big ideas

A culture shift in special education urged after internal review

Special education advocates are giving early praise to recommendations released today that would transform schools’ approach to students with special needs. The recommendations, which Chancellor Joel Klein endorsed, center on integrating students with special needs into the city’s ongoing school reforms.

Garth Harries, a department official who is starting a new job in New Haven, Conn., on Monday, authored the recommendations following a months-long review of the city’s special education offerings.

Actually implementing the plans will be left to a new top-level administrator who will be responsible for nearly a quarter of the system’s students. Laura Rodriguez, a longtime Bronx educator who currently heads one of the support organizations that principals can choose to join, will become the city’s first Chief Achievement Officer for Special Education and English Language Learners.

Rodriguez will be one of only seven people reporting directly to the chancellor, making the needs of nearly 250,000 disabled students and ELLs “visible and transparent at the cabinet level” for the first time, Klein said.

Maria Santos, the current head of the ELLs office, and whoever is appointed to replace Linda Wernikoff, until this week the city’s top special education administrator, will both report to Rodriguez, whose expertise is in supporting ELLs. Rodriguez’s top deputy, Dov Rokeach, started out as a special education teacher in 1972.

A member of the city’s special education parent advisory group said the pair’s different areas of expertise is worrisome. “That means a division of the workload: Rodriguez gets ELLs, Rokeach gets special ed,” said Ellen McHugh. “She has direct access to the chancellor, he does not.”

A department spokesman, David Cantor, said that the department is also planning to replace Wernikoff, rather than letting Rokeach or others absorb her responsibilities.

Advocates roundly decried Harries’s appointment to review special education earlier this year, saying he lacked the experience to evaluate such a complex system. They were kinder today after Harries privately briefed them on his report. A spokeswoman for a special education advocacy coalition, the ARISE Coalition, said that Harries appears to have taken what he heard during his “listening tours” to heart.

“I’m encouraged by them. It’s clear to me that he listened to everybody, including the advocacy community,” Maggie Moroff said about the recommendations. “There’s not everything I would like to see in there, but there’s a ton.”

The most important elements of the report, Moroff said, are its emphasis on parent engagement and its recognition that children should be grouped according to their needs.

Currently, schools rigidly follow recommendations from students’ educational plans, which make requirements such as having a classroom with 12 students for one teacher and one paraprofessional, or giving a student a certain number of hours of extra help with a special education teacher. Under the new framework, which Moroff called “really, really forward-thinking,” a school might group students more creatively. For instance, it could offer a class for students who all need a certain kind of reading program, Moroff suggested.

The department will collect public comment on the recommendations until Aug. 14, at which point Rodriguez will sort through the responses and then begin carrying out a plan. Some of the recommendations, such as improving the department’s special education Web site, will be relatively quick and easy, Harries said. More substantive changes, such as encouraging teachers to include special education students in general education classes, will take longer to put in place.

Moroff warned that other reports about special education have been released without ever appreciably changing the system. “It doesn’t necessarily go anywhere,” she said about Harries’s report. “If it’s taken to the next level, then he did a really good job.”

Here are the complete recommendations Harries delivered to the chancellor today:

on the run

‘Sex and the City’ star and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon launches bid for N.Y. governor

Cynthia Nixon on Monday announced her long-anticipated run for New York governor.

Actress and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon announced Monday that she’s running for governor of New York, ending months of speculation and launching a campaign that will likely spotlight education.

Nixon, who starred as Miranda in the TV series “Sex and the City,” will face New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in September’s Democratic primary.

Nixon has been active in New York education circles for more than a decade. She served as a  longtime spokeswoman for the Alliance for Quality Education, a union-backed advocacy organization. Though Nixon will step down from that role, according to a campaign spokeswoman, education promises to be a centerpiece of her campaign.

In a campaign kickoff video posted to Twitter, Nixon calls herself “a proud public school graduate, and a prouder public school parent.” Nixon has three children.

“I was given chances I just don’t see for most of New York’s kids today,” she says.

Nixon’s advocacy began when her oldest child started school, which was around the same time the recession wreaked havoc on education budgets. She has slammed Gov. Cuomo for his spending on education during his two terms in office, and she has campaigned for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

In 2008, she stepped into an emotional fight on the Upper West Side over a plan to deal with overcrowding and segregation that would have impacted her daughter’s school. In a video of brief remarks during a public meeting where the plan was discussed, Nixon is shouted down as she claims the proposal would lead to a “de facto segregated” school building.

Nixon faces steep competition in her first run for office. She is up against an incumbent governor who has amassed a $30 million war chest, according to the New York Times. If elected, she would be the first woman and the first openly gay governor in the state.

cooling off

New York City charter leader Eva Moskowitz says Betsy DeVos is not ‘ready for prime time’

PHOTO: Chalkbeat
Success Academy CEO and founder Eva Moskowitz seemed to be cooling her support for U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

In New York City, Eva Moskowitz has been a lone voice of support for the controversial U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. But even Moskowitz appears to be cooling on the secretary following an embarrassing interview.

“I believe her heart is in the right place,” Moskowitz, founder and CEO of Success Academy, said of DeVos at an unrelated press conference. “But as the recent interviews indicate, I don’t believe she’s ready for primetime in terms of answering all of the complex questions that need to be answered on the topic of public education and choice.”

That is an apparent reference to DeVos’s roundly criticized appearance on 60 Minutes, which recently aired a 30-minute segment in which the secretary admits she hasn’t visited struggling schools in her tenure. Even advocates of school choice, DeVos’s signature issue, called her performance an “embarrassment,” and “Saturday Night Live” poked fun at her.  

Moskowitz’s comments are an about-face from when the education secretary was first appointed. While the rest of the New York City charter school community was mostly quiet after DeVos was tapped for the position, Moskowitz was the exception, tweeting that she was “thrilled.” She doubled-down on her support months later in an interview with Chalkbeat.

“I believe that education reform has to be a bipartisan issue,” she said.

During Monday’s press conference, which Success Academy officials called to push the city for more space for its growing network, Moskowitz also denied rumors, fueled by a tweet from AFT President Randi Weingarten, that Success officials had recently met with members of the Trump administration.

Shortly after the election, Moskowitz met with Trump amid speculation she was being considered for the education secretary position. This time around, she said it was “untrue” that any visits had taken place.

“You all know that a while back, I was asked to meet with the president-elect. I thought it was important to take his call,” she said. “I was troubled at the time by the Trump administration. I’m even more troubled now. And so, there has been no such meeting.”