in focus

Special-education overhaul leaves students less isolated, but schools struggle to keep up

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Stacey Saunders has seen her son make strides since the city overhauled its approach to special education, but she says she still must fight to make sure he gets the support he needs.

From the moment they met him, the staff at School of the Future were concerned about Joseph.

The incoming sixth-grader had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, another behavioral disorder, and a learning disability, which became apparent last year when they interviewed him and reviewed his academic records.

The educators at the public school in Gramercy Park are known for their prowess at integrating students with disabilities into general-education classes, and at first they tried that approach with Joseph. They placed him in a mixed class with typical and disabled students headed by two teachers, gave him modified assignments, sent him to small-group reading sessions, and dispatched a seasoned special educator to work with him.

None of it was enough.

Joseph still read at a third-grade level and acted out, sometimes lying on the classroom floor or picking paint chips off the wall while teachers tried in vain to get his attention. He rarely completed assignments and often skipped school.

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Finally, the staff decided that Joseph belonged in a class just for students with disabilities. But the small School of the Future has too few students who require a special-education-only class to justify creating one.

In the past, it would have been easy enough to send Joseph to a middle school with the class he required. But since the city instituted a new set of special-education policies, every school is now expected to meet the needs of all but the most severely disabled students.

Still, a school can’t offer what it doesn’t have.

So beginning in November, Joseph’s parents, an advocate, school-support network officials, and School of the Future staff began lobbying the education department to move Joseph to a school with the class he needed. By the time city officials had combed through the school’s finances and class offerings to determine if it could meet Joseph’s needs, then approved a transfer when it decided the school could not, the school year was almost over.

“The school was very supportive, but its hands were tied,” said Joseph’s mother, Clara, who asked that her last name be withheld because she works for the education department.

Department officials said such transfers are uncommon and rarely take so long to authorize. But while Joseph was waiting for the right school, Clara said, “the child was suffering.”

Over the past four years, the city has overhauled the way it educates nearly one-fifth of its public school students – those with disabilities – a group so large it outnumbers the entire Dallas school district.

Student Disabilities
Graphics by Jessica Glazer

No longer are special-needs students to be bused to distant schools to get the services they need or tucked away in forgotten rooms, the city decided. Instead, most are now expected to enroll at the same schools and learn the same material as their non-disabled peers, and take classes alongside them whenever possible.

Parents and teachers who have watched students languish in special-education classrooms have embraced the city’s new drive toward inclusion, which is backed by research and federal law. The shift honors the potential of students with disabilities and asks every school to play a part in helping them achieve it, proponents say.

But there is little data available about how the new policies have impacted students, even as some critics question whether they are always in students’ best interests. Meanwhile, interviews with more than two-dozen parents, students, educators, and advocates show that the changes have not come easily, with schools scrambling to carry out the new directives, while some students, like Joseph, are left stranded in mid-reform limbo.

“I really believe in the reform and the philosophy behind it,” said Stacy Goldstein, School of the Future’s principal. Still, she added, Joseph’s struggle “is a really good example of cases where students have fallen through the cracks.”

A move toward inclusion

Britt Sady found a spot for her son, Noah, who has Down syndrome, in a mixed general-and-special-education classroom in a neighborhood school.
PHOTO: Courtesy of GiGi's Playhouse
Britt Sady found a spot for her son, Noah, who has Down syndrome, in a mixed general-and-special-education classroom in a neighborhood school.

To Britt Sady, the city’s push for inclusion makes perfect sense.

She has seen the research showing that the more time students with disabilities spend in general-education classrooms, the less often they miss school or act out in class, the higher their test scores, and the better their job prospects.

And yet, integration has hardly been the norm in New York’s public schools. As recently as 2011, students with disabilities across the state spent more school time isolated from their non-disabled peers than in any other state, according to one analysis.

Whatever the cause, students with disabilities lag far behind other children in school. They have graduated at less than half the rate of their non-disabled peers for the past decade, with the gulf at times nearing 40 percentage points. Last year, just over 5 percent of the city’s special-needs students passed the state English exams, compared to over 31 percent of general-education students.

So when Sady met with the local school personnel who would decide the right kindergarten class for her son Noah, who has Down syndrome, she requested an integrated class.

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Noah’s preschool class had just eight students, all with disabilities, so Sady knew a mixed-ability kindergarten class with many more students would not be easy for him. But that was part of the allure. Anticipating the higher expectations of an integrated classroom, she had already started to set higher standards at home (no more skipping the broccoli) and trained him to use a toilet rather than a diaper.

