GEC rallies to save preschool program

Parents, educators and supporters of The Guild for Exceptional Children’s (GEC) Carrie Mastronardi Early Childhood Education Program gathered in front the State Education Department (SED) Brooklyn District Office on Wednesday, December 10, to protest the closing of their special needs preschool, a decision that would displace 242 children by January 23 if carried out.

“It not only is a shock,” commented Adrian Fernandez, a teacher with the school, located at 1273 57th Street, “but to interrupt kids’ education at those developmental years, that’s really what is tragic. This is such a formidable time for them.”

Earlier this fall, the Guild announced that it had decided to close the 40-year-old school as a result of nearly $2 million in losses over the past three years — due to the unrealistically low tuition rate that SED requires the program to maintain.

“It all hinges on the State Education Department’s ability to modify the way it looks at tuition,” said Executive Director/CEO of GEC, Paul Cassone. “I know that they’ve been working very hard to resolve this situation because they realize that these children are at risk and I think they were hopeful that other providers would be able to step up and as it turned out, other providers are willing, but they’re more expensive than we are.”

According to Cassone, the program is “highly efficient and productive,” with a tuition that is significantly below the regional average. The school, that serves children with developmental disabilities ages three to five and offers programs in art, physical, occupational, and speech therapies, has the its tuition frozen by the SED for the past six years. Because of this, the school has suffered “unsustainable fiscal losses.”

However, despite repeated requests, “SED has failed to provide the necessary tuition relief and we must close the preschool in order to preserve the rest of the GEC,” according to Cassone. “Other organizations like the GEC have already closed their preschools and more will surely follow unless SED addresses this pervasive problem.”

Concerned and devastated teachers and parents, voiced their thoughts outside of SED’s District Office, located at 55 Hanson Place.

Father of student Laura Ajpop, 4, Froyen Ajpop was concerned about their next move and what will happen to his daughter’s progress if they cannot find another school in time.

“She used to be very aggressive with children around her,” said Ajpop. “The school has calmed her down and she [is] talking more. Before, not a single word, now I can talk to her in English, in Spanish. She understands better. The school helped her a lot. I really don’t know what to do.”

Peter Lam, the father of another student that benefits from the school’s physical, speech and occupational therapies, said “it’s just sad they’re shutting down the school in the middle of the semester.

The kids have nowhere to go,” continued Lam. “There’s no placement plan for the kids and it’s just not ethical.”

A 14-year integrated classroom teacher at the preschool, Carolyn Cobb, spoke to the crowd with tears in her eyes.

“We all work together, we really are a family,” said Cobb. “The thought of not finishing the school year, it hurts. To not see my children graduate, to break up our family, to not go to work with these people every day, it’s heartbreaking.”

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