ROANOKE RAPIDS - As they did every year for 35 years, teachers at the Riverstone Child Development Center sent students home at the end of the school year for summer vacation. But this year, the children won't be returning in September.
The CDC, which served 18 preschoolers from Roanoke Rapids, Weldon and Halifax County schools, closed at the end of May, and the school districts have been making plans to accommodate its students in their other preschool and kindergarten programs. A lease for the CDC's building was not renewed and no other building is available that meets the center's requirements.
School officials are also trying to quell the concerns of worried parents.“The initial response was surprise and there were rumors flying,” said Ellen Burnett, mental health coordinator for the Roanoke Rapids Graded School District. “Change is not always welcome and they have a lot of questions about their child's individual needs.”
The Riverstone CDC was a comprehensive program designed to meet the social, emotional, educational and behavioral needs of preschoolers within the county. The center was based on the inclusion model, combining children with developmental delays with those who are developing typically. The children were later integrated into their respective school districts for kindergarten.
“They made it pretty seamless,” Burnett said of the transition to kindergarten.
CDC was the last operating developmental daycare center in the state, and had previously been run by the state Department of Health and Human Resources as a MH/DD/SA service. The state began phasing such programs out a few years ago as a result of mental health reform, changing them from required to non-required services. At that point, the school districts took over.
On July 1, 2005, when Riverstone Counseling and Personal Development officially dissolved, the program's contract was turned over to the Roanoke Rapids Graded School District, Burnett explained, and a cooperative agreement was formed between the Roanoke Rapids, Halifax County and Weldon school districts. The More at Four pre-K program also partially subsidized some of the students.
Halifax Regional Medical Center, which had been leasing the Riverstone A building to the Child Development Center, as well as some other programs, has now reclaimed the building.
“This is really just an unfortunate by-product of mental health reform and overall healthcare reform, in my opinion,” Burnett noted.
The hospital prepared a press release in May explaining that the Roanoke Rapids Graded School District and the CDC were notified in November 2006 that their lease would end on April 1. CDC was granted an extension through the end of the school year.
“Although our facility planning is still a work in progress, we do plan to locate several of our outpatient services and support departments in the building,” the release continues.
Burnett said the school district has held some meetings to look into the possibility of restructuring the program by blending it with More at Four, Head Start and the Clara Hearne preschool programs.
So far, the school districts have been unable to find another licensed facility to move the program into, because such a program requires a building with specific features, according to federal and state guidelines. The Riverstone A building, which included low windows, doors and toilets, was specifically tailored to be a child development center, Burnett said.
“If the facility was still available, this would be a moot point,” she added.
Making the transition
Though their last day in the CDC building was May 25, Leighann Beam, the last director of the center, and her four assistants continued to provide services to the 17 children through the end of June to help ease their transitions to their new schools, and to honor their contracts, which lasted through the end of the month.
The staff offered field trips for the children, including visits to the Children's Museum in Rocky Mount and Sunset Park. They also visited the different schools the children will be attending next year: Weldon Preschool; Clara Hearne Early Childhood Center; and Belmont, Manning and Aurelian Springs elementaries.
The teachers hope the trips will help ease the children's transitions to their new schools. CDC employees have also been providing home visits for the children and their families.
“We just felt like we needed to not just end with the children and give them something to transition to their new classrooms,” said Beam, who served as director for more than two years.
The staff has also been assessing the progress of the children to help familiarize the different school districts with their development and needs. Nine of the students will go on to their districts' respective preschools, while eight will be moving on to kindergarten. One child moved out of the state in April.
The staff-to-child ratio at the CDC was excellent, Beam noted, but she is confident the school districts will continue to provide the children the services they need.
“As staff we love the children, we loved the classroom, and we all feel that it is a great loss, but we feel very happy that our children will continue to receive excellent educations elsewhere,” she said.
A tearful goodbye
A few weeks ago, the center held its last graduation celebration at East 10th Street Church of Christ, which has provided space for the families to meet since the school closed, while the staff was based in the Roanoke Rapids central offices. The event was marked by both smiles and tears, and some parents and grandparents shared their opinions about the closing of the center.
Since starting at the CDC in December, Jatavius Jones expanded his vocabulary and is beginning to form sentences. He also is nearly potty trained, has learned to drink out of a straw and use eating utensils, and improved his behavior. Jatavius will be moving on to kindergarten next year, though his family still has not determined which school he will attend.
