a free appropriate public education

State, special ed advocates tussle over proposed changes to IEPs

Special ed advocates objected to the limited choices in this drop-down menu on the proposed IEP form.
Special ed advocates objected to the limited choices in this drop-down menu on the proposed IEP form.

A new push by the state to standardize the way school districts plan which services special needs students should receive is rattling parents across New York.

At the heart of the process is a document called the Individualized Education Plan, which a team of experts crafts to describe the student’s educational needs and how the school should address them.

For years, every school district has used its own IEP form. Now, state officials have created standardized forms to be used by all districts.

The officials say this is an important move because it will create consistency across the state, but special education advocates are worried that the new form could put children’s needs in jeopardy. Everyone agrees that IEP forms are crucial documents because they are the strongest form of insurance a parent can have that his child will get specific services. Advocates worry that the forms the state is pushing would weaken that insurance.

The state started developing the new IEPs in early 2007, when they showed drafts to a select group of parents, educators, and others with an interest in special education. The standardized forms were supposed to be used as early as January 2009, despite advocates’ calls for an open public feedback process first. The United Federation of Teachers applied pressure on the state, and in October, the Regents approved an emergency delay to allow for three public hearings and a final revision of the forms. At the second of these hearings, held yesterday in Manhattan, state officials said they would post the comments they receive on the state’s website in January, and the revised forms will be rolled out at the start of the next school year.

It’s unclear how willing the state will be to make changes. Although representatives of NYSED took notes on the speakers’ concerns and said they’d take what they heard into account when revising the documents, a question-and-answer session at the end suggested that the forms are unlikely to change much.

“We can’t mandate information that’s not mandated,” said Rebecca Cort, Deputy Commissioner of the Office of Vocational and Educational Services for Individuals with Disabilities. “All we can require is the things that are required.”

What she meant is that if NYSED requires every district to use the new forms, it must limit the questions to information required by state or federal regulations. The state can’t force school districts to gather other kinds of information. Many of the concerns raised at the hearing relate to information that isn’t required to be in the IEP under state regulations.

Cort’s statement didn’t sound right to some special education experts. “If you look at it really broadly, the whole statutory purpose of the IEP form is to facilitate the provision of a free appropriate public education to each child with a disability in New York State. I would think that they can put on the form whatever questions are needed to meet that purpose or goal,” Kim Sweet, executive director of Advocates For Children of New York, told me.

Cort assured the audience that many of their concerns will be addressed in the guidance document and training sessions that the state will create to accompany the new forms. And districts can add to the state’s form (but not change it) to include some of the missing information, she said.

But Maggie Moroff, also of Advocates For Children, is concerned that guidance documents tend to be long and technical; the city’s new special education Standard Operating Procedures Manual runs to almost 300 pages. “If it isn’t on the face of the IEP which actually goes into the hands of the parents and educators then it’s hard for the state to make sure the kids are getting what they need,” she said.

Details on the issues raised in the hearing:

  • A drop-down menu gives only two choices for a child’s Behavior Intervention Plan: Time Out Room and Other. “What does ‘other’ mean?” speakers wanted to know, questioning why more positive behavioral interventions hadn’t been specified as options. Since “Other” is vague, the drop-down menu will lead to people defaulting to Time Out Room rather than “the many creative and interesting ways of changing a student’s behavior,” Moroff told me.
  • The IEPs lack information about whether the child is on track to receive an IEP diploma, Regents diploma, or Advanced Regents diploma. Speakers suggested that the document should raw parents’ attention to this question, since the IEP diploma severely limits a student’s options after high school graduation. “How does a school properly plan for a child’s graduation and discuss this with a parent, if you are not sure of where you’re headed?” asked Mary Kemp, who works with learning disabled students in a private school.
  • The section of the IEP document specifying related services, such as speech therapy, does not specify the size of the group the child should be in for these services. With budget cuts looming, speakers said that schools are likely to put all children in the largest groups legally allowed. Currently, IEPs can set a group size for a child that is less than the legal maximum, but this might not happen unless the option is made clear in the new documents.
  • The new IEPs lack a cover sheet tracking attendance at IEP meets and do not include information about the parent’s home language. Several people testifying said that these holes in the new forms could result in parents being shut out of important decisions about their children’s education. They also expressed concern that the new IEP forms do not highlight medical information that alerts educators to a child’s potentially serious health issues. Officials from NYSED countered that they expect most districts will address those concerns by adding a cover sheet to the IEP.

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community. 

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.