CROWN POINT — When Jessica Abel's son first started attending Crown Point preschool he was nonverbal; after just a year in the program he was talking and even able to write his name.
"Being a mom of a kid who did not talk at all at 3 years old, I was very hesitant of sending him anywhere without me," Abel said. "But I will tell you it [preschool] was such a godsend.”
After two years in the program Melissa Pineda's eldest son, who has an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), was "drastically prepared" for his first day of kindergarten. That is why when Pineda heard the preschool program would be accepting children without IEPs, or "general education students," she "jumped" at the chance to enroll her middle son.
“it was just a beautiful program led by people who specialized in special needs and knew what these kids need for academic success,” Pineda said. "They used activities to bring the academics into light for these kids with the structure and routine they need.”
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The inclusive program expanded outside the Learning Center under the title "Bulldog Buddies." One semester into the new program, some families have noticed little change, while others say the curriculum has lost all structure, driving several parents to remove their children from it.
Right to learn
According to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, students with disabilities are entitled to receive special education services, at no cost to the family, through the public school system beginning at age 3 and ending at 22. For years, children with IEPs attended the Crown Point Learning Center for preschool, where classes were taught by instructors licensed in special education.
In August of 2019, the Crown Point Community School Corp. requested the Indiana University Institute on Disability and Community conduct an external review of its Exceptional Learners program, what Crown Point calls its department dedicated to addressing the functional needs of students with disabilities.
The audit gave Crown Point the lowest ranking — a one out of five — in the "area of Pre-K outcomes." The report recommended creating an inclusive preschool, where general education students and students with IEPs learn side-by-side. The report cited research showing inclusive classrooms help children with literacy, language, social interactions and the transition into kindergarten. From the recommendation, the district's new "Bulldog Buddies" program was born.
First announced in January of 2021, parents were sent a letter about the program that spring. Parents were told the program would be expanding to Douglas MaCarthur, Winfield and Eisenhower elementary schools. Students with IEPs still attend the program for free, while general education families pay a monthly fee.
“The only difference in the program that we were aware of was that gen-ed kids were going to be included and I was completely for that," Abel said.
Because general education students were now enrolled, the classes had to be led by instructors who have an associate-level degree from an accredited institution in the area of early childhood education. The program has three instructors licensed in special education called "resource instructors," who support students in the classroom and work with them individually during pull-out sessions as designated by their IEPs.
However, some parents, like Pineda, began to notice other changes as the semester went on. Her son was not bringing home class activities or daily notes, and the weekly letters sent by the teacher updating parents dropped off at the end of October. When asked what he did at preschool, her son would respond, "just play."
The Bulldog Buddies program emphasizes its play-based approach, using hands-on activities that incorporate letters and numbers, Preschool Coordinator Christy Terrill said. Play-based education also existed in the previous program, Crown Point Chief Academic Officer Jim Hardman explained. While the creation of Bulldog Buddies did include some changes to the curriculum, Hardman said the shift was not "as big of a change as people might perceive it to be."
The curriculum still follows the Indiana Early Learning Foundations. Standards such as being able to count to 20 and draw letters are incorporated into activities "all day long," children identify their names when they arrive, craft letters with shaving cream, count the cars they play with, track days with linear calendars and more, Terrill said.
Educational activities are presented throughout the classroom and children are invited to participate, Hardman explained.
"It's not necessarily that we are directing the instruction, but we're allowing the environment to create the instruction for the children," Hardman said. "When you are working with children at this level, you don't tell them what to do, you let them grow into where they are at ... where students enter into the activity is where they want to be and then it is up to the teacher to provoke that student by asking questions to get them to move to the next piece."
Nicole Lavin's son's language abilities have taken off since being in the Bulldog Buddies program, she said. While all children learn differently, Lavin said her son "shuts down" if he is forced to do something and learns better if he is actually interested in an activity.
However, Abel said the changes to the program have had the opposite impact on her son. During a recent reevaluation, tasks he used to complete "with ease" such as identifying colors and numbers, now trip him up.
“Behavioral regression at home is a huge thing for us," Abel said. "We were in such a good routine, but now if he hears the word 'no' at home he is stomping his feet because he is not getting his way and he is used to getting his way at school."
Lauren Carney, whose son was enrolled in the Crown Point preschool for about a year-and-a-half, said the individual educators have always had her child's "best interest as heart." However, she believes the teachers are being limited by what the curriculum allows.
A big concern for Alyse Scholl, who pushed for an inclusive preschool program when her daughter was enrolled, is that children will not be prepared for the "structure and routine" present in Crown Point kindergartens. Sharing similar concerns, both Pineda and Abel unenrolled their children, scrambling to find other preschools for the spring semester.
Carney reduced her son's time at Bulldog Buddies and enrolled him in a community-based preschool, where she has already found that her child is "severely behind" his classmates. Carney, and other parents, felt like valuable "time was taken" from their children in the fall.
“Next year he has no option but to go to kindergarten," Abel said. "That is one of the main reasons we chose to put him into a new preschool, he is nowhere near where he needs to be to enter kindergarten."
Crown Point provides a list of skills students entering kindergarten should have for the "most successful transition," which includes following directions and adhering to classroom rules.
Hardman said he promotes inquiry-based instruction across all grades, where students "engage in the curriculum at their level." However, Scholl said her daughter's kindergarten class is "very structured."
“I know that over time, sending him to school with it being just play is giving him the wrong idea of what school is," Pineda said, adding that she does not want to send her son to a "glorified daycare."
Over the years, an increased emphasis has been placed on early childhood education. Lavin said preschool has gone from something "that was completely optional," to "the new kindergarten." Some parents are concerned about their children falling behind, but Lavin does not want to put too much pressure on her son. While the approach used in Bulldog Buddies has benefited her son, Lavin said a "mix of techniques" may be more beneficial because children's learning styles vary.
Pineda and Carney both said they wish the program changes had been clarified early-on so they could have made alternative arrangements.
Children with IEPs also have fewer schooling options than their general education peers. Community-based and private preschools are not required to accommodate IEPs or offer special education services. While her son is enjoying the new program thus far, Carney said "he is in an environment that was not designed for him."
"By law my son has a right to a free and appropriate education within our public school system. He was receiving a wonderful education in years past that were meeting all of his needs socially, academically, and emotionally," Carney said. "This year his needs are currently not being met due to a drastic change in approach in teaching all learners. Unfortunately, the ones mostly effected are the little ones who have the most to lose."