Newark schools chief Roger León has promised to make many long-needed changes, but perhaps the biggest promise he’s made is to fix the city’s special education program.

Even the most thriving school districts can struggle to serve students with disabilities. Complex districts with many needy students often have it harder — and run up against challenges that can stand in the way of getting those students the services they legally are entitled to. 

Many of those challenges, including having the right staff in place and being able to get children to the schools that can best serve them, have long plagued Newark, where more than 16% of students in the school district require special education services. The district is still being monitored under the 2012 settlement of a class action lawsuit about its handling of special education.

But León says changes are on their way, and he’s amassing a team to tackle those problems. The team includes Carolyn Granato, the special education office’s executive director, who was carried over from the previous administration, and Marilyn Mitchell, who was recently promoted to deputy director of the district’s special education team. 

“[Mitchell] knows that she has a big challenge before her: We will be developing our special ed program like never before,” León said at a school board meeting in August. “Our neediest children need to be taken care of.”

León’s Clarity 2020 plan includes a promise to analyze how often black and Latino students end up in special education classes and to train educators and administrators about how to best work with students with disabilities. León did not offer additional specifics about his plans at the board meeting, and the district did not respond to questions.

Here are five issues León will have to contend with if he’s going to achieve that lofty goal, and what parents and advocates say needs to happen with each. 

Want to discuss special education in Newark? Come to our listening tour event Sept. 21. Details and RSVP here.

 

How students with special needs get to school

The district is reeling from a troubled transition to handling transportation for students with disabilities on its own. Last year, it began managing contracts with transportation providers on its own — and thousands of students ended up stranded on their doorsteps when their school buses failed to pick them up after a November renegotiation.

“Parents had to take off work,” Jenkins said. “It was a big issue.” 

The district has taken steps to smooth transportation this year. Kanileah Anderson’s daughter didn’t get assigned a bus route until the seventh day of school last year, but so far this year her rides to and from school have gone smoothly. “It’s way better than last year,” she said.

Board members learned in August that three transportation providers whose work did not satisfy the district had not had their contracts renewed. The board is also considering a resolution that would reimburse families of students with special needs who are attending private schools for their transportation costs, rather than providing it directly, which could reduce the number of students requiring bus routes. But the real test will come as the year wears on and the district continues to refine bus routes and contracts. 

 

Which students are getting services, and in what settings

The trend in many districts has been to move students out of classrooms with only special education students, or self-contained classrooms, and into classrooms with some students without disabilities, or inclusion classrooms. That’s in keeping with research about what’s best for children and in compliance with a federal mandate that students participate in the “least restrictive environment” that’s appropriate for them.

In the superintendent’s report from March 2016, challenges in special education for the district included inadequate inclusive opportunities — more than half of special education students are in self-contained classrooms. And León and advocates alike have expressed concerns more recently about whether students are warehoused in special education classes when they could be in less restrictive environments.

At the August board meeting, León lamented what he said was an overrepresentation of black boys in special education — a trend that is common across the country – and vowed to make changes. 

Debra Jennings, an executive co-director at Newark’s Statewide Parent Advocacy Network, said this remains a top issue for the district to contend with.

“Once you’re in, you’re in forever,” she said about special education in Newark. “These programs are created, and then there’s more of an emphasis of putting children into these programs than figuring out a transition out of these programs and making them more inclusive. If you build it, they will come — it’s built, and they need students in order to keep the program going.”

 

Which schools are serving students with disabilities

The Newark district that León controls serves only about 65% of the city’s students. The rest go to private schools or privately managed, publicly funded charter schools that are also legally required to meet the needs of their students with disabilities but do not face the same oversight from León’s team as district schools. 

The city’s charter schools have historically served relatively few students with disabilities, who made up 10% of their total enrollment in the 2015-16 school year, compared to 16% that year for district-run schools. Despite the enactment of a universal enrollment system since then, Newark’s district schools continue to serve the majority of students with disabilities in the area.

