Too many of NYC’s youngest special-ed students are isolated, state says

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer
A scene at a community-based pre-K provider in Queens.

New York City is keeping far too many preschoolers with disabilities in isolated classes, according to state officials, who are increasing the pressure on the city to change its approach.

Nearly 47 percent of three- and four-year-olds with special needs in the city attended classes exclusively with other students with disabilities last school year. That rate is the highest in the state, where an average of 31 percent of preschool-aged children were in special-education classes.

Part of the reason for the city’s high segregation rate is that it has typically sent pre-kindergarten students who need intensive services to private programs, since regular pre-K sites often have not had the capacity to meet their needs. Given a growing body of research that suggests inclusion benefits students with disabilities, city and state officials both say they want fewer preschool students with disabilities sent to separate programs.

“New York City does place a large percentage of their youngsters in special programs that serve exclusively students with disabilities,” said James DeLorenzo, the state education department’s special-education chief. “I think that’s an area that’s ripe for us to work more strategically to address.”

State education officials pointed out the city’s inclusion rates in Albany this week during a presentation about sweeping plans to improve special education across the state. They intend to ask certain districts for more details about how they assign students with disabilities to classes.

Meanwhile, New York City officials say they are creating more classes that serve a mix of students and without special needs as part of the city’s broad expansion of pre-kindergarten. The city has also added extra teams to screen more pre-K students for disabilities, according to Harry Hartfield, a spokesman for the city education department.

The efforts are propelled by research that suggests that many students with disabilities benefit from mixed-ability classes starting at an early age.

“Whenever possible, a preschooler should learn alongside typically developing peers,” said Randi Levine, early childhood education project director at Advocates for Children, a group that provides free legal services for students. “The expansion of pre-K in New York State and New York City provides an opportunity to do that, but it’s only possible with appropriate resources and training.”

The state’s proposal, which officials presented Monday to the Board of Regents, would require New York and other districts to submit plans for how they will enroll more preschool students with disabilities in general-education classes, along with annual reports on their progress. A separate proposal would require similar plans for integrating older students.

In addition, the state education department is planning to host a series of meetings in New York City among city officials and educators to discuss why so many pre-K students attend separate special-education programs and how that can be fixed, according to DeLorenzo, the assistant state education commissioner.

New York has long struggled to integrate students with disabilities into general-education classes whenever appropriate, a federal mandate known as placing students in the “least restrictive environment.” The state’s record of making such placements ranked second worst in the nation in the 2013-14 school year, according to state officials.

The city’s education department launched a system-wide effort to address this problem in 2012, overhauling its policies so that the majority of special-needs students are now expected to enroll in their local schools and take general-education classes as often as possible. As a result, 91 percent of students with disabilities attended their local schools last year, up from 85 percent in 2011, according to the city.

With the changes already underway in new pre-K classes, the city expects more pre-K students with disabilities to learn alongside their non-disabled peers in the coming years, said Hartfield, the city spokesman.

“We will continue to work to ensure that, whenever possible, students with disabilities can receive the high-quality education they deserve in their local school,” he said in a statement.

While advocates have applauded the push for integration, they have also warned that many local schools and general-education teachers are unequipped to meet the needs of many students with disabilities.

Jean Mizutani, a program manager for the nonprofit INCLUDEnyc, a support agency for young people with disabilities, said the new focus on preschool is a continuation of this effort to better integrate disabled students with their non-disabled peers. The idea makes sense, she said, yet she doubts the city has enough pre-K teachers who are adequately trained to serve students with special needs.

Placing those students in a general-education class “is the easy part,” Mizutani said. “To get them participating, to have them learning in a constructive way, is another thing.”

Colorado's 2017 General Assembly

Colorado students could earn biliteracy credential on diploma

A 2010 graduation ceremony of Denver's Bruce Randolph School (Hyoung Chang/ The Denver Post).

Colorado high school graduates next year likely will be able to earn a new credential that proves to colleges and employers they can communicate in at least two languages.

The House Education Committee on Monday approved Senate Bill 123, which lays out the criteria students must meet to earn a biliteracy endorsement.

The bill already has won support from the state Senate and faces one last debate in the House of Representatives before going to the governor’s desk.

Three school districts began issuing their own bilingual endorsements in 2016.

Last year, the State Board of Education rejected a resolution that would have encouraged more schools to develop their own seal of biliteracy. Republicans on the board voiced concern about a lack of statewide criteria and that the endorsement would be handed out unevenly.

