Pre-K delay

New York City promised free preschool to every family, so why do some students with disabilities struggle to find seats?

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Shavon Gilliam with her son, Mikel, outside their Bronx home.

Shavon Gilliam realized her son Mikel was different about six months after his first birthday.

His speech wasn’t developing like most other kids his age, and he didn’t seem to grasp how certain toys worked. “Like a big toy truck — he would turn it upside down and just play with the wheels,” Gilliam said. And even more worrisome: “He wasn’t even attempting to talk.”

After an early evaluation revealed Mikel was likely on the autism spectrum, Gilliam was able to secure early intervention services to help address his developmental delays. But once Mikel turned three and was no longer eligible for early intervention, Gilliam tried to enroll him in several programs near their Bronx neighborhood that offer special education preschool services.

She kept hearing the same thing: There are no spots left. So Mikel spent six months at home, occasionally visiting the aquarium and the library with his grandmother. “He didn’t get services right away,” Gilliam said. “He was just home for a while without anything.”

Mikel isn’t alone.

Across the city, parents of children with disabilities have struggled to find spots in preschool programs that offer the specialized services the city is required to provide. The city no longer releases the number of students waiting for services, though it has in the past.

But special education providers say a crisis is looming as years of flat state funding — and competition with the city’s pre-K programs — have made it increasingly difficult to keep their doors open.

“The city has expanded Pre-K For All and sought to ensure there is a prekindergarten seat for every child in the city,” said Randi Levine, an early childhood expert at Advocates for Children, which worked on Mikel’s case. “Parents, advocates, and providers are concerned that we have not done enough to ensure there is a preschool seat available for every preschooler with a disability who needs one.”

‘This is very concerning’

While thousands of students with disabilities are served in traditional preschool programs, including Pre-K for All, those with more complicated disabilities are eligible for preschool programs by age three that offer smaller class sizes and access to more specialized therapies. To meet these needs, the city contracts with private providers, who served roughly half of the city’s 32,000 preschoolers with disabilities as of June.

Quality Services for the Autism Community is one of those providers. Lisa Veglia, its deputy executive director, said she usually has open seats in September. Not this year.

“We are full now and have a waitlist of about 17 kids,” said Veglia, whose organization runs a program for 88 preschoolers on the autism spectrum in Douglaston, Queens. “That has never happened.”

Providers across the city have reported increasing demand for special ed preschool, and there appear to be shortages affecting entire boroughs.

In one case, the city told a parent there were no seats available for a six-student special education class anywhere in Queens, Levine said, even though that is the type of program listed on the child’s individualized education plan. In the meantime, that child is at home and receiving no services. The family declined to be interviewed for this story and the Department of Education declined to comment on the specific situation.

“This is very concerning, as it is only September, and six-student classes are commonly recommended for preschoolers with more severe cases of autism,” Levine wrote in an email to Chalkbeat, noting that more students are often identified as needing services as the school year progresses.

On Staten Island, the Early Childhood Direction Center, which fields inquiries from parents navigating the process, said they too have heard from families who are having trouble finding preschool placements.

“There’s an increased demand for families of children with more intense needs who seek more restrictive settings and services than is currently available,” said Laura Kennedy, director of Staten Island’s ECDC.

And United Cerebral Palsy of New York City, which serves more than 400 preschool students with disabilities across four boroughs, making it one of the city’s biggest providers, has also seen a spike in demand.

When they recently opened two new classes, “[We] are filling them practically overnight because there are no seats left,” said Marianne Giordano, a vice president at UCP. “There’s not enough programs to meet the needs of all the children with disabilities out there.”

The city’s education department did not deny that there are shortages for preschool special ed programs across the city, but largely declined further comment.

“We are dedicated to ensuring the individual needs of students with disabilities are met and work closely with families to provide an appropriate placement that provides a supportive learning environment for each student,” spokeswoman Toya Holness wrote in a statement.

Still, providers and advocates say many preschoolers with disabilities are unable to find seats. But figuring out exactly how many is more complicated than it seems.

As recently as 2014, the city gave service providers what was known as a “Pupil in Need” list that showed how many preschool students were waiting for the services that had been promised on a student’s individualized education plan. An old version of that list, which included month-by-month breakdowns, showed that anywhere from dozens to hundreds of students waited for seats at various points throughout the year, though the city has since stopped publicly releasing it.

The city’s Department of Education did not answer questions about why it stopped releasing those numbers. The department also did not comment on how many students are currently waiting for services, and declined interview requests. (A spokesperson wrote via email that they have “effective methods of communicating with relevant programs to notify them of individual students who are awaiting placement.”)

