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Few options left for special needs education in city

Diana Sardina kisses her son, Andrew.
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Turning 5 years old never seemed so tricky.

For Gerard Sardina, of Little Neck, anticipating his son Andrew’s fifth birthday has been met with the uncertainty of not knowing where he will be going to kindergarten come September.

Andrew Sardina, 4, was diagnosed with autism in 2008 and has since progressed through early intervention services and preschool.

But his next step toward kindergarten and beyond, Sardina said, will not be as easy.

“Most people don’t know that this is a big milestone in the life of a special needs child in New York City,” Sardina said. “Turning 5 is when the school district places the child in a school until he or she turns 21.”

Nearly three years ago, the city Department of Education reformed its special education program, drastically changing the kindergarten placement process for students with individualized education programs, according to Advocates for Children of New York.

Now students turning 5 are referred to the Committee on Special Education for school-aged children and given a DOE representative, usually a school psychologist, to oversee their transition.

The DOE collects progress reports from the child’s preschool special education program, reviews the student’s file and ultimately helps classify their disabilities and placement.

It leaves the placement procedure largely out of the parents’ hands.

“So far the process has been very difficult,” Sardina said. “I’m hoping Andrew gets placed in the right school.”

The DOE will notify him of his son’s placement by June 15.

In addition to the special care he receives while at school, Andrew Sardina also receives outside services such as occupational and speech therapy inside the home. These services, which his father said were essential to his son’s development, might be taken away under the new assigned program in the reassignment.

According to Sardina, Andrew’s preschool, P.224Q @ P.S. 710Q, at 221-21 Corbett Rd. in Bayside, took an active step in educating parents on the steps needed to move forward. The school provides lessons and workshops explaining the process to parents.

“We’d be lost without them,” Sardina said.

Meghan Murphy, the unit coordinator for P.224Q @ P.S. 710Q, said she understood the confusion that might emanate from the transition.

“It can be a confusing process,” Murphy said. “Even explaining it once, you still don’t really get it. That’s why we continue to hold these workshops with great support from our administration.”

Murphy said what kept the wheels turning at the school was what Gerard Sardina said made their services so unique. With help from Principal Desmond Park and Assistant Principal Kara Reardon-Navan, parents are fully engaged in the placement conversation and are made aware of the necessary preparations.

After his son’s individualized education program meeting, Sardina said it was thanks to the school that he was able to sail smoothly. He said he knew exactly what to expect and what information to provide.

“We had everything we needed. The school did a great job preparing us,” Sardina said. “I feel that if you have the documentation and follow the guidelines, the DOE can’t deny any of your requests.”

Sardina also said he has received assistance from Little Neck’s Samuel Field Y, which helps connect parents with others who have already gone through the transition.

He will take all the help he can get, he said, because it takes a lot of homework to get the job done.

“I’d tell anyone going through this to stay informed. Read, understand, go to meetings and look at as many schools as you can,” Sardina said. “It’s a major event and it seems never-ending.”

Reach reporter Phil Corso by e-mail at pcorso@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4573.

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