Today’s news:

Special ed student can stay at Middle Village school

It looks like 4-year-old Anthony Napolitano will hold onto his post as mayor of his school for at least one more term.

Anthony, who has Down’s Syndrome, has been a fixture at Forest Hills West in Middle Village for the past year and a half, where his mother said he has thrived due to the nurturing environment of the school’s half-day classes.

But when the city Board of Ed recommended that Anthony move onto a full-day program with other developmentally disabled children, his mother feared he would have to commute miles to another site.

Forest Hills West could not offer the program without approval from the state Education Department, and a citywide shortage of such classes made the prospect of finding another one nearby unlikely.

Not anymore. The state has given Forest Hills West permission to open up a new full-day segregated pre-K class that Anthony can attend, and his mother is ecstatic.

“I can’t be happier because this is where he belongs,” said his mother Mary Napolitano, who lives with Anthony, her husband and their two other children a few blocks from the school in Middle Village. “He’s just happy to go every day.”

The TimesLedger first reported on Anthony’s dilemma in February.

At the time, the state Education Department was reviewing surveys submitted by schools around the city to evaluate where more programs need to be opened up.

“We saw that the school districts were recommending programs that didn’t appear to be available,” said Rebecca Cort, the statewide coordinator for special education quality assurance. “A number of programs were approved to expand their capacity.”

In recent years the state has been trying to better comply with the U.S. Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which calls for special education students to be placed in the “least restrictive environment”— a classroom setting where they can interact as much as possible with their non-disabled peers.

About five years ago, the state Legislature ordered the Education Department to stop creating any more segregated pre-kindergarten classes “unless there was a clearly demonstrated need,” Cort said.

The law was an attempt to counteract the state’s historical tendency to put into restrictive settings students who would probably thrive with normal children their own age.

Anthony is among the notable exceptions to that rule, a child whose disabilities require that he attends class with other students who are at the same level.

Forest Hills West administrators told the state they had the space, the staff and the student need to do away with two half-day sessions and replace them with a full-day program that Anthony could attend.

In the end, the state said the school could open up the new class without closing any others. The new classroom will be housed in what is now the occupational therapy/physical therapy area, which will be divided into two sections with the construction of a wall.

“The crucial thing is that it costs virtually nothing to do it,” said Ronald Lenkowsky, the director of the New York League for Early Learning, which runs Forest Hills West and five other schools around the city. “This is a very, very dramatic victory for us as well as the children.”

Lenkowsky anticipates the new class, which he expects will open within the next two months, will be filled to capacity by the first of July.

“I think the state realized that they needed to do some rethinking about this thing, and they did,” Lenkowsky said. “They studied the issue and made a very wise decision.”

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.

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