But even in the absence of hard numbers, there are other signs of shortages. This year, for instance, the State Education Department has asked for applications from providers to open more special education preschool programs in every borough “to address the specific regional need.” And while the state declined to comment for this story, a 2014 state report warned that funding shortfalls “may ultimately affect the quality and availability of preschool special education services.”

‘Finding it difficult to operate’

In an ironic twist, shortages of special education seats could partly be an unintended consequence of the city’s promise to offer a free seat to every child.

Since the city can pay thousands more in salary and benefits compared with the private preschool providers (whose funding is controlled by the state), special education programs face stiff competition for staff from the city’s own pre-K program, and many experience constant teacher turnover.

On average, privately operated preschool special education providers often pay between $20,000 and $30,000 less than the education department’s preschool programs, salary data show, which makes it difficult to retain experienced teachers, a problem that also exists among Pre-K for All providers.

“Last year, with the expansion of universal pre-K, we lost our staff in droves,” said Carol Verdi, a vice president at HeartShare Human Services, which runs three early childhood centers in Queens and one in Brooklyn. Her agency experienced roughly 50 percent staff turnover from last year to this year. “You can’t fault people for leaving to make their lives better, but we are at real risk for not being able to run our programs with qualified staff.”

Verdi’s staff losses may seem extreme, but in a survey conducted by the Interagency Council of Developmental Disabilities Agencies, 30 preschool special ed providers reported losing an average of 32 percent of their certified teachers in the second half of 2015, and 23 percent of their teaching assistants. In a more recent 2016 survey, providers continued to report dramatic rates of staff turnover.

“We have some programs right now that don’t even have enough staff to operate all their classrooms,” said Chris Treiber, a director for children’s services at the Interagency Council, which represents providers. “Those programs are going to close, and no one is going to take those kids. The children with the highest level of need — there aren’t going to be those services available.”

‘A dark cloud’

Competition with Pre-K for All is not the only problem. The private providers that offer special education preschool claim that their funding has not kept up with costs.

“They have gone a long time without any significant increase in their reimbursement rate and some of them are finding it difficult to operate,” said Levine. “And we’ve seen some programs close down as a result.”

Many of the providers say there’s a simple solution to this problem: a funding increase from the state.

For six of the past eight years, special education preschool programs received no funding increases. In the last two funding cycles, the providers got a 2 percent bump each year — roughly half the increase that similar school-age special education providers received.

The years of flat funding coincided with a wider state freeze for many human services providers. But state policymakers had another reason to choke financing: Special education preschool costs have soared, and a series of high-profile audits revealed that some providers misspent money on lavish vacations and executive salaries, which ultimately led to criminal charges. (For his part, Treiber said his association has supported legislation requiring stricter financial oversight.)

“It put a dark cloud over the whole industry and there were definitely some bad apples,” said Verdi, the vice president at HeartShare Human Services, which runs special ed preschool programs. “And as a result, we get painted with the same brush.”

The funding crunch, she said, has meant that her organization has started running $800,000 annual operating deficits on its preschool special education programs alone. “If my deficits keep going up, our board has told me that we don’t know how long we can continue to fundraise to offset the deficit.”

‘He’s not there yet’

Shavon Gilliam has felt the impact of the shortage firsthand. After struggling to find Mikel a special education preschool program for six months, she finally found a seat this September with help from Advocates for Children.

Shavon Gilliam runs through flashcards with her son, Mikel.
PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Shavon Gilliam runs through flashcards with her son, Mikel.

She acknowledges that part of why she didn’t get a preschool placement immediately is that she only started looking for a program in March. “That was my lapse in judgment,” she said. Still, even though Mikel’s individualized education plan called for a full-time special ed class, for months the city was only able to provide three hours per week of home-based therapy.

On a recent Friday evening, Gilliam sat with her son in their ground-floor apartment running through flashcards with different meats, fruits, and vegetables pictured on them.

She was proud that he could correctly identify the names and colors of the images in front of him, but wondered whether he’d be further along if he had received services sooner.

“I think he would be saying more phrases by now,” Gilliam said. “Right now he should be saying paragraphs. He’s not there yet.”

special education

Thousands of students still wait for special education services or don’t receive them at all, city figures reveal

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

New data released Tuesday show that New York City is still struggling to provide required services to many of its students with disabilities.

About 30 percent of students had to wait longer than the two months allowed under law to be assessed for education plans that outline the services the city is required to provide them, according to data from last school year. Meanwhile, 41 percent of students were offered only partial services required on those plans — or no services at all.

Tuesday’s report is only the second time the city has released comprehensive statistics on how well the city is serving its roughly 212,000 students with special needs. Advocates and legislators had long complained that the city withheld crucial information about this population, a group that by itself would be roughly the seventh largest school system in the country.

With some exceptions, numbers from the new report show a relatively static trend in how well the city is serving students with disabilities compared with the 2014-15 school year.

