First Person

Special Education: Initiative or Inertia?

Last July, the New York City Department of Education released an in-house memo of recommendations to improve services to students with disabilities.  So, in the midst of an election campaign and with little previous administration attention paid to this population, it seems fair to ask, “Hey, Mike!  Why special ed? Why now?”  Does this new initiative suggest commitment to change or is it a political document meant to convey progress rather than institutional inertia?

The DOE memo, if implemented, would improve instruction, graduation, and career possibilities for the city’s approximately 130,000 students with IEPs, the “individualized education programs” that federal law mandates for students with disabilities.  But DOE commitment to these recommendations is uncertain since the report reads less like a trusted expert’s focused analysis and more like an aide’s synthesis of progressive positions with an eye to mayoral politics.

The progressive perspective is at least in part represented by “Educate! Include! Respect!,” an April 2009 report by the ARISE Coalition, a broad coalition of parents, educators, and advocates brought together by Advocates for Children of New York.  I am a member of ARISE but the opinions expressed here are my own.  ARISE calls for 15 specific “action items,” citing recommendations of many other recent reports.  Two of these predecessor works are especially notable since they, like the DOE memo, were commissioned by Chancellor Klein: a 2005 “Comprehensive Management Review and Evaluation” by Thomas Hehir and a 2008 report by the Council of Great City Schools.  The CGCS study specifically addressed issues in District 75, the “Citywide Special Education” district that serves students with the most serious handicaps.  So far, however, none of these studies seem have gained traction with the Mayor or Chancellor, whose leadership is vital if the long-standing problems of special education detailed by ARISE, Hehir, and CGCS are to be remedied.

While the above documents describe a series of possible reforms to address this poorly-served population, I deviate from their common wisdom in two important respects.  The first is the recommendation (and, so far, the only one implemented by the Chancellor) for a cabinet-level special education post.  The second is the continued existence of District 75.

The DOE memo states that both Hehir and CGCS recommend “a direct report to the Chancellor.”  While acknowledging arguments to the contrary, it arrives at the same conclusion which seems tacitly accepted by ARISE’s response to the memo.  This position is wrong as a general organizational strategy and, particularly, in the closed circle of current DOE decision-making.

Special education is a continuum within the broad spectrum of public school instruction.  This is not only promoted by federal requirements providing special needs students with mainstreaming opportunities in the “least restrictive environment” but by recognition that many students with disabilities spend only part of their day receiving special instruction, often in a mainstream class, and others receive only incidental special education services such as testing accommodations and related services (speech therapy, physical therapy, and the like) without ever being materially separated from their “gen. ed.” classmates.

To separate these and other students with and without IEPs from the responsibility of all top DOE managers is to continue the marginalization of these students and their parents.  This is particularly the case under Chancellor Klein who grants disproportionate power to a few intimates.  In that environment, a Deputy Chancellor-level advocate for Special Education and English Language Learners (hardly a felicitous combination except in the mind of someone with but superficial knowledge of either) is likely to be political window dressing rather than a real driver of institutional change.

Similarly expedient is the reports’ uniform recommendation to maintain District 75.  Dismantling the District is the third rail of special education politics since, though long a segregated instructional mediocrity, parents fear disaster if their severely handicapped children become the responsibility of larger organizational structures.  And those structures – non-District 75 schools, community school districts, and the Department as a whole – have historically shunned responsibility for these students, by definition those most difficult to educate.

But the time has come to break with this obvious failure and the insidious institutional culture that breeds it.  By every measure, District 75 lags not just because its students have special needs but because it has been treated as an educational backwater, rife with income and racial bias.  Wealthier parents, usually White, frequently opt out of District 75 schools through their ability to secure private placements for their children, often at public expense.  Notable is the following chart, adapted from the CGCS study at p. 72, showing widespread racial disparities, particularly the disproportionate number of Black and Hispanic students labeled with the highly subjective designation “emotionally disturbed” (CGCS does not break down its data for Asian, Native American, or Pacific Islander students):picture-16

These students are the least likely to graduate, are subject to high rates of suspension despite legal protections, and are the most likely to drop out.  Even their egregiously low levels of performance are probably inflated by DOE graduation data that has incorrectly counted so-called IEP diplomas as exit credentials and, as detailed by the Public Advocate, the failure to count as drop outs large numbers of disabled students who prematurely leave school.

