Waiting for the Plan

Few details yet from Fariña on special education's major issues

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
About 350 families and advocates for students with disabilities attended a conference about special education held at the High School of Art and Design on Saturday.

When Chancellor Carmen Fariña took the podium at a conference Saturday for families of children with disabilities, many parents were eager to learn how she planned to steer the city’s special education overhaul, which is dramatically changing how students with special needs are assigned to schools.

But Fariña didn’t talk about the reforms, or the concerns that not all schools can meet students’ needs. She also didn’t mention a glitchy data system for tracking students with special needs or describe how she will try to narrow the nearly 30-point graduation rate gap between students with disabilities and those without. And she barely addressed the experience of students with special needs as the city continues its transition to the Common Core standards.

Instead, Fariña briefly shared her own experience working with students with disabilities and repeated some general messages she has made before, leaving parents and advocates wondering when they will hear a more detailed vision for special education from the Department of Education’s new administration.

“I haven’t heard them say anything, I really haven’t,” said Ronique Anderson, whose high school-aged son, Khaleel, sits on a citywide special education council. The citywide conference was a good first step, Anderson said, “but for the most part, [students with disabilities] have been forgotten.”

During her first 100 days as chancellor, Fariña’s most vocal statements about special education have been tangled up in the city’s charter school co-location debate, when she emphasized that space-sharing should not adversely affect schools for students with disabilities. In her frequent public statements about her broader vision, she has rarely focused on special education.

The most significant clue about her plans is that she held on to Corinne Rello-Anselmi, the deputy chancellor who was steering the special education reforms under the Bloomberg administration. The continuity suggests that Fariña plans to stay the course on the reforms, which are aimed at integrating students with disabilities into all city schools.

When Fariña became chancellor, she immediately expressed support for the reforms, Rello-Anselmi said in an interview Saturday. “That was the first thing she said to me: ‘I’m here to make this really happen.'”

The chancellor signaled her support for that goal during the conference Saturday at the High School of Art and Design in Manhattan, when she described a program that she helped develop as superintendent to support students with autism who are in general education classrooms.

Fariña also emphasized that she believes that students with disabilities can rise to the Common Core standards, which are proving a challenge for all students. She said that when she worked as an education consultant before becoming chancellor, she modeled instruction at a Brooklyn school by teaching social studies lessons to students with disabilities.

“That program showed me how much kids can learn content, Common Core-based, as long as you’re willing to go the extra mile and do your teaching in a different way,” Fariña told the 350 attendees at the conference.

Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña spoke at the conference, but did not announced any new policies or lay out her vision for special education.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña spoke at the conference, but did not announced any new policies or lay out her vision for special education.

But some families and advocates are concerned that the city’s special education changes have left some students in general education classrooms where their individual needs are not being met.

Christine Engler, the mother of a student with special needs at Art and Design, said Fariña’s remarks did not convince her that the chancellor is aware of challenges with the overhaul.

“I’m taking her with a grain of salt,” Engler said. “Her actions [so far] haven’t proven a lot to me.”

The new administration’s steep challenge is to ensure that neighborhood schools and general education teachers have the resources and training to serve students with disabilities, said Kim Sweet, executive director of the group Advocates for Children of New York.

“It’s one thing to change where kids go to school,” she said. “But it’s an entirely different thing to make sure those schools are prepared to educate all students effectively.”

Several people said Fariña had set a favorable tone with parents, but that her administration could still improve the way it communicates with families of students with disabilities. Stacye Zausner, whose child attends Art and Design, said the conference was the first noteworthy example of the new administration reaching out to parents like her.

“This is sort of the first concrete thing that’s happened,” she said.

Lori Podvesker, a policy analyst for the advocacy group Resources for Children with Special Needs, said the education department must do a better job informing parents about special education policies.

“The communication piece is glaring and missing,” said Podvesker, who was appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio to the city’s Panel for Educational Policy.

