Reading away: Freshman and member of Conestoga’s Best Buddies chapter Sam Porter makes his way through the pile of books on his desk in special education teachers Madison Galanti and Jena Lutschaunig’s class. Porter said that he enjoys hanging out with other Best Buddies members.
Reading away: Freshman and member of Conestoga’s Best Buddies chapter Sam Porter makes his way through the pile of books on his desk in special education teachers Madison Galanti and Jena Lutschaunig’s class. Porter said that he enjoys hanging out with other Best Buddies members.
Ben Shapiro / The SPOKE

Educational expansion: How TESD created and developed its special education programs

By Maya Shah, Ben Shapiro, and Shreya Vaidhyanathan, Co-T/E Life Editor, Editor-in-Chief, and Co-Managing Editor

Editor’s note: The families of the special education students represented in this article provided informed consent to The Spoke to publish the included information. The Tredyffrin/Easttown School District did not reveal private student information, nor did it review The Spoke’s content prior to publication.

In 1996, Glenn Baskin entered Conestoga to receive a T/E education. His mother, Sheryl Baskin, said that he worked with TESD’s first one-on-one instructional aide and was the first student at Conestoga “with a more severe disability” to receive special education.

Since Glenn Baskin attended Conestoga, TESD’s special education programs have expanded. In the 2022-23 school year, the district employed 57 special education teachers and spent more than $32 million on special education costs.

Before starting high school, Glenn Baskin received his education from the Chester County Intermediate Unit (CCIU), which at the time provided more extensive special education than Conestoga. Sheryl Baskin felt that as a student with Down syndrome not attending a TESD school, he was secluded from the T/E community. She wanted him to attend Conestoga alongside Michael Baskin, his older, nondisabled brother.

“No one knew that Michael had a brother. If we went shopping at a local place, nobody knew who Glenn was,” Sheryl Baskin said. “When it was time for him to go into ninth grade, I wanted him to be a Tredyffrin/Easttown student.”

Enrolling Glenn Baskin at Conestoga was only the first step. Sheryl Baskin said that her son’s transition from attending the CCIU’s elementary and middle school programs to starting his freshman year at Conestoga had its hardships.

“Parents came to the principal at the time complaining that (Glenn) was a distraction,” Sheryl Baskin said. “After we all sat down and created a plan and used more of the resources from the Intermediate Unit, Glenn did much better the rest of the year.”

The 1990 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act established that students with disabilities are entitled to a free and appropriate public education until the day before their 22nd birthday. With the help of a full-time aide and Conestoga’s developing special education programs, Glenn Baskin spent six years in high school and graduated from Conestoga in 2003.

In 2000, while Glenn Baskin attended Conestoga, academic seminar teacher Kate McGranaghan started working as one of the school’s five special education teachers. Now, she serves as chair of the academic support department, which hosts 18 teachers and serves students of varying needs.

“My obligation is to meet the needs of students,” McGranaghan said. “Some of my students see me multiple times a day. Some see me one time a cycle. It depends on where they are with their level of independence.”

This school year, 1,267 students, or 18.3% of TESD’s enrollment, carry Individualized Educational Programs (IEPs) — an increase from the 15.4% 10 years ago. The district currently employs 57 special education teachers and stated its intent to hire three more for the 2024-25 school year at the Feb. 8 Education Committee.

The growth rate of TESD’s special education programs aligns with state and national patterns. The TESD school board intends to increase the special education budget by $1.6 million for the 2024-25 school year. To meet the funding goal, the board filed for a tax rate referendum exception to the Pennsylvania Special Session Act 1 of 2006, which would allow the district to increase the property tax rate by up to 1%.

“People heard about all the great things that we had to offer for different populations in our school district, and then they came to us,” said Dr. Elizabeth DePascale, a special education teacher at T/E Middle School. “The more people who would move who needed or benefited from these services, the more the program grew and grew.”

TESD’s special education programs’ history and growth

In 1973, the federal government passed Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which protects against disability-based discrimination. Two years later, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act created the IEP, which outlines a specialized instructional plan to meet a student’s unique needs.

The Pennsylvania Department of Education expects schools to place students with IEPs in general education classrooms as much as possible. Nicole Roy, TESD’s director of special education, said that the district aims to achieve a least restrictive environment for all students, as outlined in the 1975 act.

