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The Pioneers podcast convenes the world’s social change makers to share their knowledge, challenge our assumptions, and offer practical solutions for a more equitable future. The Pioneers podcast is hosted by HeartShare Human Services, a non-profit supporting and empowering marginalized New Yorkers since 1914.
Today, we’ll be talking about special education with Carol Verdi. Carol is the Senior Vice President of education services at The Heartshare School. Carol has been with HeartShare’s education program since their inception in 1982. Today, HeartShare educates nearly a thousand students annually, including children with disabilities. Carol holds a Bachelor’s in Psychology, Master’s of Social Work, and a Professional Diploma in School Administration. She’s a leader at her community, serving the Lefferts liberty Kiwanis Club and Angels on the Bay Children’s Charity.
HeartShareNY: Welcome, Carol.
Carol Verdi: Thank You, Jennifer.
HeartShareNY: Can you start off by describing what HeartShare does and the scope of your work in education services?
Carol Verdi: Sure, HeartShare is a human service organization serving people with disabilities and we’d like to say from early on through their aging years. My responsibilities in HeartShare are for the educational programs. That includes four early childhood centers in Queens and in Brooklyn, and one school-age program for children on the autism spectrum that goes ages 5 to 21. Also a children’s residential program, which is 14 young people who live in our residences 24 hours, and then there’s a north school program.
HeartShareNY: So for people who aren’t very aware of the details of this area, why do HeartShare’s programs exist? As opposed to someone going to a special education classroom in the New York City Department of Education.
Carol Verdi: For our youngest children, who are ages 3-5, the public schools just don’t have the physical space to educate the children so they contract with mostly private not-for-profit agencies. They have a contract with us to provide those services to those children. That includes their special education and any related services like speech, occupational physical therapy, counseling, and nursing. On the school-age side for those students, those are typically students who are too challenging for the New York City Department of Education to handle in their District 75 schools. They make a referral to us and it would be considered a non-public school even though we serve public school children. They contract with us to provide the services for those kids.
HeartShareNY: Right, and I recall that when the UPK Program rolled out with the city, we also opened up our UPK classrooms. Now there’s 3-K. What are we doing with that?
Carol Verdi: Well, unfortunately, we thought we were going to be on the forefront of the 3-K the way we were with 4-k, back in 1995, where we actually sat with the district representatives to write the proposal for the state on the 4-k. 3-k opened this year in Queens in District 27 where we have, like I said, served since 1995. We put in for 3k classes in each one of our Queens sites; however, there was some issue with some outstanding building violations that needed to be cleared up, and a fire alarm system that needs to be cleared up, so the Department of Education is not going to award us our contract. We served the children in the current year, 2017-18 school year, and have yet to be paid for those services. Moving forward, I have to make a business decision that we can’t go on serving children without any payment. What we’re reimbursed as compared to the Department of Education is so minimal that we run deficits in our programs. Not being able to collect the tuition just puts us even more behind the eight-ball than we were before. Unfortunately, moving forward, we’re not going to be able to serve those children any longer within HeartShare.
HeartShareNY: So I’m hearing two separate issues. One is an issue of different regulations and the other one is the tuition reimbursement. Can you talk about the difficulties with both?
Carol Verdi: Sure. For example, one of the things that is now required in one of our school buildings is for our fire alarm to be hooked up to a central station. Our fire alarm was installed in 1988 and they’re trying to investigate whether or not it has the capacity to even have that hookup be installed in this system. If it does not have that capacity, it could mean hundreds of thousands of dollars to replace the whole system. In a program that’s already running a deficit, where do I find that money? The regulations changed. We were not informed that this was something new that we had to do. The city comes in for an inspection and lays it on us that we have to get this done. We would certainly want to follow the rules and get it done in a timely manner. They gave us 30 days to get it done but realistically, even for me to get three bids on what it would cost would be certainly more than those 30 days. I can’t run the risk, then, of not being reimbursed for the tuition because, as I said, my deficit is already so large that I need to be sure that I’m collecting my tuition.
HeartShareNY: Does that happen often? In terms of having to comply with a regulation within that tight timeframe?
Carol Verdi: I’ve been seeing it more and more. I’ll give you another example. A few months ago, somebody from the Department of Buildings came into one of our sites in Brooklyn and we were fined a thousand dollars for having greater than 20% of the wall covered with children’s artwork. We’re governed by the Department of Health for a daycare license, and universal pre-k in the State Education Department, and we have all these regulatory agencies that come in. We didn’t know that we could only have 20% of the wall covered. The director was actually taking down the artwork right there with the inspector present. He said, “I’m sorry. I have to give you the fine,” and we did go to court. We did get it reduced but we still had to pay $400. Subsequently, we get another fine because we didn’t have a certificate of fitness to conduct a fire drill. It’s a $25 test but it was a $1,000 fine because we didn’t have the certificate. I don’t know if it’s a new regulation. I couldn’t find anywhere that said when it went in effect but it was something we were never told about. The way we find out is by getting these thousand dollar fines. It just seems that all of our regulatory agencies need to be able to communicate to us better so that we know what is expected, and that we remain in compliance because certainly, it’s not our intent to be out of compliance with any regulation.
