UPPER TOWNSHIP - At the end of a hallway called "Caring and Sharing Road," Upper Township Primary School's youngest students sit on a blue rug decorated with numbered fish as teacher Theresa Bryan reviews the day's agenda: art class, cupcakes for a birthday, a book about pumpkins.

The class looks like a typical preschool, but the program has a crucial difference. It's an inclusion class of both able and disabled children, ages 3 to 5. And some of their parents have paid for them to be here.

School districts are required to provide services free to children with disabilities beginning at age 3. They get special state and federal aid to help pay for it. The state Department of Education also requires that disabled children be included in regular programs as much as possible.

But most districts are not required to supply preschool for regular students, don't get aid to provide it and don't want to tap taxpayers for a program that isn't required. They can provide preschool on a tuition basis, however.

Statewide, 97 school districts reported they were charging tuition for preschool, according to a 2009 study by the National Institute for Early Education Research, or NIEER, at Rutgers University. Tuition ranges from $250 to $7,214 for the academic year.

By charging regular students tuition, districts can turn a preschool program for disabled students into an inclusive program.

Upper Township this year will charge parents $5,000 for able children, or $4,200 for children who were in the program last year.

"We try to be competitive, but the ($800) increase is a business decision based on our costs," district special education supervisor Robert DiDonato said.

The district has room for about 30 tuition students, uses a lottery to choose who will attend and keeps a waiting list. DiDonato said the first few years, when the program was just a half-day, it was difficult to find interested parents. But it has grown steadily over the last decade from one class to a full-day program of three inclusion classes and one class of all disabled children.

"We were getting good results and wanted to do more," DiDonato said. The district also accepts a few disabled children from Dennis Township.

Bryan, who has been with the district for more than a decade, has been crucial to the expansion, DiDonato said. She started as a teacher for the disabled, and helped develop the expanded inclusion preschool program. She went back to college to get the additional preschool certification, and in June was chosen as the Cape May County Teacher of the Year for 2010-2011.

Bryan said she has always loved working with the youngest children and watching them grow. The children's disabilities can range from developmental, such as delayed speech, to autism or a physical or medical issue. Each preschool class of 15 has five slots for children with disabilities. Her current class has one child with brittle bone disease and an aide is assigned to assist him. His customized wheelchair is the envy of the preschool set.

"This is his first year here, and it's been nice for him to be able to spend time with his peers," Bryan said. "At this age the children are very accepting. They really learn compassion for others."

Ellen Frede, NIEER co-director, said charging tuition is an effective way for a school district to offer services to disabled preschoolers and expand the program to all children.

"Inclusion is a good model for both groups of children," she said. "They teach each other, and the teacher gets really good at differentiating instruction to meet the individual needs of every child at their level."

She said it is also a cost-effective model, allowing the districts to serve more students in a program that otherwise might include just a few children.

"It's a frustration to me that more districts don't do it," Frede said. The NIEER study found 58 percent of 375 districts surveyed included at least some of their disabled preschoolers in an inclusive setting.

Upper Township modeled its preschool after the inclusion model in Linwood, which has operated for a decade. Linwood school district special education supervisor Jill Yochim said her district's Seaview Sprouts program has two half-day sessions of about 15 students each, about six of them preschoolers with disabilities. The tuition students are charged $2,000 for the half-day program.

Yochim said Linwood began the tuition program as a way to provide an inclusion program for the children with disabilities. Both districts use Creative Curriculum, one of several state-approved programs, which teaches basic skills in a hands-on, active way.

"It's all thematic and experiential," Yochim said. The fall theme has included a trip to a pumpkin farm, a lesson in sorting pumpkins by size, making a bar graph on the results and making pumpkin muffins.

"It looks like fun, but there's a lot of learning going on," she said.

Upper Township offers a full-day program. A typical day starts with structured free time at the classroom activity centers as the children arrive between 9:10 a.m. and 9:30 a.m. Bryan calls them together for group time, where they review the day, then it's back to small groups for story time.

The book of the day was the seasonal "It's Pumpkin Time," which inspired a few students to volunteer that their family has bought pumpkins, and that you shouldn't hold a pumpkin by the stem because it might break. Bryan divides the students into three groups of five to read the book.

Each class has a teacher and a paraprofessional or aide, also required by the state. Bryan also has a student teacher this semester, and an aide to assist with the youngster with brittle bone disease.

The teachers and aides didn't just read the story, they used it to review colors and shapes. They included science by talking about how a pumpkin grows from a seed. The students got green and orange crayons and paper to draw their own pumpkins.

"People totally misunderstand what preschool is," Bryan said. "They do think it's babysitting. But this is a prime learning time for this age group. They learn school behavior. They learn to work in a group, and they learn to become more independent."

After story time lunch is served in the classroom, then the students go outside for recess. After recess is the day's "special" - music, art, computers or library - then it's rest time. Some may take a nap. Then it's back to the activity centers until the day ends at 3:30 p.m.

Bryan said the job is always challenging because the students are at different ages and developmental levels, and learn at different rates.

"Some can already read and write," she said. "With some, we're happy if they know some letters. They all have things they are good at. But they have to be comfortable with me before they are willing to take those risks to try something new. I tell the parents, don't stress about preschool learning. It will come. I've seen it."

Pat Chichester sees the progress her son, Timmy Palermo, 4, has made since starting in the disabled preschool class last year. She admits she was a bit concerned that Timmy, who has visual problems and development delays, might struggle in a regular classroom.

"But she's the reason he's done so well," Chichester said of Bryan. "They just do so many things. It's a great team in the classroom. They began integrating him in last year, and he just loved being with the other kids. I could see he was ready."

Primary School principal Tim Teehan said the expectations for all students are higher today, and he has seen the benefits of preschool for both the disabled and nondisabled children.

"We are raising the bar for all children today right from the start," he said.

Contact Diane D'Amico:

609-272-7241