Just 59 percent of students received the full range of services required on their individualized education programs, or IEPs, compared with 60 percent the previous school year. And 33 percent, or roughly 58,000 students, received only partial services — down from 35 percent.

The number of students who received no services, despite being recommended for them, rose from 5 to 8 percent, or almost 14,000 students.

“That’s really disheartening,” said Maggie Moroff, a special education policy expert at Advocates for Children. “But I think it’s also a big wake-up call. The fact that they’re doing the reporting and that it’s public and people are looking at it is a good thing.”

By law, the city has to hold IEP meetings within 60 days of a parent giving consent; they are used to develop a student’s annual goals and supports. This past school year, 71 percent of students got their IEPs within the legally required timeframe, compared with 69.5 percent during 2014-15.

“While we continue to make progress in improving our special education processes and systems,” wrote education department spokeswoman Toya Holness, “we have a lot more work to do to reach our goal of ensuring all students are receiving the supports they need.”

But, as in the past, the city issued a warning about its own statistics. Due to major flaws with the city’s special education tracking system, which has sparked litigation, officials warned the data may not be completely reliable.

“We are aggressively working to address the data concerns that presented challenges in last year’s and this year’s reports, and for the current (2016-17) school year,” Holness wrote in an email.

The city pointed to other bright spots: The number of students receiving related services such as speech and occupational therapies increased to 94.8 percent, according to the city. And graduation rates for students with disabilities has increased roughly 10 percent since 2011-12 to 41.1 percent.

“We’ve seen important progress and I’m encouraged by the preliminary information we’re seeing,” DOE Deputy Chancellor Corinne Rello-Anselmi, said in a statement. “We’ll continue to work tirelessly to ensure the data collection is accurate and expand programs and provide schools with the resources they need to provide a high-quality education for all students with disabilities.”

Measuring Equity

The city is paying for more students with disabilities to attend private school. But is that helping poor families?

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Mayor Bill de Blasio announces policy changes meant to make it easier for parents of children with special needs to secure city funds for private school tuition.

When Mayor Bill de Blasio announced he would make it easier for children with disabilities whose needs aren’t met in public school to have their private school tuition funded by the city, he said the policy shift would make the special education system more equitable.

Families were put through “a very difficult and often litigious process,” de Blasio said at a 2014 press conference announcing the new policy. He added that the city “needed a streamlined, parent-friendly, family-friendly, respectful approach that didn’t matter how good your lawyers were, or how much money you had to spend on lawyers.” He promised the city would scale back legal barriers that sometimes kept families from getting the city to pay for private placements.

That shift seems to have had a clear effect: As Chalkbeat reported in July, roughly 4,100 students with disabilities were funded by the city to attend private school last year, 42 percent more than in 2011. And fewer families had to fight lengthy battles for that funding: The city settled 49 percent more cases without going through a legal hearing than they did in 2011.

While some advocates see these as positive changes, exactly what kinds of families have benefitted is an open question — one that city officials say their data systems don’t allow them to answer.

In June, Chalkbeat filed a Freedom of Information Law request asking for demographic breakdowns — including socioeconomic status — of students with disabilities whose private school tuition is paid for by the city. The request was an attempt to assess whether the policy was having the effect on equal access that de Blasio promised.

Nearly four months later, after repeated delays, the city has denied that request. The city said it does not collect the socioeconomic status or race of students in the database where it tracks tuition reimbursements.

The state’s open-records law “does not obligate the DOE to match data across computer storage systems,” wrote Joseph Baranello, the education department’s records access officer, in a letter. Baranello noted the city also searched for “previously created compilations of data,” but could not find any.

Baranello’s explanation is based on the state’s open-records law, which requires the city to disclose only records that it already keeps. But it does raise questions about how the city can tell if the policy is having its desired effect without clear data on the question.

Education department spokeswoman Toya Holness said the new policy has made it easier for families of students with disabilities to get appropriate services.

“Several offices across the DOE work closely to process these claims,” she wrote, “and we are always looking for ways to improve our tracking systems.”

Aaron Pallas, a professor at Teachers College, expressed some skepticism about the department’s response to the records request. “You would think the department would want to demonstrate the effects of the policy change,” he said. “One is always suspicious that an agency refuses what seems to be a reasonable request because they won’t like the interpretation of the records.”

Some advocates said that even if the city can’t prove that the policy is serving more low-income families, those it is serving are often having an easier time.

Rebecca Shore, who represents low-income families as litigation director at Advocates for Children, said the administration’s shift has given parents of children with disabilities a more straightforward path to private school by reducing the amount of time and money they have to commit to legal battles.

“The reality is the policy is helping those low-income parents,” she said. “Does that mean it’s equally dispersed? No.”