It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood here
Leeway Special Education Preschool executive director Linda Imbesi (left, standing) in Kris Birmingham’s class (far right, sitting).

SCN/Leuzzi

It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood here

Story By: LINDA LEUZZI
5/3/2018


The colorful paintings, drawings and handmade murals alone should win a happiness award. The Big Red Barn, with individual student creations of cows and old Mac; Learning About the Wind, with youngsters blowing feathers and leaves or rising in hot air balloons; and butterfly bulletins with bright pinks, yellows and green things all hang neatly in the hallways.

Miss Annemarie needed a cow face. Teacher assistant Laurie Fitzwilliam to the rescue. (She does a lot of mood-perking creative works herself.)

The entire staff at the Leeway Special Education Preschool in Sayville on a recent Friday morning displayed a kind dedication to offering life’s possibilities for the children who attend. 

“The people here love what they do and sacrifice big pensions to do it,” said Linda Imbesi, executive director of the Leeway School, a nonprofit special ed preschool that’s integrated. “Kids are loving and honest. They’ll yell out, ‘there’s a butterfly’ with delight while you’re swatting away, or they spread their arms out, ‘it’s snowing,’ when you’re not really enthusiastic about another storm. They’re funny and we laugh a lot here.”

There are 130 preschool students who attend; the state and county pay for special-needs students; fees are charged for the integrated children. Generally, the age is from 3 to 5 years old. 

The smallest classes are comprised of eight students with a teacher and an aide to 12 students with a teacher and an assistant teacher. There are one-to-one aides for individuals; overall, basically 10 teachers, 10 teacher aides, six speech language pathologists, four physical therapists and occupational therapists, two psychologists and two social workers, a registered nurse and Mr. Mike, the beloved maintenance man. Half-day and full-day classes are offered and there is a six-week summer session. 

All teachers have master’s with special education degrees.

“We have autism spectrum, speech language impaired, attention difficulties, kids with social and emotional issues, fine and gross motor complications, trunk strength, Down syndrome, severe allergies and seizure disorders, but what’s important for us is not the diagnosis,” Imbesi explained. “I want to know what the right classroom function is for them, so I’ll put them in a class with role models. There’s a lot of thought that goes into it when a child comes to us. We’ll meet four times to review them regarding what’s best.”

Imbesi said when she gives tours and meets parents, there are some that say, ‘my child can’t sit in a chair,’ or ‘my child can’t do that.’ But after nine months, they do. They’ll use typical preschool supplies in different ways to help students. “Like a cube chair,” she added. “It’s a lower seat in different colors.” Some kids want red or green. Some kids need a bumpy cushion. “It gives them a comfort feedback to stay longer,” she said.

“There are always a couple of kids that aren’t responsive; they may have social emotional baggage, they may want to do an activity, but won’t do it at times, but at the end of the year when they leave, the teachers are crying because they’ve made progress and they’ll miss them.”

There are seven integrated classrooms. “We can take anybody in Suffolk County,” Imbesi said. “The majority come from Sayville, Pat-Med, Sachem, Connetquot, some from William Floyd and West Babylon.”

The school was physically established in 1972 by parents concerned about their children with special needs who had to get service out of Suffolk County. It began with a small house – now the administrative building that was moved to its present location – that taught special ed students, school age to 14-year-olds, about life skills. The building included a kitchen and encouraged interactions with small animals; there was a rabbit hutch. The newer building for preschoolers was established in 1985.

As a nonprofit, staffers were gearing up for the school’s third Recyclemania Fundraising Event on Saturday, May 5 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. featuring carnival games; macaw parrots from Parrots R Us; QuackerJack, the Long Island Ducks’ mascot; Suffolk County’s McGruff, the crime dog; an ice cream truck and other attractions. Parkville Delicatessen will grill hot dogs and hamburgers. Spread over two long tables, local businesses have donated 54 raffle items that help fund the school; the raffles are affordable.