Cost savings, additional benefits eyed with elementary emotional support classroom idea

Towanda Elementary School Principal Laura Steele (second from left) and Special Education Director Jennifer Cronin (second from right) are pictured while proposing a new emotional support classroom in the elementary school during Monday’s school board meeting. Looking on are Secretary Cheryl Vaughn and Academic Affairs Principal Joel Spinney.

TOWANDA – Towanda Area School District officials are pushing for school board approval of an emotional support classroom in the elementary school they say could save the district money and provide a better learning experience for those who currently receive this support service through BLaST Intermediate Unit 17.

According to Business Manager Brian Driscoll, the district spent $396,000 for 24 students who used the service at some point during the previous school year. Elementary Principal Laura Steele and Special Education Director Jennifer Cronin anticipate serving up to 15 students through the local classroom. Driscoll, who budgeted for an additional teacher and aide in the proposal, said the district would break even with serving at least six students locally. With serving between 10 and 15 students, he said, “I could see it cutting our bill in half for sure.” Steele anticipated utilizing current aides to further support the classroom.

Cost savings weren’t the only benefit that administrators referenced while outlining the proposal to the school board Monday.

“Right now I have several students who were placed and are at risk to return, which is a cycle that we see,” Steele said. “These students go out there, they do really well, but when they come back we haven’t had the mechanism to fully support them and prevent placement. We’re hoping with this we’re hoping to maintain them in our school instead of having a boomerang back-and-forth with the academy, which causes the students to become over time behind in their academics.”

This is something Cronin said she witnessed firsthand while working at the BLaST North Campus site over the past six years. She also noted that the site has less support in the form of top teachers and social workers than when she was there, and is unable to provide specials such as music, art, computer science, or physical education like they can in Towanda.

Steele said a different curriculum is utilized at BLaST to accommodate the students the organization serves in various school districts, which can create a rift when students have to transition back to Towanda’s curriculum.

“When they come back after missing out on our curriculum, they end up in a different place academically than the students we have here,” Steele explained, while also highlighting the additional learning time these students will receive without the time required for transportation.

Plus, the classroom – which is currently vacant – will be located next to where the school’s social workers and school-based service providers, she noted.

“We truly believe that the Towanda School District students belong in their neighborhood school and we offer support to many other disability categories in our school and this is one of the last ones to sort of bring home,” Steele explained.

Although Driscoll didn’t have the financial information at hand for previous years during Monday’s meeting, he said participating in the BLaST program has been trending upward.

Even though the district wouldn’t be able to bring all of its students in need of emotional support in house with the creation of a dedicated classroom, Steele and Cronin believed it would lessen the need for the BLaST service even more in the long-term.

Cronin noted that even though emotional support services have rarely been needed in kindergarten, first and second grades, from her experience, there’s the possibility that the emotional support elementary teacher could visit or consult with teachers at J. Andrew Morrow Primary School as needed.

An emotional support classroom is already in place in the high school.

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