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New York City’s special ed tracking system malfunctioned more than 800,000 times per day, but changes are underway

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Ever since New York City’s special education data system launched in 2011, it has been mired in technical difficulties. But a new report shows just how pervasive those glitches have been.

The report is the first release from a multi-agency group within the city that is working to fix the Special Education Student Information System — a key piece of infrastructure that is supposed to electronically track learning plans for more than 200,000 students with disabilities.

And while the report found that the city has made some strides in overhauling the system, it also paints a bleak picture of what special education teachers and administrators have been wrestling with. Here are a few examples from the report:

  • One category of user queries related to special education programmatic services on IEPs [individualized education programs], that previously failed about 800,000 times a day, no longer has any failures.
  • A “Missing Files” issue that resulted in HTTP 404 errors about 10,000 times a day, now occurs just 8 times a day.
  • A search-related problem that used to result in about 3,100 timeouts a day is down to just 600 timeouts a day.

Errors like these have long frustrated educators. At a forum last year, one teacher said she faced 41 error messages over a single two-hour span. Early on, the flaws forced so many educators to input data on nights and weekends that an arbitrator required the city to pay $38 million in overtime.

The system has contributed to another major problem: SESIS’s inability to communicate with various city databases means officials don’t know exactly how many students don’t receive mandated special education services.

The city is investing millions of dollars in staff and upgrades that officials have said will help solve some of these longstanding problems. In a statement, education department spokeswoman Toya Holness said the city was “working to implement these changes as quickly as possible,” though she did not provide an exact timeline for upgrades.

The city’s efforts are earning some praise, including from the public advocate, who sued the city last year claiming SESIS has caused $356 million in lost Medicaid reimbursements.

“The new assessment and recommendations from the DOE show a clear trajectory towards fixing this broken system, in line with what my office has called for,” Public Advocate Letitia James said in a statement.

Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children, said the report validates the idea that problems with SESIS have persisted for years without being adequately addressed. But the bigger issue, she emphasized, is that many students with disabilities are going without services they need.

“We can’t wait,” Moroff said. “They have to be fixing [SESIS] and fix the service deficiencies in the system at the same time.”

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, at the press conference

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.”

Speaking Out

How do you find the right school when you have a physical disability? These students will tell you

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

For many students, navigating the middle and high school admissions process can be overwhelming because New York City’s choice system allows them to apply to dozens of schools.

But for students with physical disabilities, it can be overwhelming for the opposite reason: Very few schools are completely accessible to them.

A coalition of advocates hope to raise awareness about that gap by hosting a panel discussion and “speak-out” Thursday evening where middle and high school students with physical, vision, and hearing impairments will talk about their experiences making their way through the city’s admissions process.

“A lot of these students end up with really, really limited school options,” said Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children, and who is helping coordinate the event.

In recent months, advocates convinced the city to begin collecting more data to give families a better sense of exactly how accessible each building is, down to its water fountains and cafeteria tables.

“We had schools that are listed as partially accessible, but there’s no accessible bathroom,” Michelle Noris, a member of the Citywide Council on Special Education, told Chalkbeat in March. (Her son has written about his experience navigating the high school admissions process with a disability, and will be one of the student panelists.)

But there is far more work to be done, Moroff said, pointing to a scathing U.S. Department of Justice report which called the city’s accommodations for younger students with physical disabilities “inexcusable.”

“We want others to know about [the issue] and keep the city committed to it and paying attention to it,” Moroff added.

The student panel discussion and speak-out — where members of the general public are invited to share their own stories — is being organized by two advocacy groups, Action for Reform in Special Education (ARISE) and Parents for Inclusive Education. It will take place Thursday from 5-7 p.m. at the Manhattan School for Children. For more information, click here.