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When it comes to providing services to special needs children, Key Biscayne aims to step up where the school district is falling short.

Ideas discussed at Tuesday night’s Village Council meeting included the island undertaking its own detailed survey of special needs children or revising the island’s compact with Miami-Dade Public Schools.

“We’ve changed over the last 12 years and we obviously have more special needs populations, or at least they’re identified and recognized more,” said Village Manager Steve Williamson. “So that might be something we want to add into it.”

Key Biscayne took a big step when it secured money from the state during the last legislative session to bolster its emerging special needs programs through its parks department. But getting students to these after-school programs can be a hurdle, said Council Member Oscar Sardinas.

Many families are forced to seek schooling and therapy off the island because public schools do not accommodate them. As a result, the students get back on the island after the programming at the Community Center has ended, he said.

Miami-Dade County Public Schools establishes a special needs classroom at certain schools based on whether a threshold is met – such as 15 students with ADHD, said Sardinas, giving a hypothetical example.

“What I think has been happening is that the collection of that data has been broken for so many different reasons,” Sardinas said. “Their response is ‘Oh, we don’t have that service here yet.’”

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Sardinas suggested the Village further assess the requirements of special needs students on the island to see if it spurs Miami-Dade Public Schools to fund classroom instruction at the Key Biscayne K-8 Center or even the feeder high schools. 

“Maybe we can do something capturing the data and the need,” Sardinas told the Independent on Thursday. “That would possibly allow us to justify funding.”

An email to the school district’s spokesperson about the exact criteria in establishing classrooms for special needs students was not returned.

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“It’s been my personal experience with friends that it’s difficult in our public school system to receive services,” Council Member Allison McCormick said. “You have to almost be failing to get help, so people perhaps fall through the cracks.”

McCormick especially mentioned children who are considered twice exceptional – gifted but with one or more learning disabilities. 

A meeting on the issue in March brought out numerous families. 

“I think everybody was surprised. It was almost like, ‘Oh my God, you too? Oh, my God, there’s a lot of us. We have enough for a community here,” Sardinas said.

It Takes A Village KB, an island support group for families with special needs children, went to the Council to ask for services that eventually led to the state allocating $100,000 for the program at the Community Center, he said.

Still, a continuum of education that moves from local public schools to the Community Center would be optimal, said Parks Director Todd Hofferberth at the Council meeting.

“The program that we’re trying to do would benefit if this was taking place at the school, because then we could dovetail on that programming and continue with after school,” he said.

In the meantime, the Parks Department is working on establishing stronger special needs weekend programming. 

Sardinas is the new Council liaison to the Education Advisory Board. He is also the founder of the Key Biscayne Children and Education Foundation, which provides after-school activities for children.

McCormick, the past liaison, encouraged Sardinas to get his foundation involved and to reach out to other organizations that could possibly bring in programs for special needs students at the elementary school.

She also suggested Miami-Dade Public Schools would be more open to providing services if Key Biscayne partnered up with community leaders in Liberty City – Key Biscayne’s sister city.

“It is helpful to always keep in mind that the school district is serving an entire county,” she said.

John Pacenti

JOHN PACENTI is a correspondent of the Key Biscayne Independent. John has worked for The Associated Press, the Palm Beach Post, Daily Business Review, and WPTV-TV.

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JOHN PACENTI is a correspondent of the Key Biscayne Independent. John has worked for The Associated Press, the Palm Beach Post, Daily Business Review, and WPTV-TV.