While report after report emphasizes District 75’s poor record of performance and the failure of the present administration to bring it into the mainstream of reform efforts, each succumbs to the politically popular notion that District 75 should remain apart.  But as most clearly and prominently noted by the CGCS report, the only one which specifically studied that District and its students’ needs, the DOE must “reform and integrate the currently bifurcated system of services for students with disabilities into a universal and seamless design.”  Amen to that.  Parents need to be reassured that inclusion in the mainstream structure will strengthen, not diminish, their children’s instructional and career futures.

This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to addressing the ills of special education in New York’s public schools.  In addition to chronic problems of timely, appropriate evaluation and placement and below-par services, reports are surfacing of changed IEPs in small schools, failure to hire required related service providers under the current job freeze, the absence of students with disabilities in charter schools, inadequate funding under the DOE’s budget formula, and the instructional vacuity of many Collaborative Team Teaching classrooms.  These and other issues require urgent scrutiny and resolution by the administration.  Educators, advocates, and technocrats have spent years exploring the subject.  Substantive action, not electoral posturing, is now required.

First Person

I’m on a Community Education Council in Manhattan. Mayor de Blasio, we need to move faster on school integration

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Mayor de Blasio,

As the mother of a fifth-grade student in a New York City public school and a member of the Community Education Council in Manhattan’s District 2, I thank you for acknowledging that our public school system does not provide equity and excellence for all of our students.

I’m writing to you understanding that the diversity plan the city released this month is a beginning, and that it will take time to integrate our schools. However, the black and Hispanic children of this city do not have decades to wait for us to make change.

I know this firsthand. For the past six years, I have been traveling out of my neighborhood to take my child to one of the city’s few remaining diverse elementary schools, located in Hell’s Kitchen. In looking at middle schools, my criteria for a school were that it matched my child’s academic interests and that it was diverse. Unfortunately, the only middle school that truly encompasses both is a long commute from our home. After commuting by subway for six years, my child wanted a school that was closer to home. I obliged.  

At my child’s middle school orientation, I saw what a segregated school looks like. The incoming class of sixth-graders includes few students of color and does not represent the diversity of our district. This middle school also lacks a diverse teaching staff and administrators. (Had I not sent my child to this school, I would only be fueling the problem, since my child was one of the few children of color admitted to the school.)

These predominately affluent and white schools are creating a new generation of students who will not know how to interact with others that come from different racial, cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. Integrated schools, on the other hand, will provide opportunities for them to learn and work with students, teachers and school leaders that reflect the diversity of our city and the world we live in.  

There are measures we can take that will have a stronger impact in integrating our schools than what is listed in the diversity plan. I am asking that you come to the table with students, school leadership and parents that are directly affected by school segregation and consider our ideas to create schools that are more equitable for all students.  

In the words of Valerie Castile, whose family received no justice in the death of their son Philando, “The system continues to fail black people.” While she was speaking of the criminal justice system, true reform of that system begins with educating our children — who will be our society’s future police officers, politicians, legislators and judges.

Mayor de Blasio, you have the power to spur change. The students and parents of our great city are asking for your leadership in integrating our schools.

Josephine Ishmon is a member of District 2’s Community Education Council. This is her personal opinion and does not reflect that of the CEC.

First Person

I dropped out of school in Denver at 13. Here’s how I ended up back in the classroom helping kids learn.

Students at Rocky Mountain Prep in SE Denver.

Every day when I greet the young children walking into the pre-kindergarten classroom at Rocky Mountain Prep, where I’m a teaching assistant, I wonder what my middle school teachers would think if they could see me now.

My story starts out like so many others, but it has a happy ending. Why? Because a caring teacher at the school saw in me, a young mother with three kids, someone she wanted to help reach her potential.

So here I am.