Meanwhile, educators at the public school Sady requested, Castle Bridge in Washington Heights, prepared for the possibility of serving their first student with Down syndrome. They visited other schools that serve such students and invited Noah to sit in on classes.

With the blessing of Castle Bridge’s principal, Julie Zuckerman, the placement team agreed to put Noah in the integrated classroom this fall – an outcome that has become much more likely since the start of the reform.

“I just wept with happiness,” Sady said. “It was another day I didn’t have to give up my dreams for my son.”

Graph - Special Ed OutcomesFormer Mayor Michael Bloomberg first proposed a new approach to special education in 2003 – “We will no longer tolerate a largely segregated and largely failing system,” he said then – but it took until 2010 to pilot the new inclusion policies in 260 schools. Following a one-year delay, they were rolled out citywide in 2012.

The premise of the overhaul is that the school experience of students with disabilities shouldn’t be so different from everyone else’s and, in some ways, the system is headed in that direction.

The share of students sent to full-time classes just for students with disabilities has declined by 6 percentage points over the past two years, according to data released by the city. Meanwhile, the share of special-needs students recommended to receive only part-time support has spiked by 10 percentage points.

Students with disabilities who are entering kindergarten, sixth, or ninth-grade can now enroll at the same schools as other students in their neighborhoods, rather than the nearest school with the right services.

Corinne Rello-Anselmi, the deputy chancellor who oversees the education department’s special-education division, said the new policies are beginning to take hold.

“Students now have access to schools they never had access to before,” she said.

Grappling with a new approach

The first year of the reform, Margaret found a kindergarten spot for her autistic son at the public school two blocks from their home on Staten Island.

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Schools like the one in Margaret’s neighborhood, which might have served few special-needs before the reform, now have been told to take in almost every student who walks through their doors. But from the start, it has been unclear whether they have the expertise and staff to pull that off.

Margaret’s school never seemed to have enough of what her son needed. His full-time paraprofessional also had to assist other students, Margaret recalled. He could only see a speech therapist three times a week, even though his neurologist had prescribed daily sessions.

The following year, she asked for an integrated class for her son, but was told it was full. Only after she alerted department officials did the school find her son a space, according to Margaret, who asked that only her middle name be used since her son still attends the school.

“Let us open the door to your kid,” Margaret said, describing the school’s response to the reform, “but then we don’t know what to do with him.”

Since enacting the new policies, the city has provided training to thousands of educators. It also adjusted the way school budgets are set – giving schools more money for students in integrated classrooms than those in self-contained classes and increasing the rate for part-time services – as a way to encourage and fund the shifts.

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Schools have also been urged to mix and match services for students. So, for example, a student now might take English in a class with all special-needs students, math in a mixed-ability class, and history in a general-education class but using materials prepared by a special-education teacher.

But even with those changes, many educators say they are still unable to adhere strictly to each special-needs student’s personal learning plan, known as an IEP. Instead, schools sometimes adjust the IEPs to match the services they can actually offer, according to parents, advocates, and educators.

At one small Brooklyn high school, there are too few students who require self-contained classes to afford them, according to a teacher there. So if a student’s IEP calls for such a class, the school gets the parents’ permission to amend the IEP to recommend integrated classes and extra supports instead, the teacher said. That was the case last year for four students with “extreme learning delays,” according to the teacher.

“They would definitely be in a self-contained class if that was offered,” she said.

Other times, schools may simply fail to offer the services prescribed by an IEP.

Olga Vazquez, a family advocate at ICL, a human-service agency, said concerned school guidance counselors sometimes call to report that students are not receiving IEP-mandated services. Recently, she informed a woman in Brownsville, Brooklyn that her son’s plan calls for regular occupational-therapy sessions, and yet his school had not hired such a therapist.

“Sometimes, if the parent doesn’t question it,” Vazquez said, “it just goes under the radar.”

Troubles with inclusion

As the reform steers students out of special-education-only classes, they are most commonly sent to classrooms that have two teachers and a mix of students with and without disabilities.

Eileen Reiter, the principal of P.S. 112 in East Harlem, runs a successful program that puts students with autism in the same class as their non-disabled peers.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Eileen Reiter, the principal of P.S. 112 in East Harlem, runs a successful program that puts students with autism in the same class as their non-disabled peers.

At P.S. 112 in East Harlem, those classes are so popular that the parents of non-disabled children often request them. The school is among a select few across the city where high-functioning students with autism are placed in integrated classes alongside their typical peers, through a program called ASD Nest.

