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.

legal showdown

Lawsuit targets New York City program that strands poor students without required special ed services

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Public Advocate Letitia James announced a report earlier this month criticizing the city's special education voucher program.

A program that makes New York City parents responsible for finding their own special education services — but that often leaves them with no services at all — is under legal attack.

The class action lawsuit, filed Thursday in a federal district court, aims to reform the city’s process for ensuring that students with disabilities receive “related services” — which include physical therapy, certain medical services and counseling, among other therapies.

When the city’s education department is unable to offer those services itself, or through a contractor, parents are given a voucher that can be used to pay an outside provider. But that system puts the onus on families to find providers, and about half of the 9,164 vouchers issued during the 2015-16 school year went unused, according to a report issued earlier this month by the public advocate’s office.

The lawsuit centers on the Bronx, where the problem is particularly acute. In District 8, which includes Hunts Point, Throgs Neck and Soundview, 91 percent of the 129 vouchers issued last school year went unused — the highest rate anywhere in the city.

The city’s public advocate found that families face a number of barriers to using the vouchers: They often struggle to find providers in their neighborhoods, have difficulty arranging for transportation and getting reimbursed to send their children elsewhere, or simply can’t find providers who are responsive.

In part because of those challenges, an attorney who helped bring the lawsuit said the city can’t simply offer a voucher to fulfil its obligation to provide special education services.

“The DOE has to ensure that students actually get [services]” said Seth Packrone, a lawyer at Disability Rights Advocates, which contributed to the public advocate’s report. “They can’t just issue a voucher and then step away.”

The goal of the litigation is to force the education department to come up with a plan to ensure that students in the Bronx receive the services they have been guaranteed, Packrone said. It is not yet clear what that plan could entail or how it could affect other neighborhoods, which also have large numbers of unused vouchers.

The complaint says the city’s voucher program violates multiple federal laws that guarantee students with disabilities a free and appropriate public education. The plaintiffs in the case are two Bronx students and Bronx Independent Living Services, a nonprofit that works with students who have disabilities.

Education department spokeswoman Toya Holness wrote in a statement: “We are dedicated to meeting the needs of students with disabilities and in the small percentage of cases when we issue a related service authorization, we work with families to connect them with an appropriate provider in their area.”

She referred questions about the lawsuit to a law department spokesman, who said the city is reviewing the complaint.

voucher void

Report: Special education voucher program leaves some of New York City’s poorest families without services

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Gloria Alfinez with her son, a rising fourth-grader with special needs, who she says did not receive appropriate services.

Thousands of students with special needs in New York City are not receiving required services due to a system that forces families to find certain therapists on their own if their schools are unable to provide them.

That’s according to a report released Wednesday by the city’s public advocate, Letitia James, who investigated the city’s system for providing what are called “related services” — which include physical therapy, certain medical services and counseling, among other therapies.

When the city’s education department is unable to offer those services itself, or through a contractor, parents are given a voucher that can be used to pay an outside provider. But that system puts the onus on families to find providers, and about half of the 9,164 vouchers issued during the 2015-16 school year went unused, according to figures provided by the public advocate’s office.

“The burden should not shift from the Department of Education to parents,” James said at a press conference. “The process itself is in violation of the law.”

Even as the city has made reforms to its special education system, the report offers another window into a system that often falls short. The city’s own statistics showed that during the same year, just 59 percent of students with special needs received the full range of services they were entitled to, and thousands received no services at all.

The voucher system disadvantages poorer neighborhoods, the report finds, especially those in the far corners of Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx. In the Bronx’s District 8, for instance, 91 percent of the 129 vouchers issued in the 2015-16 school year went unused — the highest rate anywhere in the city. In Queens’s District 27, 79 percent of vouchers went unused. Brooklyn’s District 14, covering Williamsburg and Greenpoint, had the lowest rate of unused vouchers, but nearly a quarter still went unused.

Based on interviews with families and providers themselves, the report attributes the large share of unused vouchers to a series of interlocking barriers: Families often struggle to find providers in their neighborhoods, have difficulty arranging for transportation and getting reimbursed to send their children elsewhere, or simply can’t find providers who are responsive.

One parent, Yamile Henry, said through an interpreter that she wasn’t even aware she might need to take her son outside the school to get key services, and that letters were sent home in English (she speaks Spanish). “I cannot take my son to services because I work,” she said. “I still don’t know if my son is receiving them.”

But even parents who do try to arrange outside help often face roadblocks.

The public advocate’s office called scores of providers that the education department recommends to parents in the Bronx, and found the vast majority did not have any availability. Of the providers contacted, James said, just six were available and willing to travel to the Bronx.

The report notes that payment rates are low for providers in the voucher program, and reimbursement is often slow, meaning “many providers do not want to take [the vouchers] as a result.”

But even among the families who do manage to take advantage of the program, the services are often in place months after the school year starts, partly because of delays earlier in the referral process caused by the city’s notoriously dysfunctional special education data system.

Education department spokeswoman Toya Holness said the city has hired 700 new clinicians over the past three years for occupational, speech and physical therapy — and the percentage of students receiving required related services stood at 95 percent last school year, an 11 percentage point increase over five years.

Holness pointed out that only a small share of students who need related services are in the voucher program, and “we work closely with each family to connect them with an appropriate provider in their area and, if needed, provide transportation.”

Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children, said in an interview that the report’s findings did not surprise her and that related services are just as important as general academic instruction.

“It’s all the other things that go into a student’s ability to process and learn and develop in school,” Moroff said. “Without any of them, you’re denying a student a really important piece of their education.”