Fariña left the conference without speaking to reporters. But Rello-Anselmi said the parent conference is just one example of the education department’s special education outreach, which also includes monthly meetings with advocates for students with special needs. As part of its overall push for fuller inclusion of students with disabilities into the larger school system, special education issues are also integrated into most events for families and trainings for educators, Rello-Anselmi added.

As the special education reforms continue, Rello-Anselmi said, the department’s focus is making sure that schools have the resources and teachers have the training to serve students with special needs. She said with more time the changes will result in better outcomes for students with disabilities.

“This is going to take time,” Rello-Anselmi said. “But I think we are on the right trajectory.”

father knows best

How a brush with death convinced one dad to get his diploma, with a boost from the Fatherhood Academy

PHOTO: Courtesy of Steven Robles
Steven Robles with his family

Steven Robles thought he might not live to see his daughter’s birth.

In May 2016, the 20-year-old was in the hospital after being shot during what he described as an argument in his neighborhood.

A year later, Robles just graduated from City University of New York’s Fatherhood Academy. He passed his high school equivalency exam and is happily celebrating his daughter Avare’s 8-month birthday.

“That conflict is what got me into the program, and what happened to me before she was born motivated me to stay in the program,” Robles said. “It motivated me to manage to pass my GED.”

Robles grew up in Brownsville, Brooklyn and attended Franklin K. Lane High School. Though he liked his teachers, Robles said other students at the school were not “mature enough,” and the disorderly school environment made it hard for him to concentrate.

A quiet student, Robles said teachers would often overlook his presence in the classroom. Between that and friction with other classmates, Robles lost interest in school.

“My parents didn’t try to help me, either,” Robles said. “Nobody really tried to help me with that school, so I just stopped going.”

It was a whole different experience for him once he arrived at the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College, a program run by CUNY for unemployed and underemployed fathers ages 18 through 28. The Academy, now partnering with the New York City Housing Authority at its LaGuardia location, was launched in 2012 and also has programs at Hostos and Kingsborough Community Colleges.

“I have interviewed many of the men who come into the program and I often ask the question, ‘What brought you here?'” said Raheem Brooks, program manager of the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College. “Mostly every young man says, ‘I’m here because I want to create a better life for my child than I had.’ So, I think the main theme of the program is that we help promote intergenerational change.”

At the LaGuardia branch, 30 students attend classes three times a week over the course of 16 weeks. Subjects include mathematics, social studies, and writing for students seeking to get their high school equivalency diplomas. Students also attend workshops run by counselors who guide them in professional development and parenting.

Robles found out about the program after seeing a flier for it in his social worker’s office at Graham Windham, a family support services organization. Curious to see what the Academy offered, he called to find out more and officially enrolled after passing a test to prove he could read above seventh-grade level.

“Before the Academy, I was not really into school at all,” Robles said. “But when I got there, it just changed my life. In this program, I didn’t know anybody there, there were no distractions. It made me more focused, and I just really wanted to get my GED and education.”

What helped Robles the most was getting to learn from the other fathers in the class, who were going through similar experiences as him.

“Little things I didn’t know, I learned from them because they were also fathers,” Robles said. “I just liked the way they were teaching us.”

In fact, he liked the Academy so much, he doesn’t plan to leave. He is applying to study criminal justice at LaGuardia Community College and to become a mentor for the Academy next year.

Currently, Robles lives with his grandparents, his daughter and the mother of his child. Getting a place for his family is next on his to-do list, he said.

“Avare always has a smile on her face and always puts a smile on my face,” Robles said. “She motivates me to get up and do what I have to do. Anything I could do for her, I will.”

Though school did not play a huge role in his life growing up, that is not what Robles wants for his daughter. He said after participating in the Academy, he wants to make sure Avare stays motivated and in school.

“I hear a lot from people about how they think they can’t do it,” Robles said. “I almost lost my life before my daughter was born and that motivated me. If I could do it, you could do it.”

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.