HeartShareNY: Right. I mean I think all of your preschools are nationally accredited too.
Carol Verdi: Two out of four, yes. We have to do one at a time. So we’re halfway there.
HeartShareNY: Yeah but it would be nice if you knew what the regulation was before you got fined for it.
Carol Verdi: Exactly.
HeartShareNY: That sounds quite difficult. For the reimbursement issue, can you compare what goes on in the public schools versus your classrooms, and what the rate difference is, and what that means for a teacher? If I am a special education teacher and I have an option of working for either a public school or for HeartShare, what does my decision-making process look like?
Carol Verdi: Well I think it becomes very difficult for us because our teachers are recruited, very openly, by the New York City Department of Education. They certainly are in a better position to pay. For example, all of our teachers have to be state certified in special education, most of them are dually certified in early childhood and special education, so they come to work for us. It’s a 12-month school year. They work from September to June, and then six weeks in the Summer. If they work for the Department of Education their salary for just the 10-month school year, September to June, is $20,000 more than what we could pay. Plus the benefits package that they don’t have to pay into as much as they would in ours. They have a very strong pension plan that ties in with the 25-year retirement and full benefits. So oftentimes, our teachers are recruited right around Labor Day weekend. They receive a call, say Thursday or Friday before Labor Day, and they’re offered a position to start on Tuesday. If they don’t accept it, they move on to the next person on the list. So our teachers will come in and they’re very upset. They don’t want to leave, but they have their own circumstances, families, and other obligations. They want to be able to earn the money to be able to support their families better so I don’t blame them for leaving. I just don’t like the way in which it occurs. Most times there’s no notice to us. It becomes a discriminatory thing because they leave us, and they’ll leave our classrooms for children with special needs, to go work in the Department of Education at a higher salary. Leaving us with no teacher in the room.
HeartShareNY: Can you explain who that actually impacts? Because we’re talking mostly about regulations and about funding from the city, and the state, and all of that, but at the end of the day who does this impact? Can you talk about how the children learn and the therapeutic services they receive at the preschools and at The HeartShare school?
Carol Verdi: Sure. I believe strongly, 36 years in the field, that young children between the ages of 3-5 have their greatest opportunity to learn. Our schools, through play, teach children everyday skills that are going to improve their independence and make them productive members of society. Whether that be getting them to be able to communicate in whatever way that is or getting them to be mobile by increasing their physical capabilities. Whether that means for a child on the autism spectrum to be a little bit more social and be able to be functional in their world. These are all things that are immeasurable going forward. We do have teacher assistants who are excellent in their job responsibilities. Then our directors and supervisors are the ones that forgo their other daily jobs to go in the classrooms and make sure that those children are learning. I think we’re blessed in that we have a really, really good, talented, professional group of speech occupational and physical therapists who also help out. We have a truly interdisciplinary team model at our schools. They are able to work with those teacher assistants as well, if there’s no teacher in the classroom, to make sure that those students are getting everything that they receive. It’s kind of all hands on deck. As I said, other responsibilities get to the side until the children… we see what they need. Then you can go back and take care of those other responsibilities. That is the same thing in The Heartshare School as well. If you’re a psychologist, or a speech therapist, or whatever, your job responsibility is first and foremost in the classroom if we need the hands in there. So that’s how we try to make it up. This year, we have been blessed to be able to hire people who have what’s called an internship certificate. They’re in school and they’re not fully certified yet as a teacher. We have been able to hire a few of the teachers in that capacity so that’s been helpful. I think, last year, we were probably 50% short in our teaching staff. This year maybe it’s only 10% or 15%.
HeartShareNY: It sounds like you’ve had to be very resourceful, and so my question for you is how do we go forward to secure the funding that we need?
Carol Verdi: Well I think, for me, the biggest thing is getting our legislators to understand how this budget works. We have been in contact with Senate and Assembly across the parties, republican-democrat, upstate in Albany, down here in their local offices, and I don’t think that they really understand that when a billion dollars goes into the governor’s budget for education it excludes our programs, which for the preschool are known as 4410 schools and for the school-age known as 853 schools. One senator just wrote a letter to somebody who wrote to him and said, “Oh, we put in the billion dollars for the 4410 programs into the governor’s budget the same as last year.” Well, those dollars don’t include our programs. They never included our programs. The only time our programs are included in the governor’s budget, or in any legislative action, is when a regulatory piece happens. For example, teacher assistants needed to have state certification as teacher assistants require taking an exam and getting college credits. Then they remember the 4410 and 853 schools, but when it comes to money in that budget we’re excluded time and time again. For six years we received no increase at all to the budgets. The last three years in the preschool we received 2%, 2%, and 2%. The public schools, in that same time frame, received a 35% increase in their budgets. We received 6%. In our school age, we received nothing for five years. Then for four years, we received 4%. This year, the New York State Education Department made a recommendation to the Department of Budget to give us a 3.4% increase to the budget and we still don’t know if that’s going to come through or not. Last year, for example, it was a 4% increase and we received 2%. So we’re not hopeful that that’s going to go through. We are trying, right now, everything we can to bring attention to this so that the legislators understand what the plight is and hopefully can do something to make sure that we are getting, at least, what the other schools are because we are public schools serving public school children. It’s really not recognition that we need.
