Melissa Charbonnet is the Executive Director of Special Education and Student Services for St. Mary’s County Public Schools. St. Mary’s has recently shown substantial improvement in several measures around their students with disabilities: 78% of their preschoolers with disabilities were deemed fully ready to begin their K-12 education; and the school readiness gap between these students and their typically developing peers narrowed by 7% this year. We spoke with Melissa about some of the changes her county has made to help some of its youngest students and their families.

THE GOAL THAT LED TO ST. MARY’S BREAKTHROUGH

Several years ago, we made a concerted effort to break down the silos of services between infants and toddlers, special education preschool and preschool education. We worked together to combine resources, both human resources and funding resources, to provide a continuum of services for all of the children in St. Mary’s County.

THE ROLE OF THE EXTENDED OPTION

The Extended Option is a wonderful opportunity for families. This is probably one of the most difficult transitional points for any of our families, when they leave infants and toddlers and have to go into schools. This is the point where they turn over a little bit more of the care of their children and the direct services of their children. And it was very difficult for families to do that. With the Extended Option, what we’ve been able to do is to create a longer transition period. It is an opportunity for families to get to know the teachers in the school system, to see the facilities, to learn the team and to see how we are all working together. During this transitional period, what we’re able to do is to really be creative in looking at what it is that children need so that we can expand and extend the delivery of services.

WHAT HAPPENS DURING THE TRANSITION AND WHERE

It’s a blend between both parent training and direct services for students. It is also looking at a variety of places where those services can occur. Traditionally, when students went into a preschool special education program, they were in a preschool special education class. We now have an opportunity for those services to occur in other community locations – in the library, in playgroups where they might be receiving gymnastics or programs where motor activities would be occurring.

THE IMPORTANCE OF COMMUNITY PARTNERSHIPS

We could never have successfully developed a model for Extended Option without the supports of all of our partners. We need to look at children and families holistically. Services for children cannot be delivered solely within the confines of a public school system. We’ve heard that it takes a village to raise a child, and it truly does. It takes the whole village and that includes our community partners.

THE FUTURE

We are never done with the program. We’re looking at expanding now. We have included and fine-tuned some of the specific disability areas or areas of specific need with low-incidence populations. This year we were able to add what we call a language articulation blast. And it is really bringing in and providing intensive services for little people in short segments but every single day working with the families. And in the three weeks we have been in school, we are already seeing great success and improvement with children in that area. So we are always looking at what we can do next.

WHAT SHE’S MOST EXCITED ABOUT

I think the thing that we are the most excited about is the seamless level of services that we’ve created for our children and their families. In that process, what we have put together are teams of individuals that work collaboratively. We don’t have children receiving speech therapy only from a speech therapist. What we have is the team of individuals who have coordinated a level of service. Children do not fit into programs. Children are being provided whatever they need, and what we do in St. Mary’s County is whatever it takes for the student.