The autistic students benefit from watching their peers’ social habits, while the autistic students often have expertise on pet topics to share, according to teachers. All the students learn to use yoga and meditation to control their behavior, and each child has access to an individual iPad.

To pull it all off, the co-teachers attend trainings together and meet weekly with other staffers to discuss each student’s progress – a strategy they have perfected after nearly a decade of participating in the NEST program. They also make use of the specialized training and small class sizes provided by the program, and the extra funding that comes with the school’s high number of special-needs students.

“Schools need to be trained and given the resources to do this,” said principal Eileen Reiter. “We’re just very fortunate that we can meet the kids’ needs here.”

Most integrated classes do not look like the ones at P.S. 112, which is one of only about 30 schools across the city with integrated co-teaching, or ICT, classes geared specifically for students with autism. Instead, most mix students with a variety of special needs with non-disabled children.

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As the reform kicked off, many schools’ “kneejerk reaction” (as an education department official recently put it) was to place more students in the integrated classes as a way to promote inclusion while giving special-needs students the support of an extra teacher.

“People think that having two teachers is something magic,” said Dan Lupkin, a teacher at P.S. 58 in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn who taught integrated classes for several years. But in reality, such classes are not right for every student, he said.

Integrated classes can be large and bustling and ill suited for students who are easily distracted or have trouble working independently, Lupkin and others note. Christon Solomon, a sixth-grade student with a learning disability who attended P.S. 276 in Brooklyn, said he could concentrate better and he received more attention during small-group sessions with other special-education students than in his integrated class.

“When I’m in my regular class,” he said, “sometimes they don’t notice me.”

The value of integrated classes can also be lost when too many students with disabilities are placed in them, overwhelming the teachers and depriving those students of non-disabled classmates who might serve as models or mentors. The city does not allow more than 40 percent of the students in an inclusion class to have IEPs, but teachers say that space- and staff-starved administrators sometimes find ways around the rules.

At a large elementary school in the Bronx in 2011, for instance, 23 out of 28 students in one integrated class had disabilities, or 82 percent of the class, according to the co-teachers. The situation drove one of the teachers out of the school. The following year, fewer students in the class had IEPs, but more than 40 percent still did, according to the teacher who remained. Last year, that teacher requested a general-education position because the integrated class had become too burdensome, she said.

“If it’s not implemented properly,” the teacher said, “merely moving [special-needs students] from self-contained to inclusion isn’t going to work.”

Christon Solomon and his mother, Nicole Johnson, said he did not get as much personal attention in an integrated class as he did in  a special-education room.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Christon Solomon and his mother, Nicole Johnson, said he did not get as much personal attention in an integrated class as he did in a special-education room.

Department officials note that teachers can anonymously report such out-of-compliance situations. Teachers-union officials say the city responds promptly to such reports, but add that the fear of retaliation keeps some teachers and parents silent.

Even at the right enrollment levels, co-taught integrated classes are hard to run. The teacher-pairs must be well matched and well trained and have plenty of time to plan together, educators say. It is rare for all of those conditions to be in place, they add.

In a series of reports on the special-education reform commissioned by then-Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, the consultancy Perry and Associates found after hundreds of interviews with educators “an overwhelming request for more professional development.”

“The two things we heard repeatedly from schools,” said George Perry, Jr., the group’s executive director, “is that they want to make this work, but they need help.”

Looking for results

The city’s special-education system today looks very different from how it did a few years ago, with special-needs students attending schools and classes they wouldn’t have before.

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Those changes suggest that the city’s directives and the new budget formula had their desired effect: Students with disabilities have become less isolated. But the reform isn’t meant to simply move special-needs students around − it’s also supposed to help them perform better in school and eventually graduate.

The record on that front is mixed.

For instance, the city found that state test scores inched up slightly more from 2011 to 2012 at schools that piloted the new policies than at comparison schools. But in 2013, both sets of schools did the same on the state English exams (though the pilot schools did better in math), according to the Perry report. An analysis by the city teachers union found that the test scores of students with disabilities improved less from 2010 to 2012 at the pilot schools than they did citywide. Meanwhile, the share of suspensions that go to students with disabilities has actually increased since the reform started.

Department officials insist that it is too soon to expect clear results from the reform, which is a long-term endeavor. Still, they say the new student placements mark a major development.

As the overhaul continues, the department is responding to educators’ concerns, the officials added. For example, it plans to set up more specialized programs at schools, like the one for autistic students at P.S. 112 and others for students with disabilities who are not native English speakers. It is also beefing up supports for struggling readers and training teachers to better manage student behavior.

