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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Junie-Fed Michel waved goodbye as the yellow school bus drove off, taking her son to school for the first time Monday morning.
“It means a lot to me,” she told Target 12. “I’m excited to see how it’s going to go today.”
Michel has been fighting since last fall to get her three-year-old son Juju into special education services in Providence, where they live. The school district is required by federal law to provide special education to children who need it starting at age 3.
Juju is nonverbal and has other development delays. But despite having a signed agreement with the district, he couldn’t get into a preschool classroom. A Target 12 investigation in March revealed Juju was among dozens of students in this situation. And the overall number of children waiting for services has since increased.
The state-run district has blamed a staffing shortage. Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green last month said there were classrooms set up and ready to go, but no qualified teachers to staff them.
“This is terrible,” Infante-Green said at the time, acknowledging the district is “having trouble meeting the law.”
Providence is required by law to pay for outside services if the district can’t provide them. They tried that with Juju, sending him to a private center on the East Side of Providence in January. But on his first day, Michel says they were turned away at the door.
One day after Target 12’s report aired in March, Michel got a phone call. A private preschool in Cranston had a spot open, and would evaluate if they could meet Juju’s needs.
After some meetings and an intake session, it was official: Juju was in.
“This is a big day for Juju,” Michel said, beaming outside her home Monday in the Wanskuck neighborhood.
Outfitted with his Mickey Mouse backpack and Tommy Hilfiger puffer jacket, Juju looked a little nervous as the bus pulled up. His mom and a bus monitor helped him get on, and Michel waved goodbye as the bus headed to Cranston.
Michel knows her son is behind his peers developmentally, and she’s excited to see the progress he’ll make.
“I’m hoping it won’t take him long to start saying words, start making sentences, make his needs known,” Michel said.
But she’s frustrated by how long it took for her home district to find Juju services he urgently needed.
“They’re not really doing their job,” Michel said. “I don’t think Juju, as a little kid who needs services, should have to suffer this long. So they need to step up their game.”
The situation has only become worse.
At the time of Target 12’s investigation in March, 34 children in Providence ages 3 to 5 were awaiting the required special education services. Spokesperson Victor Morente said Monday that 13 of those children have since been placed, mostly out of district.
But another 20 students have been identified as needing placement, bringing the current total up to 41 children waiting.
One of the students who was placed out of district is Lineda Felix’s daughter, Naomie, who is also nonverbal. Felix said the superintendent in West Greenwich saw Target 12’s report and offered to help. Naomie started preschool in that town Monday afternoon, though her placement is only part time and currently only lasts until the end of the school year.
Felix hopes Providence will be able to accommodate Naomie in her home district by the fall, or else she’ll be in the same situation waiting for help.
This problem in Providence has sparked calls from lawmakers to pass special education reform legislation. It’s also caught the attention of the U.S. Department of Education, which enforces the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the law that requires this type of education.
The federal officials said they would be following up on the issue with the R.I. Department of Education.
Advocates are pushing for solutions to the crisis, pointing out the effects of delaying services like speech and language therapies.
“It’s really a problem, because when children don’t receive timely intervention to support their needs it creates bigger problems down the line,” Sam Salganik, executive director of the parent advocacy group RIPIN, said last month.
Michel said she and Juju have been recognized in public since the original report aired, and she urged other parents to speak out about injustices. Juju’s first day of school also means Michel can finally go back to work, which she called a “win-win” for her family.
“I can’t wait,” she said.
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