Special-needs preschool students rely on their peers to help them grow in their communication and social-interaction skills.

Special-needs preschool students rely on their peers to help them grow in their communication and social-interaction skills.

There are seven preschool classrooms in the Delaware City School District that serve a mixture of special-needs students and other students, who are called "peer models."

There are four half-day programs at Woodward Elementary School and one at Conger Elementary School. There also are two full-day programs at the Liberty Community Center.

The district is required by law to provide services to children in the district who have been screened and identified as having special needs.

The district provides free screenings called "child checks" for parents who think their child may have a developmental disability. Teachers, doctors and parents can refer students for the screenings.

Special-needs students are identified by symptoms such as speech and language impairment, and cognitive or developmental delays.

Developmental delays can be any delays in communication skills, motor skills, social and emotional skills or even hearing and vision impairments.

In order to provide the best environment in which special-needs students can learn, the district asks for families to have their children without special needs screened to be peer models for the classrooms.

Mindy Rich, director of elementary special education, said the district puts prospective preschool students through a mini-classroom session to see which students will be good fits for their classrooms.

"We look for students with strong communication and social skills," she said. "Studies show that having peer models there will help the special-needs students develop those skills further."

Although the district aims to challenge all students regardless of their developmental stage, district leaders believe that having exposure to other children will help teachers facilitate communication with their special-needs students, Rich said.

"When students are together, they will interact and maybe fight over toys, and the teachers can then use that time to help them learn how to problem-solve," she said.

Tuition at the preschool is free for special-needs students and $175 a month for the peer models. Tuition covers four half-days a week in a preschool classroom and help with transportation.

Students in the classroom work on various activities including art, block play, dramatic play, computer time, reading time, music, cooking and language practice.

"We aim to provide the best education for all our students, and that includes both the special-needs students and the peer models," Rich said.