But Chancellor Carmen Fariña does not appear poised to make any major changes to the new policies.

“The new chancellor is putting out the message to all schools that she strongly believes in an inclusive environment,” said Rello-Anselmi, the deputy chancellor.

Stacey Saunders said Thomas' school has sometimes struggled to manage his emotional disorder. But it has also started to successfully integrate him into classes with general-education students.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Stacey Saunders said Thomas’ school has sometimes struggled to manage his emotional disorder. But it has also started to successfully integrate him into classes with general-education students.

That bodes well for Stacey Saunders and her son Thomas – though, for him and most special-needs students, inclusion alone won’t be enough to set him on the path to graduation.

After a rough kindergarten year, where Thomas spent some 45 days in suspension, Saunders moved him to a different school near their apartment in Harlem.

The new school also had trouble serving Thomas, who has been diagnosed with an emotional disturbance. Teachers in Thomas’ special-education classroom rarely used the strategies outlined in his behavior plan, Saunders said, and she had to send him to a private clinic to get the counseling services she had requested from the school.

But, in line with the reform, the school has also tried to shepherd Thomas into general-education classes. After he kept up with the work in an integrated math class, he was soon nudged into integrated science and reading classes.

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Suddenly, Thomas saw that he was doing well in school and his self-esteem improved. This fall, he will split his time between integrated and general-education classrooms.

“He’s made a lot of progress – a lot, a lot, a lot,” Saunders said. “Now, I just need to make sure he keeps getting the services he needs.”

Shrinking

It’s official. Achievement School District will close a second school in Memphis

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
KIPP Memphis University Middle is closing after three years of operation under the state-run Achievement School District. The school operates in a former school building operated by Shelby County Schools.

In the months since KIPP decided to pull out of one of its state-run charter schools, officials with Tennessee’s turnaround district have been publicly mum about what happens next, leaving most to believe the Memphis school will close at the end of the school year.

A top official with the Achievement School District now confirms that’s the plan.

The ASD is not seeking a successor to KIPP for Memphis University Middle School and “is not obligated to look for another operator,” said Bobby White, the ASD’s chief of external affairs.

White noted that the South Memphis school was started from scratch — and is not an existing low-performing school taken from the local district with the charge of turning it around.

University Middle thus becomes the second ASD charter school that will close under the 5-year-old turnaround district. Klondike Preparatory Academy Elementary, a turnaround school also in Memphis, is already slated to shut down this spring after its operator, Gestalt Community Schools, pulls out of the ASD completely. KIPP will continue to operate three other ASD schools in Memphis and four other charters through Shelby County Schools.

The confirmation of a second closure comes as state leaders are reexamining the ASD’s structure and purpose and proposing to curtail its ability to grow — even as the state-run district struggles with sustainability due to a lack of students in Memphis, where the bulk of its schools are located. A bill filed recently in the legislature would stop the ASD from starting new charter schools such as KIPP’s University Middle, rather than just overhauling existing schools that are struggling.

The ASD was created as a vehicle to dramatically improve schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent but began authorizing charter organizations to start some new schools as well. The pending legislation, which is supported by leaders of both the State Department of Education and the ASD, would return the district to its original purpose.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Bobby White is the ASD’s chief of external affairs.

KIPP’s Memphis board cited low enrollment and a remote location when voting last December to pull out this spring from University Middle, which it opened in 2014. Its leaders have told parents they plan to merge the school with KIPP Memphis Preparatory Middle, another ASD school located about nine miles away.

Even with KIPP’s departure, ASD officials had authority to continue to operate University Middle with another manager. However, the challenges with enrollment and location made that option highly unlikely.

The middle school is housed in the former White’s Chapel Elementary School building, which Shelby County Schools closed in 2013 with 181 students — more than KIPP was able to attract under the ASD.

Under-enrollment was also cited by leaders of Gestalt, a Memphis-based charter organization that announced last fall plans to pull out of both of its ASD schools. The state-run district has since found a new operator for one Gestalt school and confirmed last month that it plans to close the other.

the right mix

How two Manhattan moms are trying to convince their peers that integration is good for everyone

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Shino Tanikawa, left, and Robin Broshi, right, say academic integration is a key to creating diverse schools.

As support among local advocates and officials builds for policies to help desegregate New York City schools, two Manhattan moms say mixing students of different ability levels is a key part of the equation.

