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.”

renewed questions

An unusual charter school that serves students with disabilities is under scrutiny from New York City

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Opportunity Charter School

When Opportunity Charter School opened its doors a dozen years ago, it had an ambitious and unusual plan: to serve a population where over half the students have a disability.

This year, the school hoped to shift its mission even further in that direction — to stop accepting students without disabilities and shift its focus entirely to special education, while adding an elementary school to its middle and high school.

“Our mission is to take in the lowest-performing students,” said Leonard Goldberg, the charter school’s founder and CEO, explaining the decision to only serve students with disabilities. “You cannot successfully be all things to all children.”

But last week, the city’s education department publicly rejected the school’s expansion plan and moved to eliminate its middle school, citing poor performance. They also did not approve its proposal to exclusively serve students with disabilities. The decision has reignited a standoff between the school and the city — which tried to shut the school down entirely five years ago — about how to fairly evaluate schools like Opportunity, which serves the second-highest proportion of students with disabilities of any charter school in the city.

When Opportunity opened in 2004, the school’s mission was to educate students with learning and cognitive delays alongside typical students. The 423-student school offers intensive support for its students with disabilities, according to staffers, including a social worker and a behavioral and learning specialist for every grade. The school also partners with the Children’s Aid Society to offer mental health counseling and dental care.

On its face, the education department’s argument for downsizing Opportunity is simple: The school met few of its academic benchmarks, reaching four of 22 goals over the past two years.

Just 9 percent of students scored high enough on state reading tests to be considered “proficient,” compared with 13 percent of similar students at other schools. Three percent are proficient in math, compared to 9 percent in the comparison group. Officials who visited the school to help decide whether it should continue to be able to operate said they didn’t see strong teaching or challenging classes.

“Opportunity Charter School was given clear performance benchmarks over the last five years, and the middle school grades did not meet them,” education department spokesman Michael Aciman said in an email.

Opportunity’s leaders vehemently disagree with that characterization, and say the city did not adequately take into account the performance of their incoming students or accept their evidence of growth.

Roughly 85 percent of the school’s students are eligible for meal assistance and virtually every student is black or Hispanic, far above average for District 3. Nearly two-thirds of its incoming sixth graders scored at the lowest level on state tests, according to its charter renewal application.

“They get to us shattered — they’ve basically been told to sit in the back of the room with a box of crayons,” Goldberg said, “and they come to us and their world opens up.” He added that Opportunity plans to exclusively serve students with disabilities so the school can play to its strengths instead of stretching to serve students with a wide range of skills.

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Opportunity Charter School founder and CEO Leonard Goldberg

Opportunity officials pointed to some signs of success: Its graduation rate for students with disabilities exceeded the city average in four of the last five years, evidence the city used to keep the high school open. The school’s postsecondary enrollment rate also rivals the city average.

Still, its renewal application does not emphasize academic growth in its middle school grades.

James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center, said decisions about whether to renew charter schools are often complex, especially when the evidence of success is mixed.

But without commenting directly on Opportunity Charter, he said, “We created charters as alternatives to the system, to be more successful than the system, to have better outcomes.”

“It’s a very slippery slope to go from wanting an appropriate set of outcomes for a difficult-to-educate population, and using the fact that you’re enrolling a difficult population as a shield to protect you from accountability,” he added.

This is not Opportunity’s first disagreement with the city. In 2010, the city’s Special Commissioner of Investigation released a startling report that showed the school failed to adhere to its own policies in responding to cases where the staff used force against students or verbally abused them.

In a recent interview, Goldberg denied the report’s findings. He noted the school has worked to institute less punitive “restorative” approaches to student discipline, and the school has reduced its suspension rate.

A dispute with the city also flared up five years ago, when it tried to close the school entirely — a decision that was later reversed on appeal. Opportunity officials are hoping for a similar outcome this year, and have already submitted an appeal to the city, with a decision expected later this spring. The school will also face another test quickly, since the city’s renewal of the high school grades only grants the charter for three years, not the traditional five.

In 2011, after a contentious unionization battle, Opportunity teachers voted to join the United Federation of Teachers, the city teachers union, which has long lobbied against school closures. Current staff members and parents said in interviews that the school might have challenges, but oppose the city’s plan to shrink it.

Qays Sapp, a behavioral specialist at the school who graduated from Opportunity in 2011, thinks of the school as a “second home.” Still, he said that the school’s high turnover rate has had an effect on morale. Last year, 18 instructors — or 44 percent — left the school.

