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

How I navigated New York City’s high school admissions maze in a wheelchair

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Students at the citywide high school fair at Brooklyn Technical High School.

Public school was something I had been thinking about for years. It seemed like an impossibility when I was younger. Reliant on a wheelchair due to cerebral palsy, I was too disabled. So many didn’t have an elevator. How could I keep up?

So for the last eight years, I have been at the Henry Viscardi School. It is a private school for kids with severe disabilities. The majority of the students are in wheelchairs and many use assistive technology to communicate, as I do. I am nonverbal, which means I cannot speak, so I use computers and switches to write.

While Henry Viscardi is a good school, as I went through middle school, I felt like I had plateaued in what I was learning. I was bored in school and it wasn’t fun. So I approached my parents about going to a public high school. My mom has been very involved in the educational world, serving on different committees throughout my life. She could also tell it was time for me to go to public school, but she knew it would be a difficult road.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Abraham Weitzman
The technology Weitzman uses to communicate

Most kids start to look at high schools by picking up the big book of high schools the Department of Education gives out. That wouldn’t work for me. Probably 80 percent of those schools couldn’t work based solely on accessibility.

I wanted a small school, a shorter bus ride, and academics that would prepare me for an Ivy League college. My siblings wanted a safe school because I am vulnerable. My dad said we needed the right principal. My mom used the School Finder app and found about five schools that might work.

I went to the high school fair with my brother, Izzy, and my best friend, Oriana. It was a maddening experience. We needed to go in the back entrance because it had the ramp. The specialized high schools were down a few steps, but we found another ramp. I wasn’t going to take the SHSAT [specialized high school admissions test], but Izzy and Ori were interested, and we always stay together. We found our friend Mav there too.

After we had our fill of the crowd, we got on line for the elevator to the Queens floor. We were welcomed wherever we went.

Everybody said I could go to their school. It felt good, but I knew they didn’t all have what I needed or what I wanted. Tired, we visited the Manhattan floor but gave up before we hit the other boroughs. My mom had a cocktail at lunch.

After the fair, I visited School of the Future with my parents and my assistant, and I thought it was perfect. The kids seemed nice. They didn’t stare and they made room on the ramp. I met the teachers and the principal. The classes and clubs sounded interesting. Bathroom? Fail! My wheelchair didn’t fit and my mom had to carry me into the stall. Clearly this was a problem.

I was disappointed, but my parents had another plan. They wanted me to apply for Bard High School Early College Queens. I don’t like standardized tests because my disability makes me tired before I can finish, so I never do well. My mom worked with Bard to make sure the test was printed large with one question per page. Bard gave me quadruple time over two days. I was able to finish all of the test parts. I cannot speak, so I interviewed by email. Bathroom? Awesome! Plenty of room and privacy. I ranked Bard first and waited.

This week my letter came. I’ll be going to Bard in September. It is exciting to think of all the people I’ll meet and the courses I’ll take. I know the workload will be much greater and I will be the only nonverbal person in the building. Mom, I’m ready.

First Person

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.