If this bill becomes law, that would change.

For a students to earn the seal, they would need to prove they’ve mastered both English and another language by earning at least a B in all of their language classes, earning high marks on the English portion of the SAT, and pass both an English and foreign language test provided by either the Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate programs.

If such a test doesn’t exist for a language the student has studied, the school may either create a test that must be vetted by the state education department or the student may submit a sample of work for review.

Ella Willden, a seventh grader at Oberon Middle School in Arvada, told Colorado lawmakers she and her fellow students are excited for the chance to earn the diploma seal, and that it would mean a better shot at a good college or career after high school.

“I know many of my classmates will jump at the chance to earn this seal if given the opportunity because they want to get into some of the top schools in the nation and they want every advantage they can get,” she said. “Whether I go to college or I go to work, this seal will open doors for me throughout the state.”


Lawmakers take first step to ease testing burden for young English language learners

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/Denver Post
Justin Machado, 9, reads on his iPad during his 3rd grade class at Ashley Elementary in 2015.

State lawmakers from both political parties are seeking to undo a controversial State Board of Education decision that called for schools to test thousands of Colorado’s youngest students in English — a language they are still learning.

House Bill 1160 cleared its first legislative hurdle Monday with unanimous support from the House Education Committee.

The bill would allow school districts to decide whether to use tests in English or Spanish to gauge whether students in kindergarten through third grade enrolled in dual-language or bilingual programs have reading deficiencies.

The bill is sponsored in the House of Representatives by Reps. Millie Hamner, a Frisco Democrat, and Jim Wilson, a Salida Republican.

If the bill becomes law, it would overrule a decision by the State Board of Education last year that required testing such students at least once in English. That meant some schools would need to test students twice if they wanted to gauge reading skills in a student’s native language.

Colorado’s public schools under the 2012 READ Act are required to test students’ reading ability to identify students who aren’t likely to be reading at grade-level by third grade.

The bill is the latest political twist in a years-long effort to apply the READ Act in Colorado schools that serve a growing number of native Spanish-speakers.

School districts first raised concern about double-testing in 2014, one year after the law went into effect. The state Attorney General’s office issued an opinion affirming that the intent of the READ Act was to measure reading skills, not English proficiency. The state board then changed its policy to allow districts to choose which language to test students in and approved tests in both English and Spanish.

But a new configuration of the state board in 2016 reversed that decision when it made other changes in response to a 2015 testing reform law that included tweaks to early literacy testing.

The board’s decision at the time was met with fierce opposition from school districts with large Spanish speaking populations — led by Denver Public Schools.

Lawmakers considered legislation to undo the board’s decision last year, but a committee in the Republican-controlled Senate killed it.

Capitol observers believe the bill is more likely to reach the governor’s desk this year after a change in leadership in the Senate.

Some members of the state board, at a meeting last week, reaffirmed their support for testing students in English.

Board member Val Flores, a Denver Democrat who opposed the rule change last year, said she opposes the bill. In explaining her reversal, Flores said she believes the bill would create a disincentive for schools, especially in Denver, to help Spanish-speakers learn English.

“If the district does not give the test in English, reading in English will not be taught,” she said.

Board member Steve Durham, a Colorado Springs Republican, said he still believes the intent of the READ Act was to measure how well students were reading in English.

“I think this is a serious departure from what the legislature intended initially,” he said last week. “The READ Act had everything to do with reading in English.”

Hamner, one of the sponsors of House Bill 1160, also sponsored the READ Act in 2012. She disagrees with Durham and told the House committee Monday that the intent was always for local school districts to decide which language was appropriate.

“We’re giving the local educators and districts the decision-making authority on what’s best for the students,” she said.

Multiple speakers on Monday said the requirement to test native Spanish speakers in English was a waste of time and money, and provided bad information to teachers.

“A teacher who teaches in Spanish will not be able to use data from an English assessment to drive their instruction, much like a hearing test would not give a doctor information about a patient’s broken arm,” said Emily Volkert, dean of instruction at Centennial Elementary School in Denver.

The bill only applies to students who are native Spanish speakers because the state has only approved tests that are in English and Spanish. Students whose native language is neither English nor Spanish would be tested in English until the state approves assessments in other languages.

“The question is can you read and how well,” said bill co-sponsor Wilson. “We’re trying to simplify that.”