Shelton High students are demanding city leaders bring the district’s pre-K program back into compliance with state law.

The district’s “typical peer” pre-K program calls for an even split between students with special needs and those without. But this year’s program presently has 69 students total, 58 of whom have special needs.

Members of SHS Students Fight for Change, formed in the wake of Beth Smith’s hire as interim school superintendent, spoke at the Board of Aldermen meeting Thursday, March 12. The students called on the aldermen to end chronic “underfunding and neglect” of city schools, which they said led to the pre-K failings.

“Surely, we can afford to do the bare minimum for our community’s most vulnerable little kids,” said Matt McGee, Shelton High senior and former Democratic candidate for Board of Aldermen.

The students called on the aldermen and Mayor Mark Lauretti, who had not yet arrived at the meeting, to support the Board of Education’s proposed $75,083,945 budget — an increase of $2,318,945, or 3.19 percent — for the 2020-21 fiscal year.

The school’s request calls for hiring a new full-time teacher, at $61,000, which Smith recommends be a pre-K teacher. The Board of Education also voted to end tuition fees for typical peers, all in hopes of making pre-K compliant with state law and increase interest in a once popular program.

Next year, officials said, as many as 65 special needs students will be eligible for the program. In order to meet Connecticut Early Learning Development Standards, the district must be ready to handle an estimated 130 students total.

SHS freshman Mary Pavlicuk called it “abhorrent” that “no one is taking notice of this.” She called the present state of the program “morally and lawfully unjust.”

Rebekkah Hurlbert agreed, saying she was disappointed that she had to even appear at the Board of Aldermen meeting to ask for this program to be brought back into compliance with state law for the “most vulnerable” in the community.

McGee said that parents agree that the district’s decision to charge typical peers a tuition fee — $2,500 last year, $2,000 this year — combined with the reduction in staff and shortening of the school week from five to four days, has coincided with a drop in neurotypical peer enrollment.

“The ratio currently for how many neurotypical peers we have in this program compared to how many kids with disabilities we have in this program is 5:1,” said McGee. “Not only is this against the law, but it is also depriving kids with disabilities from learning and socializing with typical peers, thus harming the overall quality of education they receive from the Shelton public school system.

“Is this board really content with this outcome? Is this what we strive for here in the City of Shelton?” McGee asked the aldermen. “A pre-K program for special education students that is underfunded and thus understaffed and not attracting new enrollment from typical peers?”

brian.gioiele@hearstmediact.com