Newark schools continue to face challenges in serving students with disabilities, but changes are underway, a district official told parents and advocates.

More than half of the district’s students with special needs are still secluded in self-contained classrooms, and black males are being disproportionately referred to special education classes, said Marilyn Mitchell, the district’s new deputy director of the Office of Special Education.

Speaking last week at a meeting of the Newark Special Education Parent Advisory Council, Mitchell said the district is addressing the problems. For instance, teachers will get more district training in special education, and a district committee will review referrals to the special education program.

Mitchell also highlighted an area of progress: New data show that requests to evaluate students for special education classes are being processed more quickly.

The Newark Public Schools district is still being monitored under the 2012 settlement of a class action lawsuit that 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. Mitchell said that twice a year, a monitor comes in to make sure the district is following state standards.

A superintendent’s report from March 2016 said the district was still struggling with implementing programs that spell out special accommodations for students who need them. Known as IEPs, or individualized education programs, the district sometimes takes longer than the 90-day limit outlined by federal law.

According to the special education department, last school year, 98% of requests to evaluate students for disabilities were processed within 20 days. During the same year, 94% of evaluations were conducted within 90 days. These numbers did not incorporate students who transferred to the district midyear.

Mitchell acknowledged that getting the special programs into the hands of all teachers has been a challenge. At the start of the school year, teachers outside of the special education program did not have access to those plans and had to request access from other staff members.

Another long-standing difficulty for the district has been meeting the federal requirement to place students with disabilities in classes alongside their non-disabled peers. Placing students in “inclusive” classrooms whenever appropriate is backed by research on how students learn best. However, fewer than half of Newark students with disabilities were in inclusive classrooms last year, according to the district. In 2017, 15% of special education students statewide were in self-contained classrooms.

Mitchell also updated parents and advocates on the special education department’s priorities for the school year, which will include improving teacher retention and decreasing the disproportionate number of black and Latino students in special education. The district plan, Clarity 2020, promises to help by analyzing data about those students. 

“Everything the [department] does is wrapped around ‘Clarity 2020,’” Mitchell said.

At the August board meeting, Superintendent Roger 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. Black students comprise 50% of district’s special education population and 43% of the district’s total student enrollment. 

On Thursday, Mitchell said preschool students were also disproportionately classified. 

One of the reasons black students might be referred more often is because their behavior is frequently interpreted by teachers as stemming from a behavioral disability.

To combat that this year, Mitchell said that all referrals for behavioral disabilities will first be reviewed by a behavioral referral review committee from her department. However, she didn’t say how other classification referrals would be handled.

In line with another promise from the district plan to train educators and administrators about how to best work with students with disabilities, she said that all teachers would be offered extra training, and classroom aide training will occur throughout the year, with an emphasis on aides serving the behavioral disability and autism programs.

Debra Jennings, an executive co-director at Newark’s Statewide Parent Advocacy Network, said that training for teachers who work outside of special education will be key to decreasing overrepresentation.

“For behavioral disabilities, those referrals are coming from general education teachers, typically,” she said. “So giving those teachers the right tools and having to document their processes for referral is really a critical piece to helping schools.”

Additionally, teacher retention will be a priority for the special education department this year.

“Special education is one of the hardest areas to find teachers and retain them,” Mitchell said. “If we hire 100 teachers, we want to keep at least 90 of them.”

Parents and advocates have complained that because of vacancies in special education, some classes are under the control of long-term substitute teachers who have little experience with students with disabilities.

“The strategies they’re undertaking make a lot of sense to me,” Jennings said. “I’m optimistic.”