‘Heartbreaking’: Dozens of RI children with special needs not receiving education

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Junie-Fed Michel was worried when her son Junich turned one — and then two — without speaking.

“I thought it was normal for a child when they turn one to start saying some words,” Michel told Target 12 in an interview at her Providence home. “Juju didn’t say anything.”

Last fall, Michel met with Providence public school officials to assess Juju, and they concluded he was significantly behind his peers developmentally. They agreed to enroll him into federally mandated special preschool education beginning in November.

But four months later, Juju still hasn’t received any education — potentially in violation of federal law — and advocates warn that every week which passes could harm his ability to catch up with his peers for the rest of his life.

Juju is now three and a half, and he’s still nonverbal.

“As a mother, I’m telling you it’s a heartbreaking situation,” Michel said. “My child is about to turn four, he cannot get the service that he needs and they keep turning me down. Nobody cares.”

Michel and her son are at the forefront of a burgeoning crisis in Rhode Island public schools where education leaders are failing to find and hire specialized teachers for preschool-aged children with developmental delays.

And while education officials insist they have tried multiple strategies to incentivize educators to help fill the gap, Target 12 has learned there are at least 34 Providence children, ages 3 to 5, who have developmental delays but are currently not receiving services required under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA.

“It’s really a problem, because when children don’t receive timely intervention to support their needs it creates bigger problems down the line,” said Sam Salganik, executive director of the parent advocacy group RIPIN.

Education leaders acknowledged the vacuum puts Providence at risk of violating federal law, and that families could file lawsuits as a result. Meanwhile, advocates argue an entire cohort of highly vulnerable young children are hanging in the balance, with parents hitting dead ends trying to figure out when and where — if ever — their children might receive critical services.

Top education officials don’t have a lot of answers, and are struggling with how to meet a demand that’s been growing during the pandemic. And they estimate the problem will only get worse in the coming months and years, as the issue spreads to other Rhode Island school districts. 

“This is terrible,” said Angélica Infante-Green, commissioner of the R.I. Department of Education, which took over control of the Providence public school district in 2019.

“It’s a bad situation,” she told Target 12, acknowledging the district is “having trouble meeting the law.”

“We’re just in a tough spot where we have to figure out an immediate solution and a long-term solution,” Infante-Green said.

‘We don’t have what your son really needs’

The crisis didn’t happen overnight.

Cracks have been forming in the early childhood special education system for years, but tangible evidence of shortcomings became glaring during the coronavirus pandemic.

As Target 12 first reported in November 2021, hundreds of newborn to three-year-old children were put on a waiting list to receive Early Intervention, a state-run program also mandated by the federal government, for infants and toddlers with developmental delays. Early Intervention waitlists are technically illegal, according to advocates. 

“We are not serving the children the way we should by law or by moral code,” the state’s child advocate, Jennifer Griffith, told lawmakers at the time.

Michel said Juju got a referral for Early Intervention when he was two, but a provider said because of the backlog, she should wait until he turned three, when their local public school district would be required to start providing similar services.

She waited. But it turned out the same problem seen in Early Intervention is now happening in Providence. Juju’s agreed-upon individualized education program (IEP) with Providence was scheduled to start Nov. 7, but he’s still waiting to be placed.

Sandra Stuart, the chief student support service officer for the Providence Public School Department, acknowledged 34 pre-K students across the city have IEPs but are not getting the services they are legally obligated to receive.

Stuart said they currently have two classrooms ready to be filled by three- to five-year-old children with developmental delays, and they’re trying to open two more. But they don’t have teachers and support personnel to staff the classrooms, which sit empty.

“We’re not going to give up on these students,” Infante-Green said. “We will do whatever we have to do to make sure that those students are in a better place.”

State education officials said they first learned about this problem last May, and Infante-Green said she was alerted to the shortage of preschool special education teachers in Providence after last school year.

Teacher shortages are a problem at every grade level in Providence, but education officials say it’s especially challenging to find teachers with specialized degrees in special education, occupational therapy and speech pathology.

Infante-Green said families can receive “compensatory services,” where the district pays a private provider while families wait. But she acknowledged even the private providers are strapped for staff.

Yet Michel knows every week that passes now is critical for Juju, as some students who don’t receive support early on might never catch up, even if they are given more services in the future. The mother said she feels left in the dark, isn’t receiving clear communication from the district and keeps getting let down whenever there’s a glimmer of hope.

In January, a school district official told Michel that Juju had been approved to start receiving services at the Providence Center School, a private special education preschool. But Michel said after being evaluated by the school and showing up for Juju’s first day, they were told to wait outside in the frigid weather before someone came out and turned them away.

