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New York City
September 2001

New York League for Early Learning: Universal Pre-Kindergarten
By Ronald S. Lenkowsky, Ed.D.

Universal Pre-Kindergarten is an effective new method to ensure that New York’s four-year-olds get an excellent start to their formal education. I know of no better way to introduce these youngsters to the “social” world than to bring them together in a community-based center, where most of their learning comes in the form of play.

At the New York League for Early Learning, which offers pre-school programs for children with developmental and learning delays, we offer small classes, individualized education plans and plenty of love and tender care for our students who come from throughout the metropolitan area. And now, typically developing children can share in this experience through New York’s Universal Pre-Kindergarten program.

It is difficult to identify which children are typically developing and which are disabled when you walk into any of NYL’s Universal Pre-K classrooms. In one corner, three youngsters gather to hear a teacher’s aide read a story. At a sandbox-like table, six children are gathered, pretending they are making tea and coffee. One child offers a visitor a cup of coffee and the others follow suit.

The benefits are clear for a special needs child. They are in a classroom that reflects society’s diversity. I am a firm believer that the reason so many children with delays and disabilities experience difficulties later in life is not because they lack academic skills, but rather because they lack necessary social skills.

Parents of typically developing children appreciate the fact that our highly trained staff can recognize and know how to address the needs of all children – those with and without disabilities. Sometimes, we have found language or other delays in children who have not previously been identified as having special needs. Our programs can then provide speech, occupational and physical therapists at the school who can work one-on-one with this child.

Children at this age don’t have any pre-conceptions about people with disabilities. Research and experience teaches us that early exposure to any group that is different helps these youngsters learn that their classmates with disabilities are just like them, a lesson for a lifetime.

Having spent 38 years as a practicing special educator, I have to admit that the thought of offering an integrated classroom never entered my mind when I first started teaching in 1963. Those were the days when special education teachers, like special education students, were banished to isolated corners of the school. These children were not allowed to take part in any of the regular school activities or interact with the other students. Today I’m proud to oversee all six of NYL’s pre-schools offering Universal Pre-Kindergarten slots to neighborhood children in Manhattan, Queens, the Bronx and Brooklyn.

I’d like to share a story that illustrates the importance and success of NYL’s integrated, Universal Pre-Kindergarten. Iza was apprehensive about enrolling her typically developing son Nathaniel in an integrated classroom. Since he is an only child, his mother wanted him to develop his social skills with other children.

“Being around developmentally delayed children concerned me because I didn’t know how he would react to that,” Iza said. “To my surprise, it has been wonderful. He loves his friends. He notices some differences, but that’s OK with him.”If a child understands early on that we are all very different, his life will be a whole lot easier.” There’s no more valuable lesson than this for any 4-year-old.#

Ronald S. Lenkowsky, Ed.D., is the Director of the New York League for Early Learning, an agency serving more than 1,500 early intervention and pre-school children throughout the metropolitan area in center- and home-based programs. NYL is a member of the YAI/National Institute for People with Disabilities network.


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