Back then, no one would have guessed I would end up here. It felt like no one at the Denver middle school I attended took education seriously. The teachers who didn’t bother to learn my name didn’t take me seriously. The kids who walked in and out class whenever they wanted sure didn’t.

Even though I wanted to get an education and improve my English, after a while I started doing what my friends did.

First I’d leave a class once in a while before it was over. Then I started cutting classes. Next I’d ditch full days. Then, in seventh grade, I stopped going completely. Yes, that’s right. I dropped out of school at 13.

I guess you could say my dropping out was no big surprise. In a lot of ways, the process started when I was little. In elementary school, I was one of the thousands of Denver kids who didn’t speak much English. But I could never find the help I needed and wanted at my school.

I just felt lost, like no one there cared about me.

It was worse when I started middle school. My mom didn’t want me to go to one closest to home because it had gang problems.

I walked 45 minutes to and from school every day. I always walked. There was no school bus and public transit would have taken even longer.

Rain or snow or hot sun, there I was, walking to school by myself. I had to wake up at 5:45 a.m. to get to school on time. My mom was already at work at that hour.

When I dropped out, my mom was upset. She always worked very hard at her job in a nursing home. She had three kids and worked from 5 a.m. to 3 p.m. My dad wasn’t around.

She wasn’t going to put up with me hanging out and getting in trouble, so she sent me down to Mexico to live with my grandparents and maybe finish school there, in rural Chihuahua.

The school I went to in Mexico was much better for me. Reading, writing, math and Spanish classes were hard. But the teachers really cared. They checked in with me one-on-one every day. It was the first time I began to realize that there were adults outside my family who really cared about me. That made a big difference.

I had met a boy I liked in Mexico, and when I came back to Denver I was 16 and pregnant. My daughter Alisson was born in Denver. Eventually her father and I got married and we now have three children.

But at 16, I knew I needed to get a high school diploma if I wanted to get anywhere in the world. I attended an online high school for a while, and then a private religious school where I could take online courses. I was very proud when I graduated.

I never considered the possibility that I might go to college someday.

When Alisson turned four, I needed to find a school for her. We lived right across the street from an elementary school. But everyone told me it was not a great school. I knew how to look up information about test scores and every school I looked at near our home did not have the best scores, or at least anything close to my expectations.

I went to my mom crying. We felt stuck. I really wanted my daughter to receive a better education than I had. I wanted a high quality school that would provide the attention and support she would need. A school that would care for her education as much as I did.

Then in June, someone knocked on my door. It was a teacher from Rocky Mountain Prep charter school. They said they were opening that fall in Kepner Middle School, just a few blocks from our house. I invited her in and asked her questions for an hour. I liked what I heard.

I sent Alisson to the school and it was one of the best decisions I ever made. It’s nothing like any of the schools I attended. The teachers love the kids. Allison has learned so much.

At the end of her first year, I had a conference with her teacher, Laura. She said Alisson was an advanced student. I asked what I could do with her over the summer to make sure she stayed on top of her schoolwork.

That’s when Laura told me I should come work there because I was a natural teacher. I thought she was joking. I think my answer to her was, “Yeah, seriously.”

But she was serious. I didn’t think I had what it took. No college. No education, no experience. But she bugged me and bugged me until I said I’d apply. I did, and was hired as a teaching assistant.

I just finished my first year in the classroom. It went great. I love teaching. I love kids. I love that I get to be a part of what Rocky Mountain Prep is doing for my community in providing a strong foundation in education that I never received.

As a pre-K teaching assistant, I serve as a second educator in the classroom for our young scholars’ first experience at school. I share responsibility for helping to build their social skills and love of reading, writing, math, and science.

As a parent, I know firsthand how important those early years are for learning. I love that I also have a hand in helping so many little ones fall in love with coming to school and growing their brains.

My daughter is in first grade now. She is reading chapter books. And she’s always saying, “When I’m in college …” She has no doubt that’s what she’ll do when she finishes high school. As a mom, this makes me feel very proud.

Listening to those words coming from my own child has motivated me. I’m not always the most self-confident person, but thanks to Allison and our school, I know that’s my next step — going to college and making her as proud as she’s made me.