For Newark charter schools to increase their share of students with disabilities, they will need to offer a full range of services and make sure parents know they offer them, so they apply. They will also need to convince families that their schools are good places for students with disabilities. Historically, local charter schools have suspended students with disabilities at a high rate — a dynamic that drew a formal complaint last year against North Star Academy that charged that the school had suspended 29 percent of its students with disabilities.

Elizabeth Athos, a staff attorney at the Education Law Center of New Jersey, says she gets regular calls from local charter school parents who say their children are not receiving the help they need. And Saafir Jenkins, president of the Newark Special Education Parents Advocacy Council, said he, too, hears complaints from parents about charter schools.

“According to the law, you have to bring those services to the students,” Jenkins said. “There are cases where students are accepted and the school attempts to provide services, but then they aggressively try to take those services away each year.”

A group working with local charter schools says it has coached them to serve students with disabilities better. But in an October 2018 blog post, the director of the New Jersey Special Education Collaborative at the time said there was much more to do.

“As members become more effective compliance managers, the focus of the Collaborative is shifting to service quality,” wrote Mark Rynone, who has since left the organization. “How can charters build capacity and systems to serve students of all ability levels and not just those who require the least support and services?” 

 

Whether services are being provided — and on what timetable

Newark has a long history of struggling to provide students with the services they need — and even to assess their needs in the first place. A class action lawsuit filed in 2009 and settled in 2012 accused the district and state education department of not evaluating students for special education or providing services in a timely manner. As part of the settlement’s terms, the district agreed to evaluate and begin serving students more quickly to award “compensatory education” services to students who see a delay in getting needed support.

But many of those challenges have persisted. A superintendent’s report from March 2016 said the district was implementing IEPs inconsistently, sometimes taking longer than the 90-day limit outlined in the law. And parents continue to complain that their children do not receive required services quickly or consistently.

Van Ness Roper said he moved his son Jahad, who has a learning disability, to a charter school after his district school said it could not provide the services he needed. After Roper filed a formal complaint, a judge ruled that the district needed to provide extra tutoring to his son.

“Special education kids are sitting up in these classrooms and doing nothing,” Roper said. “These services need to be in place.”

Staffing issues play a role. Anderson said her daughter’s special education classroom was staffed last year by an inexperienced long-term substitute teacher, not someone with deep expertise in working with students with disabilities.

“Those are the things that need to be looked at with a microscope,” she said.

Roper said he is driven in part because he received special education services while enrolled at Newark Public Schools himself.

“The district is telling parents the services I’m talking about [having received] are not needed,” he said. “But if I didn’t have those services, I wouldn’t be able to articulate to you right now what things need to change.”

 

Students’ trauma and lead exposure

Any efforts to improve special education could face roadblocks as Newark students who have been exposed to lead in their homes and schools begin to reckon with the possible fallout. Lead poisoning can pose health problems and affect student performance in school — but research says those effects can be mitigated with early intervention.

“I’m interested in what they’re doing to screen for students who have been poisoned in their community. Many of those kids will end up being eligible for special education,” said Athos. “There needs to be an affirmative effort trying to identify kids at an early stage.”

León has assured families that school water fixtures are safe, but the city is grappling with an ongoing lead crisis, and it’s unclear when the last time schools have been checked for lead in their water. 

Another big issue, according to Shayvonne Anderson, a board member who is also the parent of a child who receives special education services, is that students who have experienced trauma are too often being treated as though they have emotional or behavioral disabilities.

“Trauma is just so prevalent here in Newark,” she said. “When kids are labelled emotionally disturbed or combative, a lot of it is what they’ve experienced. They’ve had some traumatic experience that triggered something to happen in them for those behaviors to come about.”

“We’re doing children a disservice if they don’t have the right diagnosis and we’re trying to treat them,” she added. “The reason why we’re seeing that children are not doing better is because they’re not targeting the right thing.”