‘My son is suffering’: Newark parents say students with disabilities need more support

A boy with a blue backpack runs across the street in front of a school building in Newark.
Newark students with disabilities need more support and services to recover from pandemic disruptions, parents say. (Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat)

Many nights, Lisa Flores finds herself staying up late and worrying that her 7-year-old son is falling behind in school. Eli, a Dr. William H. Horton Elementary School second grader, has a speech delay and qualifies for services for students with disabilities.

According to his individualized education program, or IEP, Eli is supposed to receive 30-minute speech therapy sessions twice a week. But last year he didn’t receive any, Flores said. 

Eli’s sessions started again this fall after the district hired six new speech language specialists, but his progress has been slow, his mother said.

“I know that the district struggled and I was even empathetic with them and I thought, well, maybe they just had a hard time finding someone after COVID,” Flores said. “But my son is suffering academically, like his performance levels are the same as when he started in kindergarten.”

During the pandemic, students with disabilities were entitled to all of the services they would usually receive but some missed out on specialized instruction or therapies that were difficult to provide during remote learning or as staff was stretched thin. 

As national education experts analyze the pandemic’s impact on students, little is known about the academic and social progress of students with disabilities, according to a report from the Center on Reinventing Public Education

But parents and experts say students with disabilities — among those who lost the most ground academically during school shutdowns — may fall even further behind if they don’t get the services they need.

Last month, Newark Superintendent Roger León gave a glimpse into unreleased state spring assessment scores, which showed students with disabilities were the lowest-scoring student population in both reading and math. Only 4% of students with disabilities reached the proficient level in reading while roughly 3% did in math. 

Parents like Flores are pushing for compensatory services, a legal right students in New Jersey and across the country have for making up instruction or services they might have missed during the pandemic. Others are asking for speech therapists and eligibility for services after being away from classrooms during the pandemic. 

Newark public school officials are also tasked with taking corrective action by Nov. 1 after the New Jersey Department of Education found that the district failed to meet six federal responsibilities for students with disabilities. The state found problems with reporting in education plans, notifying parents of meetings, and missing meetings with parents and students with disabilities as part of responsibilities mandated under the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA). 

Marilyn Mitchell, the director of the district’s office of special education, said the district would correct the faults by providing more training to child study team members and correct IEPs for students whose plans were identified as non-compliant by the state.

Families want help to recover from the pandemic

Some parents, like Flores, have become full-time advocates for their children by pressing the district for compensatory education. Other parents are scrambling to reach case managers, request evaluations, and ask for revisions to their child’s IEPs to help address learning loss during the pandemic. 

Gwendolyn Booker-Brown is the mother of 11th grade twins with speech delays at Central High School. Like Flores, Booker-Brown has learned to become an involved parent and advocate for her children since they were evaluated for IEPs in the first grade. 

As juniors, her two children will soon transition out of high school but their IEPs don’t include a transition plan, which usually consists of a process to help teens prepare to be young adults, Booker-Brown said. At the beginning of the year, she asked their case manager to include the transition plan, but has not been contacted by LaPrice Weatherington, the district’s special education transition coordinator. 

Booker-Brown was promised an answer to her concerns by December. By then, the mother of two fears, it may be too late. 

“We’re back in the building and I still can’t get a decent IEP. I can’t get it,” said Booker-Brown about her request. “And my son is supposed to get speech but how is he only getting speech therapy quarterly?”

During last month’s Special Education Parent Advisory Council meeting, or SEPAC, the district’s special education department unveiled its goals for the 2022-23 school year, which include improved access to the general education program, core content standards, and compliance efforts for students. The office is also looking to hire more paraprofessionals, a special education supervisor at the high school level, and board-certified behavior analysts to support teachers and students with behavioral needs and training. 

Mitchell added that they are working on improving department workflow and providing more support for students with disabilities. She did not comment on compensatory education or make-up services for students.

“Our goal this year is not only to provide related services to students but also to take a look at the quality of the services being provided, assuring that the provision of services is appropriate to the student’s age and the learning needs of each individual student,” said Nicole Ford, supervisor of the district’s related services such as speech and occupational therapy. 

This year, the district has 40 speech-language specialists, three occupational therapists, one physical therapist, and one audiologist working at the school level to provide related services. By law, these services are provided to students with disabilities in addition to primary learning and only if recommended in a student’s IEP.

Parents want questions answered

After two years of learning disruptions, parents want more than promises. They are eager to find solutions to get their children back on track. 

During last month’s SEPAC meeting, some parents stressed the difficulty in reaching case managers and special education staff. 

“When you even come to the school to try and get to the person, they won’t give you the chance to reach the person and talk to them,” said one parent about his daughter during the virtual meeting.

Other parents had questions about getting speech evaluations and starting the process to develop IEPs. 

“We want her to get evaluated in depth. But what is our next step to get her on track to start speaking?” said June Cains about her daughter, Katora, a pre-K student who goes to Chancellor Avenue Elementary. 

This year, the district recruited Jump Ahead Pediatrics and ProCare to provide additional support in occupational, physical, and speech therapy. 

The remainder of the therapists employed are through outside agencies such as Clifton-based KidClan and national provider Stepping Stones Group to help provide physical, occupational, and speech therapists. The district also works with Effective School Solutions to provide counseling in select schools and Rutgers University to help with physical and occupational therapy. 

But as the district works to help students catch up, parents like Flores continue to see the effects of missed services and virtual learning. 

Flores said she filed a complaint to the state office of special education for compensatory education and is currently in the process of requesting her son’s make-up services. She is also dealing with a truancy charge from the district after her son missed 25 days of school last year. The mom of two kept Eli home when he showed COVID-like symptoms.

In the meantime, Flores says she will have to work with her son to get his learning — and confidence — back on track. 

“I know how much better Eli could have been doing if he had more consistent speech therapy,” Flores said. “He’s a lot harder on himself now when he can’t finish his homework or remember what he learned in school that day.”

Jessie Gomez is a reporter for Chalkbeat Newark, covering public education in the city. Contact Jessie at jgomez@chalkbeat.org.

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