“In this Roanoke Rapids that's growing so much otherwise, what can we do for these kids? I feel that somebody somewhere needs to come forward and keep this program going,” said Jatavius' great-grandmother, Ruth Wiggins.
Darlene Griffin, whose 4-year-old granddaughter Miracle Merriweather attended the CDC for two years and will be moving on to kindergarten at Aurelian Springs, said Miracle has learned shapes, colors, and most of the alphabet and numbers. Griffin said the CDC prepared Miracle for kindergarten and she wishes the program could continue in a school building. “She learned a lot from that school. She came a long way, and I wish that they could keep it open because I know there's a lot of kids who need the same help as Miracle.”
A rich history
The Child Development Center opened in the spring of 1972 on the second floor of the Rosemary Baptist Church educational building. Ginger Cross became the second director of the center in November 1972. At the time, the center was run by Halifax County Mental Health, which later evolved into Riverstone. Cross said she thinks the program moved into its current building in 1974.
The center evolved through the years. When Cross started working there, it was designed for children of all ages.
“When I first went there, we had children that it was their first experience outside their home and initially we had children up to 16 years old,” Cross said. “Some of them were non-ambulatory and they had to be carried up and down the stairs each day.”
The CDC placed the first non-ambulatory child into Roanoke Rapids schools while the center was still located in the church, Cross said.
Cross stayed in touch with some of her students after they left the CDC. She worked at the center until May 1977, when her own child was born. When she went back to teaching, it was at the compensatory education program at Halifax Community College, where she ended up teaching students she'd known at the CDC.
Cross found that many children who hadn't been able to feed or dress themselves or use the toilet emerged from the program able to do those things. Cross added she is concerned about the children who will not be able to attend the CDC in the future. The center provided a good teacher-to-child ratio and a great deal of individual attention, and was “accepting of whatever situation the children had,” she said.
“I just really, really hate that it's happening,” Cross said. “I think it's irreplaceable and I think the good it's done through the years, I think it's really sad, and I guarantee you whatever that space is going to be used for, it wont have the impact on lives that this has had through the years.”
All the school districts in the county plan to transition their students from the CDC into their respective schools. According to the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act, all school districts are required to meet the needs of special needs children beginning at age 3, Burnett noted.
“There is no simple answer. As I explained to the parents, the children will get comparable service - they just won't be blended in with all three school systems,” she said.
The Halifax County Schools district had eight children attending the CDC.
“Depending on enrollment, we'll either put them in existing pre-K classrooms or we'll create a new pre-K classroom,” said Keith Hoggard, public information officer for Halifax County schools. “Whatever it takes, we'll take care of our own children, make sure they've got everything they need.”
Weldon had two students at the CDC. One of the current students would have attended kindergarten next year anyway, and the other will enter an exceptional children program at the preschool, according to Deborah Carroll, director of the Exceptional Children Department. The children have already started visiting their new schools and seeing new faces.
“It's a five-star accredited preschool center, so we feel good about the services that we're going to provide for all the children,” Carroll said. “We'll just make adjustments and bring them in and work with them and serve them right there.”
Still, Carroll thinks the CDC is a big loss to all three of the school districts. The center's “great educators” have taken some of the most critical special needs children and interacted with them to help them develop, she noted.
“They have done a great service for our children. They will be missed, but we're going to absorb those children in our existing system and provide the quality services that we can,” she said. “I'm sure those little babies are going to be sad to leave, but we're working on transitioning them.”
Dottie Wardsworth, director of pre-K at Clara Hearne Early Childhood Center, said the school will make sure to find the right classroom for each child from the Roanoke Rapids Graded School District.
“When they apply to Clara Hearne, whether they are developmentally-delayed 3-year-olds or 4-year-olds, we screen the children and put them in a developmentally appropriate setting and so the children who attended CDC are now going to go through the screening process at Clara Hearne, and they are going to be put in the most developmentally appropriate setting for them,” Wardsworth said.
“Most of these children will be with typically-developing children for the majority of the day and then they will receive individualized instruction as deemed appropriate,” she added.
While the CDC may be irreplaceable, Beam is optimistic that the children it served will do well in their respective schools.
“My biggest hope is that the Child Development Center was a wonderful starting point for these children as they begin their educational journeys.”