Unable to suggest other schools, teachers left with special ed reform dilemma

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others thinking and writing about public education.

In February, I sat down with a new student I’ll call Diego, a 15-year old boy who had just moved to New York City from a Spanish-speaking country. He came to my school, New Design Middle School in West Harlem, clutching a paper from Department of Education district representative.

The document said he should receive additional small-group support once per day with students who have special needs. It was based on evaluation written in his home country seven years ago.

My intermediate Spanish was the best the special education department at our school had to offer, so I talked to Diego about his previous school experiences as conflicting thoughts went through my head. It quickly became clear that he had missed years of schooling and could scarcely read in Spanish. He also spoke no English.

As my school’s special education coordinator, I knew the language supports at our school were geared toward students with more advanced English. I knew we were already struggling to integrate the many new students who had joined us since the start of the school year. I knew there were seats open in a bilingual special education program at a school down the road. But, as we do each time the district sends us a new student, we enrolled Diego, even knowing other schools were more equipped to meet his needs.

It wasn’t a choice. We were complying with special education reforms rolled out citywide in 2012, which require city schools to accommodate the needs of any student with permission to enroll, unless that student has a very specialized program. We can’t even suggest that a student look at other schools.

Given that students with special needs have a history of being isolated and denied the educational opportunities their peers receive, I think this is an important policy with many benefits. But I’m also concerned that the policy has schools like mine constantly scrambling to support the needs of new students who might be better served by different schools. 

It’s not that my colleagues and I don’t want to teach Diego. He’s a lovely person—sweet, patient, forgiving, and works well with everyone. We’ve given him learning materials and teacher support; we even hired a bilingual para-professional for him to ensure that he gets additional help. But while we’ve made arrangements to support him to the best of our ability, as is our responsibility with every new student, he deserves something our school just can’t offer midway through the school year due to funding and staffing: a highly-trained bilingual professional with experience helping students with special needs learn a new language and learn how to read and write.

I could tell many variations on Diego’s story. In a school of approximately 300 students, we have had 20 new students with Individualized Education Programs enroll at our school since the school year began. Ten have come in 2014 alone. A new student enrolled last week. Three of the students who came in the middle of the year were slated for highly restrictive Special Education schools, known as District 75 schools, but administrative complications and legal forms left uncompleted by other schools put the kids in limbo.

Constantly integrating new students makes it harder for us to create the kind of environment we know is important for all students to be successful. Middle school students – especially many with special needs – thrive in environments with consistency. Classroom cultures take months to establish. Counseling groups develop trust with time and through deepening relationships. Speech providers work with small groups of students with comparable needs together throughout a year. So why must we have the most upheaval in our classes that need the most consistency?

On some level, it’s inevitable that the populations of public schools will change throughout the year. Kids enter the system or change schools all the time for many reasons, including when they move or lose homes because their parents’ employment situations change or family dynamics shift. It would be foolish for me to expect that the group I begin with at the beginning of the year will be the same by the end. But it’s one thing to integrate a student whose needs we’re already equipped to meet, and another to try to meet needs we hadn’t accounted for at the beginning of the year.

As a special education team, it feels like we’re constantly scrambling. By the time I know which students can sit together, who struggles to grasp the main idea, and who needs reminders to stay focused, a new child joins the group. Some integrate fairly easily, while others struggle to adapt to new classmates and teachers; all need support acclimating to the new environment that inevitably draws teachers’ time away from long-term work and planning for other students. A child is not a fire to put out, but it can feel that way.

I understand why schools are required to accept new students with a wide range of needs. But I can’t help wondering if we’re actually helping the kids the policy is designed to support.

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About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.