Robin Broshi and Shino Tanikawa, both members of the District 2 Community Education Council, point to the middle schools in their district, which includes lower Manhattan, Chinatown and the Upper East Side. Most middle schools there are unzoned and supposed to be open to everyone. But with a highly selective application process, many of the schools end up divided academically — and by race and class.

Broshi and Tanikawa are determined to change that, but first they’ll have to convince their peers that academically integrated schools work for everyone — even students who are already high-achievers.

“My feeling is most parents will support a racially diverse school and they might even support a socioeconomically diverse school, but they still might have a problem understanding that an academically diverse school is also good for their kids,” Tanikawa said.

Their effort is rooted in an understanding of how race and class impact student achievement, and how using test scores and report cards in admissions decisions can shut vulnerable students out.

“If you look at test scores and you say, ‘We want to create academically screened schools that also reflect all the other diversities,’ you’re not really going to be able to do that,” Broshi said. “The whole reason we’re in this situation is because there’s an academic component.”

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The kind of academic mixing that Broshi and Tanikawa propose is something similar to the city’s “educational option” high schools. Also known as “ed-opt,” these schools were designed to enroll students from across the educational spectrum. The city Department of Education has said it’s not interested in adding screened programs at the high school level, and has increased the number of ed-opt seats by 14 percent since 2015.

Broshi and Tanikawa aren’t yet advocating for specific changes to the middle school admissions process; they hope those details will grow out of community conversations that are just getting started. One forum the educational council organized last spring, which featured researchers talking about their work on integration, attracted a crowd of parents.

Still, Tanikawa knows it will take more than that to convince wary peers. If necessary, she’s ready to visit every PTA in the sprawling district to make her case.

“The only way to do it is to go to where the parents are, not to ask them to come to where we are,” Tanikawa said.

She is likely to face fierce resistance.

In 2013, when the city Department of Education opened a new middle school on the Upper East Side and proposed that only half the student body be screened, about 500 people wrote to the department calling for full academic screening instead.

“Without a screen … there is no ability to control what kind of kids will enroll,” one commenter wrote. “Half of the students will get in purely on luck, and these students will impede the success of the school.”

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The question of how mixing students affects an overall student body has yielded a significant amount of research, much of which supports a different conclusion: As with integrating students of different races and economic backgrounds, mixing students with different academic abilities can benefit all.

One meta-analysis of four decades of research showed that academic mixing had positive effects for struggling students — and no effect, positive or negative, for average and high-achieving students.

Other studies have found more advantages.

One study of a Long Island high school found that graduation rates among all students shot up when the district stopped using different academic “tracks” with separate curricula for high- and low-performing students. Instead, all students were taught under a program that was previously only taught to top students.

Certain mixed-class models are especially promising, said Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a think tank that studies inequality.

He recommends approaches such as “embedded honors,” where students are taught the same lessons in the same classroom, but assigned varying levels of work. Cooperative learning, where small groups of students at different achievement levels help each other, can also work, he said. A review of almost 400 studies found that cooperative learning can boost higher-level thinking and promote the generation of new ideas, Kahlenberg writes in his book “All Together Now.”

But de-tracking is not easy to get right. In cases where the gap between top-performers and struggling students is too big, there may be no benefits for either.

Other research has shown that struggling students can, in fact, have a negative effect on peers. In one study, economists looked at the impact of the arrival of hurricane evacuees on Houston schools. The result: low-achieving evacuees brought down the average performance of high-achieving Houston students. On the other hand, the arrival of high-performing evacuees had a positive effect.

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Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and author of “The Diverse Schools Dilemma,” said it’s “reasonable” for parents to ask how their children will do in an academically mixed classroom.

Regardless of a school’s student body, he says, educational success depends largely on the quality of teaching and leadership.

“If the school can do a reasonable job to provide some accommodations for your child, and you get to have this experience of integration, then that’s great,” Petrilli said. “But there are tradeoffs. And I guess in the best case scenario, parents should be able to make a decision about those tradeoffs.”

For Tanikawa, the tradeoffs, if there are any, are well worth it if academic mixing leads to greater integration by race and class. The benefits of diverse schools — better graduation rates in high school and college, and even higher incomes later in life — have been thoroughly documented.

In the classroom, students from different backgrounds bring new experiences and ideas, which stimulates more engaging classroom discussions, improves critical thinking and may even boost creativity, according to one 2016 report from the Century Foundation. It prepares students to work in multicultural environments and can lead to more civic participation later in life.

“I know there’s a lot more to schools than academic achievement,” Tanikawa said. “I want parents to start thinking about what else makes a good education.”