“I would be lying if I said the school doesn’t need some improvement,” Sapp said. But he thinks the middle school should stay open. “They’re not doing the kids any justice by shutting it down. Who’s going to take them?”

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Opportunity’s request to only serve students with disabilities had been approved. In fact, the city rejected that plan.

survey says

How accessible are New York City’s high schools? Students with physical disabilities are about to find out

PHOTO: Cassi Feldman
Midwood High School is considered inaccessible to students with physical disabilities.

Michelle Noris began her son’s high school search the way many parents of children with physical disabilities do: by throwing out most of the high school directory.

She knew her son Abraham would only have access to a few dozen of the city’s 400-plus high schools because of significant health needs, despite being a bright student with a knack for writing.

“I tore out every page that didn’t work in advance of showing [the directory] to him,” Noris recalls.

Even once they narrowed the list of potential schools, they still couldn’t be sure which schools Abraham — who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair — would be physically able to enter. The directory lists whether a school is considered partially or fully accessible, which, in theory, means that students should have access to “all relevant programs and services.”

In practice, however, the situation is much more complicated. “We had schools that are listed as partially accessible, but there’s no accessible bathroom,” said Noris, who is a member of the Citywide Council on Special Education. Some “accessible” schools might not have water fountains or cafeteria tables that accommodate students with mobility needs. A school’s auditorium could have a ramp, but no way for a wheelchair-bound student to get up on the stage.

Most of that information is not publicly available without calling a school or showing up for a visit — a process that can be time-consuming and demoralizing. But now, thanks in part by lobbying from Noris and other advocates, the city has pledged to begin filling the information gap. The education department will soon release more detailed information about exactly how accessible its high schools are.

Based on a 58-question survey, the city is collecting more granular data: if music rooms or computer labs are accessible, for instance, or whether there’s a slight step in a library that could act as a barrier. The survey also tracks whether a student in a wheelchair would have to use a side or back entrance to make it into the building.

“Sometimes, [parents] actually have to visit four or five of our schools to see if their child could get to every area of the school that’s important to them,” said Tom Taratko, who heads the education department’s space management division. “We didn’t think that was right.”

Virtually every physical amenity will be documented, Taratko said, down to whether a school has braille signage or technology for students with hearing impairments.

Education department officials are still fine-tuning exactly how to translate the city’s new accessibility inventory into a user-friendly dataset families can use. Some of the new information will be made available in the high school directory, and the results of each school’s survey will be available online.

Officials said the new data would be provided in “the coming weeks” for all high schools in Manhattan and Staten Island. The rest of the city’s high schools should be included before the next admissions cycle.

The survey will help identify which schools could be made accessible with relatively few changes, Taratko explained. “Everything — our shortcomings, our strengths — everything will be out there.”

The decision to release more high school accessibility data comes less than two years after a scathing U.S. Department of Justice investigation revealed “inexcusable” accommodations in elementary schools.

Many of the city’s school buildings were built before the Americans with Disabilities Act became law, and despite committing $100 million in its current five-year capital budget to upgrades, many schools are still not accessible. According to 2016 data, the most recent available, just 13 percent of district and charter schools that serve high school grades are fully accessible. About 62 percent are partially accessible, and 25 percent are considered inaccessible.

Making accessibility data public could help change those numbers, said Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children who has pushed for greater transparency and praised the initiative.

“Once it’s out there, there’s so much more self-advocacy a parent can do,” Moroff said. “Then they can make requests about specific accommodations.”

Greater transparency is just one step in the process. Moroff hopes the city will consider taking students’ physical disabilities into account during the admissions process so that academically qualified students get preference for accessible schools. Once students arrive, she added, they must be welcomed by the school community.

“There needs to be much more work to hold the schools accountable to actually welcoming those students,” Moroff said. “It has to go hand in hand with making renovations and making accommodations.”

Even though the data comes too late for Noris, whose son submitted applications to just two high schools out of a possible twelve due to accessibility constraints, she is optimistic future families will have an easier time navigating the process.

“They didn’t say, ‘We’re going to do this over the next ten years.’ They said, ‘We’re going to do this in two years,’” Noris said, noting that she hopes more funding is allocated to upgrade buildings. “I think it’s a real example of the Department of Education hearing the needs and being willing to act on it.”