HeartShareNY: Why do you think that the rates are stagnant year after year? Why is that happening? Do you think that there’s just not an understanding in regards to where that earmarked money goes?
Carol Verdi: I think that’s part of it. I think New York State ranked very low, 49 out of 50, in integrating services for children with disabilities. I think that that’s a piece that plays into it but then look at what happened with us this year, now I have to close out my universal pre-k and my 3-K programs because I can’t get a contract. That means I can no longer do special classes in an integrated setting where children with and without disabilities are taught together in the same classroom. So how do we get to integrating students when we get roadblocks every step of the way? Children who leave our school who go into their local community schools, we get phone call after phone call that the child is not succeeding because the supports are not built in for that child when they move on to a larger classroom without somebody who has the training to deal with that child’s behavioral, communication, or physical needs. I think there’s various levels of stumbling blocks as you go and I like to use the word benign neglect because I think that, overall, everybody thinks they’re doing the right thing by funding education. They’re just not looking at it to see what’s not included in there.
HeartShareNY: Yeah, absolutely. They don’t realize that our programs are basically not funded from year to year and how much of a crisis we’re experiencing, and peer organizations like Heartshare as well, and so what can our listeners do to help?
Carol Verdi: I think the biggest thing is trying to get the word out that our children are their children. That’s been our motto, “our students are your students.” Over the last three years, 61 programs have closed their doors. 61 preschools. 61 4410 programs have closed because they can’t financially sustain themselves. As a business, we’re all about the mission. I’ve had the pleasure of working here my whole professional career, in early childhood. It’s something I believe in. I even recommended for my own great niece and nephew, who are twins, to go to an integrated program when they start school in September. Their community and their parents went to look at it and thought it was wonderful. So it’s something that I truly believe, in my heart, to be the right thing for children. The fact that no one’s hearing our message… I don’t know how to get it across to people. I’ve written letters to the assembly to send it to the governor himself, asking him to be our champion. I think the public needs to hear and understand this and do the same. They need to talk to people and get the word out that our schools matter. Our children matter, and we need to have some kind of financial push to make sure that we continue to do that.
HeartShareNY: Absolutely. That’s a shame. 61 different preschools. That’s astronomical. How can someone reach you if they have concerns or want to join your efforts?
Carol Verdi: I think they can reach me through HeartShare, through email, at firstname.lastname@example.org, or if they come on to HeartShare’s website and just go to education, I believe there’s a link that would bring them right into this. Recently, Arnold Diaz of WPIX television did a story related to this and I believe the story is on our HeartShare Facebook page. Perhaps the public would want to share that story so more people can understand what’s going on. That something has to be done before, soon, other programs close. Then what happens to these children?
HeartShareNY: Absolutely, and I’ll link that video again so that hopefully more people will share it. Is there anything else that you would like to add?
Carol Verdi: Well, I believe that children who come through HeartShare’s doors really are able to make something of themselves and I shouldn’t just say HeartShare. Any preschool, any 4410 program that is educating children to be the best that they can be. I can tell you stories of children who’ve come through here. One young lady who is now our adaptive physical education teacher at our school in Brooklyn. Another young lady just completed her MBA at St. John’s University and now works for a company. Every year, she sends school supplies to us because she said she’ll never forget what she was taught here to be able to let her communicate in a way that she was able to go on and do that. Another young lady became a social worker. Some of our guys are living in supported apartments now. Three of our young ladies are living in a group home together. They’ve been together since they were infants as part of our infant program, when we had that. Those are stories that you can’t put a price tag on. Those are the stories that keep us working and keep us in our jobs because that’s what it’s about, is seeing the progress that those young people make to be able to become good, productive members of our society. We need to get that message across to our legislators, so whatever we could do to that end… I kind of always said that I feel like, in the position that we’re in, they’re almost forcing us to just chop off one finger at a time. We used to serve children from birth to age three. We had to close that program down in 2006, I think. So that’s your pinkie left. Then our evaluation office had to be… the office itself had to be closed but we were able to preserve the service within one of our school buildings. So that was another thing that came off. Now, we just had to close our pre-k, 4, and 3-K. So there we go again. If the state does not want us in business they should just come out and say it, and make it a clean break. Not have this torturous seat in front of us as to what’s going to close next, “What do we have to give up next?” That is just too heartbreaking.
HeartShareNY: That’s really unfortunate. I just want to thank you for your excellent work, despite all these limited resources. You seem to have sustained and grown all of our education services throughout your career here, and you’re able to see these preschoolers who you met as tiny kids. They come back as adults, and clearly, you’re not just talking about the mission. You’re seeing it lived in real life. So thank you for that and just know that you’re doing good work.
Carol Verdi: Thank you so much.
HeartShareNY: All right. Well, thank you so much for joining us.
Carol Verdi: You’re welcome. My pleasure.