Three RNs for BKW as super seeks to help preschoolers

BERNE — Education and economics are both served when children younger than school aged are helped, according to district leaders at Berne-Knox-Westerlo.

Having three registered nurses will maintain Berne-Knox-Westerlo’s student-to-nurse ratio and include home visits for pre-kindergarteners, part of Interim Superintendent Lonnie Palmer’s desire to invest more in preschoolers.

Palmer is also applying for grant money available to high-need districts that would allow for full-day preschool classes and increased instruction time available for high schoolers.

The board also approved on Sept. 23 an updated budget for BKW’s two preschool sessions that would relieve some of the funding lost when the federal grant for Head Start in Albany County was reduced earlier this year.

The estimated additional cost to the district for the three RNs is $2,000 to pay the higher salary of a registered versus a licensed practical nurse with less training.

Palmer said each building — the elementary and secondary schools — will continue to have one full-time registered nurse. A third will accompany “medically fragile” children on their bus rides for part of the day. For 3.5 hours, while not riding the bus, the third nurse will visit homes of children age 5 and younger and pregnant mothers, to connect them to social services and help them educate their children before school age.

The school board approved Palmer’s plan on Sept. 23, after two previous ones were rejected by parents and board members asking for more medical attention by nurses during the school day.

The National Association of School Nurses recommends at least one nurse be in each building of a district and a nurse-to-student ratio of at most 1-to-750, depending on students’ health conditions. Last year, BKW had roughly 930 students, including pre-schoolers, in its buildings.

BKW has had two full-time registered nurses and a part-time licensed practical nurse who rides the bus with disabled students. When one nurse announced in August her intention to retire, Palmer came up with a plan to make the LPN position full-time, replacing the retiring nurse’s duties when not riding the bus and leaving a period when one nurse covered the two buildings.

With the savings leftover from the retiring nurse’s salary, Palmer proposed two more nurses from an outside agency visit homes in a model that would be studied by University at Albany researchers and imitate the federal Even Start grant program.

An LPN has less training and, at BKW, would be paid $7,000 less than a registered nurse, Palmer said. Because the third registered nurse would be working on a bus, his or her salary is eligible for state transportation aid that reimburses 70 percent of the original cost. That means the higher salary for a registered nurse will end up costing taxpayers around $2,100.

Palmer said parents were concerned about having LPNs as he went forward with hiring. The district’s part-time LPN resigned at the beginning of the month and was appointed as a substitute.

“If the desire of the district is to have an RN — then we should have an RN in there. So, we’re trying to listen,” Palmer said during the Sept. 9 school board meeting, when his revised plan proposed two full-time registered nurses and one part-time, still leaving a period with one nurse after school.

“I personally feel any gap is unacceptable,” said Leah Britton from the gallery on Sept. 9. She and three other parents said the district couldn’t afford to have fewer than two nurses throughout the school day, especially with children who have life-threatening and time-sensitive needs, like diabetes and severe allergies.

The main difference between LPNs and RNs in the state’s Education Law is that LPNs work under the direction of an RN, and an RN can be responsible for medical regimens and prescriptions given by physicians and dentists.

Early learning

Palmer held firm to his desire to see BKW invest more in pre-kindergarten-aged children. He told the board on Sept. 23 he wants to return with a plan to fund a fourth person who can do more home visits than the third nurse, and he wants to apply to a newly announced pool of grant money for high-needs districts.

“The more resources we can put into zero to K[indergarten], the better off we’ll be,” said Palmer, noting it has been studied as a crucial period in a child’s development and, therefore, a cost-effective use of district money.

He explained the two grant programs, starting in the middle of the school year, could fund positions outside of the regular school activities, so the district could hire local people without the credentials that demand higher salaries and benefits subject to union agreements.

The State Education Department has $25 million available statewide for Pre-K grants, with preference for full-day classes. BKW currently has two half-day sessions, with 15 and 16 children, Palmer said Tuesday. He expects 64 children could potentially be enrolled, if BKW gets the money. Parents would be more likely to enroll their children, because the full day makes pick-up and drop-off easier to schedule around.

The pre-kindergarten grant would award $2,700 for each extended half-day student, and $5,400 for each full-day student. Watervliet, Cohoes, Green Island, Albany, and BKW are the only districts in Albany County eligible for the grants.

The second grant awards districts $1,500 per student if the amount of instructional time over the year were extended by a quarter, or 45 days. Saturdays, after-school hours, and vacation days would be used to accommodate students who are struggling academically, who work jobs, or who are pregnant. The grant program acknowledges some students need more time with the Common Core Standards that focus on career readiness and use more rigorous testing.

“The drop-out number is not high,” Palmer said BKW. “We’ve had more enrollment in summer school. In other words, there’s already pressure showing us that’s coming.”

A new regulation by the state’s Board of Regents, called the Career Development and Occupational Commencement Studies credential, allows special-education students to graduate with coursework and experience related to specific careers. It can be substituted for the Individualized Education Program diploma, or supplement a Regents or local diploma.

The grant money for extended instruction time could fund a “job coach” to help with CDOS requirements, Palmer said.

The home visits by nurses would address any medical or special-education requirements earlier, and the nurses would coach parents on how to teach their children “pre-reading” skills, like identifying letters, colors, and how a book is opened.

“If we wait until they arrive in kindergarten, it’s very difficult for us to play catch-up,” Palmer said Tuesday.

Tests at BKW are given at the beginning of the year to provide a baseline for comparison with future scores. The results are part of the evaluation of teachers and principals, called Annual Professional Performance Review, started statewide last year. Those tests this year, Palmer said, have shown some first-graders at BKW are struggling with pre-reading skills.

BKW Pre-K gets a boost

The board approved a new budget for BKW’s two pre-school sessions during the Monday meeting. It increases the hours of the teacher and teaching assistant to 40 each from 37 and 33 hours per week to maintain some of the Head Start services for which funding was cut in May.

The total budget for the program increased from $67,100 to $74,300. The district’s grant for Universal Pre-K is for $67,100.

“They were missing hours needed to do parent outreach and contact, so the district picked up the tab of about $7,000 to put those hours back in,” Palmer said Wednesday. He said not replacing retirees over the summer freed up savings that allowed the district to put the money towards the half-day pre-school sessions for 31 students.

Still, Palmer said, the pre-school sessions this year will have reduced services from last year.

“We’re still down about 20 hours of parent contact a week,” said Palmer.

Due to sequestration, the federal grant for Head Start services in Albany County was decreased by about $232,000. The Albany Community Action Partnership that administers the money voted in May to cut its funding in Berne-Knox-Westerlo, Ravena, Cohoes, and Watervliet.

Head Start provides two meals a day, special-education services, parenting skills training, and medical and dental services for 3- and 4-year-olds and their low-income families. At BKW and other districts, Head Start programs are combined with Universal Pre-K classes that are not income-based and are funded separately through the State Education Department.

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