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How to Navigate the Turning 5 Process for Your Child with Special Needs

How to Navigate the Turning 5 Process for Your Child with Special Needs

This is what you need to know about the transition process from preschool to kindergarten for children with special needs in New York City.

New York City’s Turning 5 process occurs when children transition from preschool to kindergarten, and for a child with special needs, it’s complicated. Turning 5 involves transitioning from services provided by the Committee on Preschool Special Education to services provided by the Committee on Special Education. Your child will move into a public or private mainstream school, or head to a school specifically designed for kids with special needs. Sarah Birnbaum of New York Special Needs Support and Abbie Smith, an attorney at Skyer Law, teamed up with Brooklyn Conservatory of Music for a webinar that helped parents understand their children’s rights and options during the Turning 5 process on May 14. 

Your zoned school will contact you in early 2021 to begin the Turning 5 process, Birnbaum says, but you can begin the process way before then. Here’s everything you need to know about Turning 5 in 2021 for your child with special needs.

RELATED: Find Schools and Resources for Your Child with Special Needs

The Continuum of Services Your Child Could Receive in Kindergarten

Your child’s Turning 5 meeting will determine her eligibility to receive Committee on Special Education services in kindergarten. Not every child will qualify for CSE services, but every child who receives CPSE services will automatically get a meeting, according to Birnbaum. You should not have to ask for one. Keep in mind that under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), you child is entitled to a free and appropriate public education, offered in the least restrictive environment that is right for her. Your preparation for the Turning 5 meeting should focus on figuring out the best learning environment—and then, convincing the Department of Education that it is the best environment—for your child.

The following are your child’s kindergarten environment options, which Birnbaum categorizes through a “ladder of support” that goes from the least restrictive classroom possible to most supportive. 

  • The least restrictive environment your child could be placed into is a general education classroom, with related services, at a community school.

  • The next least restrictive environment is integrated co-teaching, where the classroom has one regular education teacher and one special education teacher. Two-thirds of the children in the class are usually regular education kids; one-third are special education kids.

  • Next is a special class in a community school (the student-to-teacher ratio is usually 12-to-1. A 12:1:1 class includes 12 students, 1 teacher, and 1 paraprofessional. (A paraprofessional is NOT an assistant teacher.) Students can be up to three years apart in age, and will join general education students for lunch, gym, recess. Birnbaum says these types of classes are increasingly hard to find.

  • Next is a special class in a school specifically for children with special needs (District 75). Class ratios include 6:1:1, 8:1:1, 12:1:1, and 12:1:4. The DOE recommends District 75 for the students it feels needs the most support, according to Birnbaum. Think of schools like this as suitable for kids who don’t fit into any one box above.

  • The most restrictive environment is something like ASD Nest, ASD Horizon, or the AIMS Program. These programs are specifically for kids with an autism diagnosis. The DOE website provides info and applications for all of them. 

Your child could be placed into your zoned public school, a different public school, a private school, a charter school, a state-approved nonpublic school, or an independent special education school such as ASD Nest.

Presenting the Best Picture of Your Child to the DOE

Your Turning 5 meeting is all about showing the DOE why the environment you believe is right for your child, is right. Your child’s current teachers and support staff can provide input on what they believe is the right classroom for your child. However, since they are only able to evaluate your child based on his current environment, you’ll want to go down other avenues. The single most important tool you can bring to the DOE is an independent report from a neuropsychologist who has assessed your child’s cognitive, social-emotional, and executive functioning skills. This report will show the DOE:

  • A detailed picture of your child’s potential and how she learns

  • What kind of kindergarten setting your child needs, and why

  • Your child’s needs—so you can advocate for her

Without adequate testing, Birnbaum says, you lack a “critical tool in your kit,” and the arguments you make during the Turning 5 process will be listened to, but most likely not be followed. An evaluation from a neuropsychologist is the strongest weapon you can get if you need to fight for your child’s rights.

RELATED: Looking for a Special Education Lawyer? 

The Turning 5 Timeline—Which Starts Right Now

Things are in flux because of coronavirus, but this is Birnbaum’s suggested Turning 5 timeline:

  1. Call neuropsychologists now to talk about scheduling an evaluation, whether that happens in-person or virtually. Many psychologists do not accept insurance, but you have options in terms of your budget. Talk to the neuropsychologist about how to obtain a preschool evaluation during this time.
  2. In the summer and fall, have your child evaluated. “Once you know what your child needs, the next step is to figure out where to obtain it and how to pay for it,” Birnbaum said. The DOE prefers seeing evaluations that are no more than six months old at the time of the Turning 5 meeting.
  3. Attend a Turning 5 orientation meeting and gather information about your zoned school, nearby public schools, and District 75 programs, as well as information on private schools. If you’re interested in a state-approved nonpublic school, Birnbaum recommends reaching out to the school proactively and forming a relationship ahead of the Turning 5 meeting.
  4. In the fall, it’s a good idea to consult with a special education attorney if your neuropsychologist finds that your child might struggle to meet their potential in a larger classroom, or without specific support. Put applications in to private schools in the fall, too.
  5. In the coming winter, you’ll go through the admissions process for private schools, expect to hear from your zoned school, and have a firm plan for articulating and advocating for what your child needs in his Turning 5 meeting.
  6. In the spring of 2021, gather the documentation and personnel you need in order to advocate at the meeting. Don’t go into the meeting alone—bring someone to take notes! 
  7. Go into your Turning 5 meeting prepared to advocate for your child. Bring anecdotes to tell his story. 

Things to Keep in Mind During the Turning 5 Process

The DOE will offer your child a classroom out of the options available. They cannot offer you a classroom that doesn’t exist, Birnbaum says, even if that’s the perfect classroom for your child. You as a parent will naturally want what is best for your child—you just have to remember that he is not guaranteed he best education for him. He’s guaranteed a free and appropriate one.

“There’s often a big difference between what your child needs and what is available through the system,” she said. “[Throughout this process], really see your child. See what they need, and prioritize what they need.”

DOE classroom services, Birnbaum says, exist along two axes: your child’s need for support versus his cognitive potential/functioning level. The smaller and more supportive a public classroom is, the higher the likelihood kids might not get what they need to meet their full potential. Keep this in mind as you figure out what is right for your child.

Birnbaum acknowledges that New York City is a difficult place to be for kids who need special education. She says getting your child the support he needs may involve a fight—a financial, legal, or emotional fight. If this reality might be too much, consider moving to a suburb—but make sure you move to the right suburb whose schools have the services your child needs. Contact Birnbaum to be connected with resources to help you find the right suburb for your family. Make a choice that works for your whole family.

Above all, Birnbaum says, be kind to yourself during the special education Turning 5 process. It’s a long road. Seek out people around you who are going through the same journey. Seek support and help, learn how to advocate for your child early, do your research, and always ask questions. Both you and your child will benefit. 

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Jacqueline Neber

Author: Jacqueline Neber is a social journalism MA candidate at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY. When she’s not reporting, you can find her petting someone else’s dog. See More

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