Evaluation delays leave some students with disabilities waiting for help

Amelia Barrett first asked the city to determine whether her daughter Amira had special needs two years ago, after the girl’s pre-kindergarten teachers said she seemed aloof and was easily distracted in class. She got no response.

The next year, she enrolled Amira in kindergarten at a charter school. She filed another evaluation request with the city, since it also is responsible for screening charter-school students. Again, nothing.

This year, the attention and behavior problems grew worse. Amira would kick the chair of the classmate seated in front of her or wander over to her teacher’s desk, and every week she had to visit the school social worker with a group of students that Barrett calls the “Dennis the Menace” crew. Barrett faxed in yet another request, and again she heard nothing.

Finally, she contacted the nonprofit Advocates for Children, which flagged her case for the education department in February. Amira finally was evaluated the next month — two years after Barrett’s first request.

“Two years in the life of a six-year-old is a third of her life,” said Maggie Moroff, Advocates for Children’s special education policy coordinator.

An education department spokesman said that while privacy laws prevent the agency from commenting on individual cases, it is committed to making sure all students get the help they need. But Moroff said the city had fumbled Barrett’s case.

“This is a parent who did everything right,” she said. “And it just wasn’t happening.”

Such delays in evaluating students are a persistent problem for New York City, where more than 170,000 students have some sort of disability and evaluators are often stretched thin.

The state requires students who are thought to have special needs to be screened within 60 days of a parent’s giving consent. The city says its expensive but glitchy student-data system cannot accurately track how often those evaluations get delayed, but a state report found that evaluations for one in five pre-K students, and one in 10 students in kindergarten through high school, missed that deadline during the 2013-14 school year. About one in six charter school students waited longer than the legal limit for a screening, according to a survey of 100 schools by the New York City Charter School Center.

Top officials at the city’s education department acknowledge the problem. Last week, Chancellor Carmen Fariña called it her “personal goal” for the city to conduct the screenings and create personal learning plans for students with disabilities within the legal timeline. The city is also planning to add three-dozen teams of school psychologists and social workers to screen school-age and pre-kindergarten students next year, and to upgrade its data system to record the percentage of evaluations that are conducted on time.

The moves come after pressure from advocates and charter schools, who say they are hopeful about the changes.

Hiring more screeners “is probably the one biggest lever we can pull as a city to drive down these numbers,” said Dixon Deutch, vice president of the Special Education Collaborative, an initiative of the Charter Center, which joined with City Council members and other groups to successfully press for the additional funding in next year’s budget.

Amelia Barrett submitted multiple requests to the city for a special-education evaluation for her daughter, who was only screened after an advocacy group intervened. (Patrick Wall)

The compliance challenge facing school officials every year is immense. According to a 2008 report by the state comptroller, the city education department receives more than 100,000 requests each year for initial screenings, reevaluations, and reviews of students’ learning plans.

Evaluation teams conducting first screenings gauge students’ intellectual and social skills through tests and classroom observations, while also delving into their backgrounds through parent conversations. If they conclude that a student has a disability, then they meet with the parents to craft a personal learning plan, known as an IEP. Much of that work falls on school psychologists, who often serve multiple schools and have other duties in addition to evaluations.

A psychologist who serves three schools that share a building in Manhattan said she worked on about 140 separate screenings this year. A single first-time screening requires cognitive tests that can take several hours to administer and score, classroom observations, a review of a student’s records, and writing a detailed report, she said. Scheduling and conducting the IEP meetings eats up even more time.

As a result, she estimated that up to a quarter of her evaluations exceeded the legal time limit.

“In order to meet a 60-day limit, you’d have to take work home every night and work into the evening,” said the psychologist, who requested anonymity in order to speak freely about the challenges of her job. “And that’s what a lot of people do.”

Following a 1979 class-action lawsuit, a federal court has repeatedly ordered the city to comply with laws requiring it to screen students for disabilities and provide them services in a timely manner. The city must also report on its compliance.

In 2011, schools began using an online system to track special-education student data called SESIS, which the city spent at least $67 million to develop. But the system still cannot accurately depict the percentage of students who had their initial screening within the required 60-day period, according to education department spokesman Harry Hartfield.

“I’m shocked they aren’t able to do that,” said Deutch, the charter school special-education advocate.

That data will be available next year, though. The City Council passed a bill in March that forces the education department to produce annual special-education reports that will include the number of screenings that hit or miss the legal deadline. The first report is due next February.

“As we work to expand our data systems,” Hartfield said in a statement, “we plan to release information publicly around IEP completion rates and to work to comply with the recently passed local law.”

The department is hoping to do more than just report its rates — it’s also aiming to improve them.

The city currently has 720 teams of psychologists and social workers who screen students in district schools for disabilities, according to the city, and another 34 teams to evaluate charter school students, according to the Charter Center. A $7.5 million boost in next year’s city budget will pay for 30 extra teams to serve both district and charter schools. (The City Council had pushed for funding for 50 extra teams.)

Meanwhile, the city’s pre-kindergarten expansion means an influx of students who may require special-education screenings. To keep up with the demand, another $5 million in the budget will pay for six extra teams to evaluate those students, according to the City Council.

At the same time, Chancellor Fariña is calling on schools to kickstart the initial screening process as soon as the academic year begins, holding required parent meetings in September and October. The city has gotten better at evaluating students on schedule so they can get learning plans and extra help right away, but it still “has a long way to go,” Fariña told reporters last week.

“When I write my own, personal goals,” she said, “that’s certainly one of them.”