This is a year of new beginnings for the Flathead Special Education Cooperative.
This year, the cooperative got a new director, Cheryl Russell, and, for the first time, is housing a special education preschool program at its administration building located on a cul-de-sac at 15 Meridian Court in Kalispell.
Previously, cooperative head preschool teacher Marcia Stolfus was traveling between schools to deliver services to children.
“What we really needed was a central location where families who are in rural areas can get services for their kids. With me not traveling, our 4-year-olds are able to be here from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.,” Stolfus said, where before, children may have been getting three hours of instruction.
Russell said the program is stronger now.
“The students have more opportunity to learn routines, and the social factor, it brings them all together,” Russell said.
There are also plans to expand the building. Outside the cooperative, Russell walked over to an adjacent lot where a playground is located.
“Originally when this property was bought, it was bought with the intention of being a preschool [building] on this lot,” Russell said, estimating that was a decade ago.
The cooperative, which receives state grant funding, has budgeted around $450,000 for the expansion.
“I took over in July. In June, this was already supposed to be up and going,” Russell said about a preschool building, but when she arrived she learned that the project was on hold for a combination of reasons. “We met with the builder to find out what was happening. Evidently, plans had actually been in the works for quite awhile, but the cooperative management team hadn’t been able to come to a complete decision with all in agreement.”
Ironing out details takes time when working with 16 school districts, she said, and building right now may be cost-prohibitive.
“Everyone wants what’s best for our kids,” she said, adding that another roadblock to starting construction have been changes in city regulations and zoning.
“We’re looking at all options,” Russell said, even to the possibility of relocating to a different property.
For now, staff makes the best of the current location, according to Russell.
On Thursday, the preschool classroom is bustling with activity. In a kitchen play area, a child served up slices of a toy birthday cake with teacher Megan Glascock looking on.
“So they’re working on fine motor skills and gross motor skills as well,” Glascock said.
Currently, there are nine students and that number is expected to reach 15 over the coming months as children go through screening and evaluation to identify ones who may need early intervention or special education services, according to Russell.
In another area of the room, wood blocks are spread over the floor. One child showed off the police car he built to Stolfus, standing inside of it.
The goal with a preschool building is to grow the program to serve more students.
“In a new building we’re hoping for things like a sensory room and a motor [skills] room to accommodate those needs,” Stolfus said, explaining that those rooms would be where occupational and physical therapists work with students.
She said a larger area would provide more room for the young students to move around to regulate.
When the expansion comes to fruition, Stolfus and Glascock said they would like to create an inclusive program where children with or without disabilities are learning from each other by modeling behavior or showing empathy.
The preschool program is just one service provided by the cooperative, which covers school districts in Flathead, Lake and Lincoln counties. The cooperative employs a staff of about 25 psychologists, speech language pathologists, occupational and physical therapists, paraeducators and teachers for communications disorders and preschool program, a braille instructor and sign language interpreter.
With a lot of rural school districts throughout Montana, it is frequently the case that these small schools have difficulty recruiting and retaining these specialized staff to meet the needs of providing a Free Appropriate Public Education to students with disabilities, according to the Office of Public Instruction. Special education cooperatives help fill the need.
Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.