[ Fighting for you ]

Special schools need support and stability

By Sylvia Saunders



or Mary Ann Calzada, there’s no better way to demonstrate the value of New York’s network of special education programs than an image of her two daughters in college T-shirts.

“When you have special needs children, the assumption is that these kids aren’t going to go anywhere in life,” said Calzada, a middle school Spanish teacher and North Syracuse Education Association member. “Well, my girls are living proof that with the right kind of support, the results can be amazing.”

Calzada and her daughters were among the first to answer NYSUT’s call for videos showing how important it is for the state to support Special Act, 853 and 4201 Schools as well as 4410 programs.

The girls, both of whom attended a state-funded special education preschool in North Syracuse, are proudly decked out in their college apparel and say “Thanks Main Street School!”

Calzada has a hard time imagining what her daughters’ lives would be like if the special education preschool hadn’t been there. “In addition to providing highly specialized academic help, occupational therapy and adaptive physical education, the staff was a huge support system for my husband and me, too,” Calzada said. “They were our advocates and showed us the way to advocate for our girls for the bumpy road ahead.”

Katie and Maria Calzada outside; a backdrop of grass, a small brick wall, and a blue house.


Katie and Maria Calzada credit a state-funded special education preschool for getting them off to a strong start.

Older daughter Katie, who was born with dwarfism, attended Liverpool for the rest of her K-12 schooling and is now attending the University of South Carolina, studying sports management and interning in the Division 1 school’s athletic department. Katie also earned her associate degree from Tompkins-Cortland Community College. Younger daughter Maria, who has an auditory processing disorder, is studying graphic design at Monroe Community College. Calzada said Main Street educators not only helped diagnose Maria’s learning disability — they also helped nurture her art ability.

“I’m incredibly proud of both of them,” Calzada said. “And I think they are such a vivid example of how important special education programming can be. It’s so hard to watch these programs struggling to stay afloat because of a lack of support and funding.”

In preparation for the upcoming legislative session, NYSUT is ramping up its advocacy for members who work in Special Act, 853 and 4201 Schools, as well as 4410 programs. These special schools provide essential education and related services to students who, for many reasons, are unable to be served by either the local public schools or BOCES.

The special schools, numbered because they were created by acts of the Legislature, are often the last stop for students with disabilities or with severe behavioral, emotional, educational or physical challenges. Students are usually placed in such programs by the juvenile justice, child welfare, mental health and special education systems.

“The dedicated educators who work in these residential and day programs — and their students — desperately need additional resources and an updated funding system,” said NYSUT President Andy Pallotta. Many years of stagnant funding, increasing costs and an arcane rate-setting process are endangering the future of these special schools.

Educators who work in the specialized programs say the financial difficulties and recent hardships caused by the pandemic are causing severe staffing shortages.

“We‘ve lost so many of our staff,” said one teacher in a residential facility serving students with multiple disabilities including autism. “With all the COVID restrictions still in place, it makes a more challenging job next to impossible … so teachers and teaching assistants are just leaving to find better opportunities elsewhere.”

Traditional public schools, which are also experiencing staff shortages, offer higher salaries and a more reasonable work environment, she said. “We need to be more competitive. Our staff deserve to be paid better and treated better. And our students deserve more, too.”

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We’re collecting video stories to share with lawmakers and other education stakeholders as part of our ongoing advocacy to support the state’s Special Act Schools, 853 and 4201 Schools, and 4410 programs.

We want to hear from you.

Share what it’s like to work in these schools — the joys, the trials and the unique needs of the state’s most vulnerable students.

Go to nysut.cc/specialschools and submit your video explaining what you do every day to help meet students needs. What can be done to help them, and help you do your job?