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.”

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.”