Few details yet from Fariña on special education's major issues

When Chancellor Carmen Fariña took the podium at a conference Saturday for families of children with disabilities, many parents were eager to learn how she planned to steer the city’s special education overhaul, which is dramatically changing how students with special needs are assigned to schools.

But Fariña didn’t talk about the reforms, or the concerns that not all schools can meet students’ needs. She also didn’t mention a glitchy data system for tracking students with special needs or describe how she will try to narrow the nearly 30-point graduation rate gap between students with disabilities and those without. And she barely addressed the experience of students with special needs as the city continues its transition to the Common Core standards.

Instead, Fariña briefly shared her own experience working with students with disabilities and repeated some general messages she has made before, leaving parents and advocates wondering when they will hear a more detailed vision for special education from the Department of Education’s new administration.

“I haven’t heard them say anything, I really haven’t,” said Ronique Anderson, whose high school-aged son, Khaleel, sits on a citywide special education council. The citywide conference was a good first step, Anderson said, “but for the most part, [students with disabilities] have been forgotten.”

During her first 100 days as chancellor, Fariña’s most vocal statements about special education have been tangled up in the city’s charter school co-location debate, when she emphasized that space-sharing should not adversely affect schools for students with disabilities. In her frequent public statements about her broader vision, she has rarely focused on special education.

The most significant clue about her plans is that she held on to Corinne Rello-Anselmi, the deputy chancellor who was steering the special education reforms under the Bloomberg administration. The continuity suggests that Fariña plans to stay the course on the reforms, which are aimed at integrating students with disabilities into all city schools.

When Fariña became chancellor, she immediately expressed support for the reforms, Rello-Anselmi said in an interview Saturday. “That was the first thing she said to me: ‘I’m here to make this really happen.'”

The chancellor signaled her support for that goal during the conference Saturday at the High School of Art and Design in Manhattan, when she described a program that she helped develop as superintendent to support students with autism who are in general education classrooms.

Fariña also emphasized that she believes that students with disabilities can rise to the Common Core standards, which are proving a challenge for all students. She said that when she worked as an education consultant before becoming chancellor, she modeled instruction at a Brooklyn school by teaching social studies lessons to students with disabilities.

“That program showed me how much kids can learn content, Common Core-based, as long as you’re willing to go the extra mile and do your teaching in a different way,” Fariña told the 350 attendees at the conference.

Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña spoke at the conference, but did not announced any new policies or lay out her vision for special education. (Patrick Wall)

But some families and advocates are concerned that the city’s special education changes have left some students in general education classrooms where their individual needs are not being met.

Christine Engler, the mother of a student with special needs at Art and Design, said Fariña’s remarks did not convince her that the chancellor is aware of challenges with the overhaul.

“I’m taking her with a grain of salt,” Engler said. “Her actions [so far] haven’t proven a lot to me.”

The new administration’s steep challenge is to ensure that neighborhood schools and general education teachers have the resources and training to serve students with disabilities, said Kim Sweet, executive director of the group Advocates for Children of New York.

“It’s one thing to change where kids go to school,” she said. “But it’s an entirely different thing to make sure those schools are prepared to educate all students effectively.”

Several people said Fariña had set a favorable tone with parents, but that her administration could still improve the way it communicates with families of students with disabilities. Stacye Zausner, whose child attends Art and Design, said the conference was the first noteworthy example of the new administration reaching out to parents like her.

“This is sort of the first concrete thing that’s happened,” she said.

Lori Podvesker, a policy analyst for the advocacy group Resources for Children with Special Needs, said the education department must do a better job informing parents about special education policies.

“The communication piece is glaring and missing,” said Podvesker, who was appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio to the city’s Panel for Educational Policy.

Fariña left the conference without speaking to reporters. But Rello-Anselmi said the parent conference is just one example of the education department’s special education outreach, which also includes monthly meetings with advocates for students with special needs. As part of its overall push for fuller inclusion of students with disabilities into the larger school system, special education issues are also integrated into most events for families and trainings for educators, Rello-Anselmi added.

As the special education reforms continue, Rello-Anselmi said, the department’s focus is making sure that schools have the resources and teachers have the training to serve students with special needs. She said with more time the changes will result in better outcomes for students with disabilities.

“This is going to take time,” Rello-Anselmi said. “But I think we are on the right trajectory.”