“We don’t have what your son really needs to be able to support him so that he will be successful and he will be comfortable in our classroom,” a Providence Center School official later told Michel in a voicemail message reviewed by Target 12.

Contacted for this story, Providence Center School Principal Chris Mahon referred all questions to a spokesperson for Care New England, the state’s second largest hospital system, which owns the private school.

Care New England spokesperson Jessica McCarthy declined to address Michel’s specific case, but she said the school does not provide one-on-one intensive supports for children.

“If that’s what was needed in this or any situation, then that would have been the reason for the child being recommended to go elsewhere — for the correct education and care environment,” McCarthy said.

‘A very, very difficult cycle’

Michel and Juju’s story is echoed by others across the city of Providence.

Lineda Felix’s daughter Naomie did manage to get Early Intervention as a toddler after getting off the waitlist, but those services ended on her third birthday in November, when services should have transferred over to the Providence public schools.

“I followed everything I was to told to do,” Felix told Target 12. “Every hoop I had to jump, I did.”

But Naomie’s start date — Dec. 19 — came and went without any education placement. Felix said she made repeated phone calls leading up to that date, trying to figure out where to bring her daughter for the full-time pre-K services listed in her IEP.

It wasn’t until RIPIN, the advocacy group, stepped in on her behalf that she was able to get an answer: her daughter cannot start school yet because of the staffing shortage.

Felix is most frustrated by the lack of answers, especially as she was supposed to go back to work when Naomie started pre-K.

“My issue is the transparency, the communication,” Felix said. “What they tell you and what they do are two different things.”

Teeshera Smith, yet another Providence parent, also has a daughter waiting for services. Three-year-old Melanie is nonverbal, has an IEP, and hasn’t yet been placed in a pre-K classroom.

With Melanie at home waiting, Smith’s employment could be affected.

“I was working from home but they just required me to go back in,” Smith said. “I’m going to lose my job.”

Other school districts, also facing teacher shortages, are watching Providence’s problems closely. Infante-Green’s office could not name another district where students are not receiving these services, but indicated that several report being at or near capacity, including Woonsocket, Newport and East Providence.

Some districts are one student away from being in Providence’s predicament, according to Infante-Green.

“We’re OK right now, but we’re very close,” Woonsocket Superintendent Patrick McGee told Target 12. “To say it’s on our radar is an understatement. We’re really in the process now of preparing.”

Salganik also warned that his team, which provides Rhode Island families with support navigating social and education systems, is beginning to hear from clients in districts outside of Providence. He argued that when the problem does become more widespread, it will only exacerbate the challenge of finding staff from an already-limited pool of qualified educators.

Salganik called the pre-K problem a “bill coming due” from the Early Intervention crisis. State officials could not provide an updated number of children waiting to receive those services, but the waitlist stood at nearly 900 families as of last November. A spokesperson said new data should be available by the end of March.

Daycare settings with specialized staff are uncommon, he said, often requiring parents — like the ones Target 12 interviewed — to stay out of work while awaiting special education classroom placements for their children.

“When parents are out of work, it creates problems in paying for rent and paying for food,” he said. “These compound the disabilities that the child has, and it becomes a very, very difficult cycle.”

Providence public school officials said they’re trying to solve for the immediate shortfall with different initiatives, including hiring bonuses worth thousands of dollars.

Those incentives have gone out to hundreds of teachers in hard-to-fill areas across the district thus far, but only a dozen of those hires were in early childhood special education, one of the hardest to find.

The district recently selected Thru Consulting for a $275,000 contract to review the district’s early childhood special education program and come up with short and long-term recommendations to improve it. The review will evaluate the screening, testing, enrollment and placement process for the program.

The request for proposals for the contract contained a staggering statistic: of the approximately 8,000 to 10,000 Providence children ages 3-5 eligible to be screened for disabilities, only about 2,100 were screened last school year.

Michel, who immigrated to the United States from Haiti when she was 18, fears too much time is passing for her son, whose needs are immediate. And so far, she feels defeated by the way she and Juju have been treated.

“Everywhere in the world, when you hear about America, it’s heaven on earth,” she said. The experience of trying to get her son the assistance he needs has now made her feel ashamed to tell her family back home about what’s going on.

“I have to tell them the truth and they’re shocked,” she said. “That’s America?” 

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for 12 News. Connect with him on Twitter and on Facebook.

Steph Machado (smachado@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter covering Providence, politics and more for 12 News. Connect with her on Twitter and on Facebook.