New York City schools Chancellor David Banks laid out his first comprehensive plan Thursday for improving special education in the nation’s largest school system, pledging a $205 million investment to expand several popular programs for students with disabilities and creating an advisory council to drive future reforms.
Nearly 200,000 students with disabilities receive legally mandated special education services in city schools – and their academic outcomes continue to lag, with just 58% of students with disabilities graduating within four years in the most recent cohort, compared to 88% of students without disabilities, according to state data.
Families of students with disabilities have for years described an opaque and complex system that makes it difficult to obtain appropriate support for their kids – driving many to seek placements at specialized private schools that can better meet their students’ needs. The education department spent more than $1 billion last year covering private school costs for roughly 10,000 students, officials said at a recent City Council hearing.
Reforming the massive and tangled special education system has proved a thorny challenge for past mayors and chancellors, but education department officials committed Thursday to making systemic changes.
“Our system has not fully delivered on our commitment to” students with disabilities, Banks said. “We need to transform our systems and approaches to achieve the goal of a truly inclusive public school system.”
Christina Foti, the education department’s chief of special education, acknowledged that “the work is just beginning, and we need to deliver on the recommendations that are coming out of the advisory … it is hard to do systemic work.”
NYC will expand programs like ASD Nest, Horizon
Banks’ plan has two main components: expanding several existing programs that have shown promise and convening an advisory council to direct more long-term changes.
Two popular and well-established programs, ASD Nest and Horizon — which are both geared towards kids on the autism spectrum — grew from a total 103 sites last year to 118 this year, officials said. Nest programs place students with autism who are performing at grade level in courses integrated with general education peers, while Horizon programs provide smaller, self-contained settings for eight students and two adults.
The Sensory Exploration, Education and Discovery (SEED) program, which emerged during the pandemic as part of the city’s plan to help students with disabilities recover lost services and provides therapeutic environments for kids with sensory needs, will grow from 10 sites last year to 80 by the end of this school year, spanning all of the city’s 32 geographic districts.
The SEED program was popular with families who participated last year, but struggled to attract as many students as the education department expected, in part because many families that qualified faced long travel times.
A fourth program — called Path — that seeks to integrate young kids with severe behavioral or emotional needs into classes with general education students is also growing from a pilot phase last year to seven classrooms across six schools by the end of this year.
Students classified as having significant emotional disabilities — who are disproportionately Black and low-income — are often funneled into separate programs in the city’s specialized District 75 schools, and face dire academic and behavioral outcomes. The Path program is an effort to divert young kids with behavioral disabilities from District 75 placements.
Officials didn’t immediately say where the $205 million to fund the expansion is coming from, and whether any is drawn from one-time federal relief money.
Education department officials didn’t immediately say how many students will be served across all of the programs undergoing expansions, but it’s likely only a fraction of the 192,000 students citywide who received special education services last year, according to education department numbers.
New advisory council charged with finding long-term fixes
For broader recommendations on shifting the entire special education system, Banks said he’s leaning on a new advisory council that will be composed of parents, advocates, educators, students, community members, and academics.
The council will include about 40 members, but will be divided into subcommittees to tackle specific aspects of the system like curriculum and instruction, integrating students with disabilities into general education courses, and improving the city’s backlogged system for parents filing legal complaints, said Deputy Chancellor Carolyne Quintana.
Banks said the council’s goal is to create a set of “meaningful recommendations” by the end of the school year.
It remains to be seen how many of those will ultimately be adopted. The education department has a long track record of convening advisory panels for hot-button issues, such as school diversity and funding, and a mixed record of enacting their proposals.
Still, some advocates and newly appointed council members say they’re looking forward to having an official voice in the education department’s planning for the future of special education.
Maggie Moroff, the special education policy coordinator at Advocates for Children and a member of the new council, said she was “really excited that there were going to be parents involved in this in a real way.”
“We’ll see how it rolls out,” she added. “I’m hoping that the council can guide the direction that the council takes, rather than the DOE guiding us.”
Thursday’s announcement is Banks’ biggest public foray into special education since taking office last January. He previously announced two new dedicated programs for students with dyslexia and expanded screenings for students struggling to read. Banks also angered some families with recent comments suggesting that some families had figured out how to “game this system” by seeking public reimbursement for specialized private schools.
He said Thursday the education department is continuing to “pay exorbitant numbers for folks to go other places,” but that he hopes the reforms can help retain more families in public schools.
One thorny challenge the advisory council will take on is finding ways for more students with disabilities to be included in mainstream settings, officials said.
That could mean reforming District 75, the sprawling network of separate, specialized public schools that serve roughly 26,000 students with significant disabilities. Students in District 75 often need highly specialized support, and are often completely walled off from general education students, even when their schools share buildings.
“The vision and goal has always been to have more of an integrated experience,” said Foti. “The challenge has also always been infusing the resources and supports they need in the district schools.”
Correction: This story initially said the plan’s price tag was $215 million. It is $205 million.
Michael Elsen-Rooney is a reporter for Chalkbeat New York, covering NYC public schools. Contact Michael at firstname.lastname@example.org.