MERIDEN — During a morning when many of their older peers were taking standardized tests, the children, mostly three and four years old, enrolled in Hanover Elementary School’s PRIDE program engaged in some very different activities.
Depending on which room they were in, these youngsters either worked one-on-one with teachers and aides on a variety of hands-on and not-so-quiet activities — fitting geometric objects into holes with corresponding shapes, and more — or some more physical activities. For example, in the school’s sensory room another group of children bounced on ball chairs and clapped their hands, while music played behind them.
Hanover’s PRIDE program, whose name stands for Preschoolers Receiving Individualized Developmentally Appropriate Education, is an early intervention special education program that currently serves 198 preschool-aged students with special needs, explained Jennifer Kelley, the school’s principal. The program serves students who are on the autism spectrum and who have other developmental needs.
On Friday morning, the program’s staff had a special visitor, U.S. Rep. Jahana Hayes, D-5th. Hayes, a former educator and National Teacher of the Year, toured several PRIDE program classrooms as well as the sensory room, interacting with educators and students. That tour included a visit to the Little Hounds Preschool Program, a program housed at Hanover that is overseen by the Meriden YMCA.
Education leaders and Hayes, in their conversations, acknowledged the challenges of providing high quality special education services to students, during a time marked by budget challenges, as well as ongoing nationwide and statewide staffing issues, which are having a local impact.
Hayes was spurred to visit Hanover, when a constituent, whose daughter is enrolled in the PRIDE program, reached out to her office. That constituent described her daughter’s school and program as “amazing.
“The teachers are wonderful,” Hayes said of what that parent conveyed to her, upon meeting with Kelley, Patricia Sullivan-Kowalski, the school district’s assistant superintendent of student supports, and other Meriden Public Schools staff and local elected officials.
The timing of the visit came as Meriden school officials face a potential budget shortfall for the upcoming year. The budget adopted by the City Council earlier this month increases education spending by $1 million, but falls about $1.3 million short of the funding level leaders said is needed to maintain the district’s current level of staffing and programming. At the same time, with a state budget that still needs to be adopted, the level of state funding the school district is slated to receive through state Education Cost Sharing and Alliance District grants, remains unknown.
Hayes said it’s important to make sure “that we have teachers and support services to fuel the [educator] pipeline, and make sure that, at the top, you don’t have to make really tough decisions about cutting personnel and programming.”
“You need programming. The partnerships you have,” Hayes said, referencing programs like the YMCA’s. “We don’t see this everywhere else.”
The challenges faced by districts like Meriden are not just limited to programming.
The Meriden Public Schools, where more than 70% of students whose family incomes qualify them for free or reduced price school lunches, have the additional challenge of ensuring students have access to nutritious meals — a challenge that especially came to light early on during the COVID-19 pandemic. The fact that federal law stipulated school nutrition programs must serve their meals on school sites meant revisions to those regulations were needed.
One of Hayes’ legislative roles is ranking member of the House Committee on Agriculture’s Subcommittee on Nutrition, Foreign Agriculture, and Horticulture. According to Hayes’ office, the congresswoman “has continued to advocate for the expansion of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), on the prevalence of veteran and military hunger, on benefit cliffs, and on nutrition distribution programs like The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP).”
Meriden school officials estimated the district serves around 4,000 meals to students each day.
Hayes noted that one of the lessons learned from the pandemic is how important school-provided meals are.
“When kids aren’t in school, they don’t have lunch or breakfast,” Hayes said. As a result of the pandemic more people saw “how challenging food security is.”
Meriden school officials described how they were able to mobilize access to meals when federal regulations provided flexibility for deliveries.
Sullivan-Kowalski, when asked about challenges moving forward, noted that one of them is forecasting future needs and adjusting the school district’s programs as such.
“We look at the children that are in birth to three services, and we try to project out the number of students into the following year,” Sullivan-Kowalski said. “... but with the number of children who move in and out of the district, sometimes it’s hard to know what the numbers are going to be. So we are always going to be reallocating services.”
Sullivan-Kowalski added, “We just opened up another half a classroom this year, because we were getting so many students. That will always be a challenge.”