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Berlin School Board struggles to find space for kindergarten and a support center

June 11, 2014
BERLIN – Berlin educators are struggling with how to meet the needs of the very youngest of the district's students attending Brown School.

Currently the school serves grades K-2, with the kindergarten program being a half day program. Even at that, the building is using every corner. All of the classrooms are in use and special services, like the reading specialist, speech and a room for student with behavioral issues are all housed in the basement, something Special Education Director Georgia Caron said at Thursday night's meeting is not acceptable. The library doubles as a music room and meeting space.

The kindergarten program, educators believe, now needs to become a full day program in order to give students what they need under the common core curriculum. All three kindergarten teachers were present and said they could not teach what the curriculum requires in a half day program. Full day kindergarten would require four classrooms.

A second issue is the need for space for a growing number of students with autism or behavioral problems.

Prior to discussion on the issue, the board watched a brief video on the importance of early interaction and response by adults to babies and very young children. If the neurons needed to connect various areas of the brain are not developed very early, they may not develop at all. Toxic stress and drug use by the mother are other issues that lead to both developmental and behavioral issues.

Brown School Principal Amy Huter said at present there are two autistic students in the school. Three more will enter kindergarten in the fall and two more are expected the year after.

In addition there are growing numbers of students with behavior issues.

"We need a better space to handle this," she said. "School culture and climate is just as important as curriculum."

Huter provided some statistics on local births at AVH. There are 120 births a year, a number that has remained stable for several years. Of those 10 percent are born drug dependent. Those babies are weaned off using morphine. If they go into stable environments after that, they can develop normally, but if they do not get that nurturing they can develop toxic stress.

An additional 10 percent are born to mothers using marijuana. They are actually more at risk, Huter said she was told, because they cannot be given morphine to wean them off that. These babies are at risk for a number of emotional and behavioral problems.

The staff at Brown School believes a support center room is needed where students can come and get the help they need and process their behaviors.

A packet was presented to the board that included a plan that showed the current footprint of room usage and a proposed footprint that included a support center. That room would be located in the room across from the current library.

It would, however, mean only two kindergarten rooms, which would mean the kindergarten would stay a half day program for at least one more year.

That seemed unacceptable to the board.

"I don't think it's one or the other. If we need both we need to take steps to get both," board chairman Nicole Plourde said. "How do we make this happen, that's what I want to talk about."

Portables would be one solution, but there is no money in this year's budget for that. It could be put into next year's, but doesn't solve the problem for September.

The board discussed using the library or half of the library as a classroom or for the support center for a year, but Brown School librarian Ted Pacheco argued against that. He said books were an important part of the foundation of education and the school library was the only place where some students had access to books.

Even if there were three classrooms for kindergarten, it would mean at least 21 students in each and at least one paraprofessional for each room.

Superintendent Corinne Cascadden said the ideal maximum for kindergarten is 18, with a paraprofessional.

There seemed to be no question in anyone's mind that all day kindergarten is needed.

"In a needy community it can make or break a student. We need to do it as soon as we can," Kindergarten teacher Deborah Beaudoin said.

No decisions were made that night. The board asked for more financial information.

Martin Lord Osman
Salmon Press
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