Newark residents gathered Saturday to discuss one of the central issues facing the city’s schools: how to improve special education.
Almost 30 parents, educators, and advocates met in the East Ward to share their experiences with special education in Newark and help inform Chalkbeat Newark’s reporting for the upcoming school year.
The event, co-hosted by the Newark Special Education Parent Advisory Council, was part of Chalkbeat’s seven-city “listening tour” happening this summer and fall as local reporters convene public conversations and learn from residents in the communities we serve.
Over lunch, we discussed the current state of special education in both Newark district schools and charter schools. Among our conversation starters: “What does quality special education look like to you?”
Several participants said that begins with students with disabilities receiving a rigorous education that’s adapted to their unique needs. But a quality education also goes beyond the classroom, several people added. Students with disabilities should be able to go on school field trips and participate in after-school programs — activities they’re sometimes excluded from because of a lack of qualified staff to meet their needs, a few people said.
Another major theme was inclusion. A quality special education program means placing students with disabilities in the same classrooms as their non-disabled peers whenever possible, participants said — a demand that also happens to be enshrined in federal law. Inclusion also means giving students with disabilities and their parents a central role in the district’s efforts to improve special education.
“There’s no ‘us versus them,’” one parent said. “It’s all us.”
Another question that we posed to the group: “What are some of the challenges with special education in Newark?”
Some said that not all teachers and classroom aides have been properly trained to serve students with special needs — especially when they’re placed in general-education classrooms. Others added that some schools lack the specialized personnel and other resources that certain students with disabilities require.
Many of the participants said the way students’ special education plans are handled should be more transparent and efficient, and there should be a simpler way for parents to access information about special education.
One parent said she felt like she was in the dark when it came to her child’s plan, known as an IEP, or individualized education program. Some felt schools should do a better job of keeping parents up-to-date. And many participants agreed that parents need more information about what services are available — and what students’ rights are under federal disability law — in order to effectively advocate for their children.
“I think too many parents just go with what they tell them,” one parent said. “They need to be educated on their rights.”
The event was part of Chalkbeat’s effort to make sure our reporting reflects the community’s needs and is informed by families’ experiences within the school system. The feedback we received from the listening tour event will shape our reporting this year as we continue to dig into special education.