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Nassau C.C. pulls programs for students with autism

County Legislature says college's 2020-2021 budget won't be approved as it stands

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Nassau Community College’s decision to remove a pair of popular programs designed to help students with autism spectrum disorder in and out of the classroom has parents and educators concerned. They want the programs restored.

Citing finances as the main reason, NCC interim Vice President Valerie Collins sent a letter to the coordinators of both programs, known as ASPIRES and Achilles, to inform them that the programs would not be offered in the 2020-21 academic year.

“Please do not make or continue to make any plans to recruit new students going forward,” read the letter from Collins, dated April 20. “The Achilles and Aspires programs will continue through the conclusion of this semester,” it continued. “The decision to end the programs this semester was, of course, influenced by financial concerns.”

Roughly 35 students took part in the programs in the 2019-20 academic year. Multiple calls and emails to NCC requesting the amount of savings the cost-cutting move would bring for 2020-21 were not returned.

Frances Viscovich, an NCC environmental science professor who coordinates the ASPIRES program, offered to volunteer her time and identified other individuals at the school who could assist at no cost. However, according to a statement released by NCC, volunteer hours could not be accepted.

“I thought this would be my chance to give back to the community under Covid-19,” Viscovich said. “I felt like this would be my frontline volunteer work. These are such important programs. These students get essential individual and group counseling.”

The ASPIRES program provides comprehensive support to students with ASD in weekly counseling sessions as well as programming designed to address executive functioning and social skill deficits. “The program started with one student six years ago,” Viscovich noted. “Now we have a waiting list. We should be promoting it, not ending it.”

Wantagh resident Vanessa Kelly said her son Jimmy, a 2018 graduate of MacArthur High School, has seen considerable improvement both academically and socially as a result of the ASPIRES program. His grade average has jumped from a B-minus in high school to an A-minus at NCC.

“It’s a crucial program, and the social support has given Jimmy so much confidence,” she said. “He’s more independent as a student and a person.”

The Achilles program has been around for nearly two decades and is for twice exceptional students — those who are gifted but learning challenged. Valerie Lagakis, an English and reading professor at NCC, has overseen the program since 2010.

“Students are specifically attending our school because of the Achilles program,” Lagakis said. “I’m upset for the new students who won’t be able to get into the program.”

Baldwin resident Denise Baird is concerned her daughter Rebecca, a 2017 Oceanside High School graduate who just completed her first year at NCC, will not continue to excel at her current pace without ASPIRES. “The program is a Godsend,” Baird said. “Rebecca has benefitted a great deal.”

State Sen. Todd Kaminsky, a Democrat from Long Beach, is encouraging the college to reconsider its decision. “The ASPIRES and Achilles programs at NCC support our county’s differently abled students who have just as much desire to succeed as all other young people,” Kaminsky said. “The programs help them develop the tools necessary to thrive at the next level, and there is simply no substitute for what they provide.”

On May 27, the Nassau County Legislature, which votes to approve NCC's yearly budget, sent a letter to college President Jermaine Williams to inform him it would not approve the 2020-2021 as it stands.

Presiding Officer for the County Legislature, Richard J. Nicolello, wrote to Williams: "I urge you to restore the funding to these programs for the upcoming academic school year and beyond.  Without such action, I do not see a path forward for the approval of the proposed Nassau Community College budget for this year."

The college released a statement. “Nassau Community College is focused on providing all of our students with the support they need to complete their academics at the college,” Lindsey Angioletti, the director of marketing and communications, wrote. “After careful consideration, students in the ASPIRES and Achilles program have been transitioned from the formal program to now receive individual campus services in our Student Personnel Services area and our Center for Students with Disabilities.

“While we appreciate the offer of a member of our staff to voluntarily run the program, contractually we were not permitted to do so,” the statement continued. “It is of the utmost importance to the college that the students in the former ASPIRES and Achilles program have access to the tools they need to succeed in their academic journey.”