“We’re not just sitting a kid in class to pretend to take notes. We have purposeful inclusion,” Roy said. “They have a curriculum that runs parallel to what the class is doing. Our philosophy at T/E is to have the kids out as much as they possibly can be and still benefit from their education.”

Before 2021, four of the five district elementary schools had specialized programs in only one specific support area: intensive reading and learning support at Beaumont, autistic support at Hillside, emotional support at New Eagle and life skills at Valley Forge. The district arranged for students to attend the school that housed their needed support area regardless of the student’s home address.

When Roy became the director of special education, she prioritized expanding every school’s special education programs. By 2022, all eight district schools had reading and learning support, autistic support, emotional support and life skills classes.

“Our special education programming is fantastic,” Roy said. “But the biggest change for me was allowing the students to be at their home school, ride the bus with their own friends from their neighborhood and get the support and services that they need in their school where all of their friends and family go.”

Parents report varied experiences with TESD’s special education programs

At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, T/E resident Tanja Praefcke moved to the district from Germany. Her daughter, Charlotte Praefcke, who has autism, started attending Conestoga in June 2020.

Tanja Praefcke said that Conestoga “couldn’t have been more accommodating,” helping translate IEP documents from her daughter’s former school and creating new plans. However, she noted that their family faced some difficulties while Charlotte Praefcke went through online classes.

“She had her one-on-one on the other end, but still I had to sit next to her because she has to have someone in person with her,” Tanja Praefcke said. “When it finally got back in person, it was so much better for her because they could really work on her social skills: sitting down, looking at someone, talking to someone, following rules and activities of daily living.”

Other parents reported less streamlined experiences with TESD’s special education programs.

Alison Swanz Nagle said that she had to do most of the legwork to ensure that her 12th grade daughter received the necessary educational support for her 22q11.2 deletion syndrome (22q) with comorbidities of ADHD and autism. She felt that her daughter’s case managers had always been agreeable to learning more about 22q, but their lack of experience with the genetic condition led them to minimize her primary diagnosis and focus on her autism when creating educational plans. 

“It’s what they hone in on because they’ve heard of autism,” Swanz Nagle said. “They’ve never heard of 22q. For me, it’s frustrating because I have to educate them on her educational needs.”

Swanz Nagle felt that when she started considering her daughter’s post-high school plans, no one within the district could sufficiently answer her questions. She found that district staff did not know enough about 22q to guide her through her daughter’s later high school years.

“My questions seemed to get punted between special ed, her guidance counselor, the CCIU, Technical College High School and the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation,” Swanz Nagle said. “And talking to other high school parents, I know I’m not the only one.”

Student showcase: Members of Conestoga’s Best Buddies chapter perform a dance to the song “YMCA.” Neighboring schools put on similar acts during this year’s talent show, which Conestoga hosted on March 21.

Conestoga’s Best Buddies chapter expands special education opportunities

Alongside the growth in the district’s special education programs came Conestoga’s Best Buddies club, which has been running for more than 25 years. A chapter of the national non-profit organization, the club is dedicated to creating opportunities for inclusive living and development for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDDs).

The Best Buddies club matches “peers,” students without IDDs, with “buddies,” students with IDDs. Students meet in smaller groups and organize social outings between monthly club meetings.

Senior and Best Buddies club co-president Sophie Kunsch has been a peer since her freshman year. She said that the outings provide opportunities for students with IDDs to form friendships and continue their social interactions outside of school.

“We have so many kids that don’t have IDDs in the club, and it is amazing,” Kunsch said. “A group of four or five guys went bowling, which is fun because they make a lot of friends, and it’s a smaller environment than the meetings.”

On March 21, the club invited neighboring schools’ Best Buddies chapters to Conestoga for an annual talent show. Conestoga’s chapter prepared a group dance to the song “YMCA,” during which peers and buddies performed on stage together.

Freshman Sam Porter, a member of the Best Buddies club, said that  he “loved” the talent show and that it was “really fun.” He is in Madison Galanti’s Life Skills/Autistic Support class with senior Nagarjun Besagi.

“I liked (the talent show). It was amazing,” said Besagi, a buddy in Conestoga’s Best Buddies club. “I liked singing songs and dancing.”

Besagi will graduate in June and plans to attend West Chester University next year through its transitional living program.

“I love my life,” Besagi said. “It’s so good.”

Maya Shah can be reached at [email protected].

Ben Shapiro can be reached at [email protected].

Shreya Vaidhyanathan can be reached at [email protected].

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