Education Building in Sussex Borough on April 6, Child Study Team Director Nanci Valente defended the district’s plan to transfer all six handicapped children from the Lawrence School to the Sussex Middle School next September. Each of the children in the class will be of middle school age at that point. The handicapped students “will absolutely be accepted (by their peers) in the Middle School,” said Valente. Age is relative One of the parents of the children, Cheryl Novak of Wantage, had voiced concerns about the transfer, in part because of fears she has that the handicapped students might be taunted and teased by some students at the Middle School. But Valente said that the district plans to hold a series of “character education” workshops with small groups of Sussex Middle School students in the fall to help them “to understand that people are different.” Valente said the handicapped students would attend art and music classes with the other Sussex Middle School students. In addition, some Middle School students would be recruited to read stories to the handicapped students and to help them cook in their new classroom. “I think this (transfer) will help with their transition to High Point (Regional High School)” by introducing the handicapped children to age-level peers “a little bit earlier,” said Valente. She added that the handicapped students have already attended field trips with Sussex Middle School students during the current school year and recently attended a performance of “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” at the Middle School. Novak was traveling earlier this week and was unavailable to comment on the school district’s plans. She had previously expressed concerns about whether the school district would be able to install a handicapped bathroom and make other modifications such as repairs to exterior sidewalks to accommodate the wheelchair-bound handicapped students. But S-W Regional Superintendent Edward Izbicki said that the district has already identified two Middle School classrooms on the ground floor that could accommodate the handicapped students. The classrooms were selected, in part, because they each have access to plumbing. A handicapped bathroom could either be installed in the classroom or right next to it, said Izbicki. Covering the cost “We’re not talking hundreds of thousands of dollars” to do the necessary construction work, said Izbicki. He added that estimates for the construction costs would be tallied within the next month and will be submitted to the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs to determine whether the school district might be eligible for a grant to pay for bathroom construction. “We’re prepared to bear the costs” if necessary, said Thomas Card, president of the district’s school board. In a previous interview, Richard Vespucci, a spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Education in Trenton, told The Advertiser-News that there are state funds available to underwrite the types of construction costs the district might incur. Valente said the school district doesn’t have to repair any sidewalks since there aren’t any on school property. She said that the elevator in the school and drop-off areas are already wheelchair-accessible. Novak had also expressed concern that the handicapped children would miss out on using a handicapped playground they now use at the Lawrence School. Valente said the school district is reviewing a few options for the handicapped students, including whether it’s more practical to build a suitable playground at the Sussex Middle School or to bus the children back to the Lawrence School to use the playground there. She also said the handicapped class would continue to have the same teacher, Joseph Rocco, as well as the same aids, nurses and occupational, physical and speech therapists they have now. Valente, who met with the parents of the handicapped students last month and plans to again in late April, said she wanted to reassure all parents that the district has examined the situation thoroughly.