Parents of special needs kids can give them an early start on their education, thanks to Liverpool’s Early Education Program. LEEP welcomes 3- and 4-year-olds in need of special education services as well as “typical” youngsters, integrating both into a classroom.
According to the district website, LEEP is “a center-based inclusive preschool program where 3- and 4-year-old children of various strengths and abilities learn and grow through play, music and social interactions.” The program is divided between Liverpool Elementary and Donlin Drive Elementary.
“The state and county fund the program for special ed kids,” said LE Principal Bill Mugridge. “We have nine kids with disabilities and six typical ‘peers’ whose parents pay tuition.”
The preschool program follows the district calendar with the same start dates and vacations as the elementary schools. It offers two classes per site per day: a 3-year-old class in the morning and a 4-year-old class in the afternoon. Each class lasts for two and a half hours. Kids in the program hail from all over the county.
“About 70 percent of our kids are from Liverpool,” Mugridge said, “but it’s a county program, so we do get kids from Baldwinsville and Syracuse and other areas.”
LEEP began in 1988 as a pre-kindergarten program exclusively for toddlers in need of special education. Housed at Zogg, the program grew to include “typical” preschoolers who could serve as models for those with special needs. When the Zogg building was sold, half of the children were moved to LE and the other half to DDE.
Despite the change in location, the mission of the program remains the same: to provide an integrated pre-kindergarten program to the county’s children. In order to best serve the kids, the student-teacher ratio is kept very low.
“We have a special education teacher and speech therapist in every classroom who team teach, plus two classroom teachers on site,” Mugridge said. “There are also physical therapy, speech and occupational therapy services on site.”
The “typical” children help to educate those with special needs, as well, serving as models and helping their peers. These students have to meet specific requirements in their speech and social skills to be part of the program.
“The integrated special ed program at LEEP models what we do in the rest of the district,” Mugridge said.
Mugridge praised the district for its commitment to its children, particularly to pre-kindergarten special education. Superintendent Jan Matousek, herself a former kindergarten and first grade teacher, is a strong believer in early intervention.
“As superintendent and an educator, I believe that there is a high correlation between early intervention and success for our students,” Matousek said.
Mugridge compared the LEEP program to the Main Street School in North Syracuse, but noted that LEEP has advantages that Main Street doesn’t.
“They’re a standalone school, so they don’t have a lot of the opportunities we do,” Mugridge said. “Here, kids can go to our gym and take advantage of our art and music rooms and our library. They can attend the same assemblies as the elementary kids.”
Matousek echoed Mugridge’s appreciation of LEEP’s advantages. “Being in the elementary school, the kids get a feeling of understanding of what it’s like to be around older kids,” she said. “They get enrichment that other programs can’t provide.”
LEEP also has extensive support from the community and the staff.
“The [Liverpool Elementary] PTO embraces LEEP as part of the school,” Mugridge said.
“We have a very experienced staff with very little turnover,” Matousek added.
Mugridge expressed his pride in the program and his conviction that it will continue to serve the community’s students. “I think it will continue to be a viable, solid program.”
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.