First Person

Special Education: Initiative or Inertia?

Last July, the New York City Department of Education released an in-house memo of recommendations to improve services to students with disabilities.  So, in the midst of an election campaign and with little previous administration attention paid to this population, it seems fair to ask, “Hey, Mike!  Why special ed? Why now?”  Does this new initiative suggest commitment to change or is it a political document meant to convey progress rather than institutional inertia?

The DOE memo, if implemented, would improve instruction, graduation, and career possibilities for the city’s approximately 130,000 students with IEPs, the “individualized education programs” that federal law mandates for students with disabilities.  But DOE commitment to these recommendations is uncertain since the report reads less like a trusted expert’s focused analysis and more like an aide’s synthesis of progressive positions with an eye to mayoral politics.

The progressive perspective is at least in part represented by “Educate! Include! Respect!,” an April 2009 report by the ARISE Coalition, a broad coalition of parents, educators, and advocates brought together by Advocates for Children of New York.  I am a member of ARISE but the opinions expressed here are my own.  ARISE calls for 15 specific “action items,” citing recommendations of many other recent reports.  Two of these predecessor works are especially notable since they, like the DOE memo, were commissioned by Chancellor Klein: a 2005 “Comprehensive Management Review and Evaluation” by Thomas Hehir and a 2008 report by the Council of Great City Schools.  The CGCS study specifically addressed issues in District 75, the “Citywide Special Education” district that serves students with the most serious handicaps.  So far, however, none of these studies seem have gained traction with the Mayor or Chancellor, whose leadership is vital if the long-standing problems of special education detailed by ARISE, Hehir, and CGCS are to be remedied.

While the above documents describe a series of possible reforms to address this poorly-served population, I deviate from their common wisdom in two important respects.  The first is the recommendation (and, so far, the only one implemented by the Chancellor) for a cabinet-level special education post.  The second is the continued existence of District 75.

The DOE memo states that both Hehir and CGCS recommend “a direct report to the Chancellor.”  While acknowledging arguments to the contrary, it arrives at the same conclusion which seems tacitly accepted by ARISE’s response to the memo.  This position is wrong as a general organizational strategy and, particularly, in the closed circle of current DOE decision-making.

Special education is a continuum within the broad spectrum of public school instruction.  This is not only promoted by federal requirements providing special needs students with mainstreaming opportunities in the “least restrictive environment” but by recognition that many students with disabilities spend only part of their day receiving special instruction, often in a mainstream class, and others receive only incidental special education services such as testing accommodations and related services (speech therapy, physical therapy, and the like) without ever being materially separated from their “gen. ed.” classmates.

To separate these and other students with and without IEPs from the responsibility of all top DOE managers is to continue the marginalization of these students and their parents.  This is particularly the case under Chancellor Klein who grants disproportionate power to a few intimates.  In that environment, a Deputy Chancellor-level advocate for Special Education and English Language Learners (hardly a felicitous combination except in the mind of someone with but superficial knowledge of either) is likely to be political window dressing rather than a real driver of institutional change.

Similarly expedient is the reports’ uniform recommendation to maintain District 75.  Dismantling the District is the third rail of special education politics since, though long a segregated instructional mediocrity, parents fear disaster if their severely handicapped children become the responsibility of larger organizational structures.  And those structures – non-District 75 schools, community school districts, and the Department as a whole – have historically shunned responsibility for these students, by definition those most difficult to educate.

But the time has come to break with this obvious failure and the insidious institutional culture that breeds it.  By every measure, District 75 lags not just because its students have special needs but because it has been treated as an educational backwater, rife with income and racial bias.  Wealthier parents, usually White, frequently opt out of District 75 schools through their ability to secure private placements for their children, often at public expense.  Notable is the following chart, adapted from the CGCS study at p. 72, showing widespread racial disparities, particularly the disproportionate number of Black and Hispanic students labeled with the highly subjective designation “emotionally disturbed” (CGCS does not break down its data for Asian, Native American, or Pacific Islander students):picture-16

These students are the least likely to graduate, are subject to high rates of suspension despite legal protections, and are the most likely to drop out.  Even their egregiously low levels of performance are probably inflated by DOE graduation data that has incorrectly counted so-called IEP diplomas as exit credentials and, as detailed by the Public Advocate, the failure to count as drop outs large numbers of disabled students who prematurely leave school.

While report after report emphasizes District 75’s poor record of performance and the failure of the present administration to bring it into the mainstream of reform efforts, each succumbs to the politically popular notion that District 75 should remain apart.  But as most clearly and prominently noted by the CGCS report, the only one which specifically studied that District and its students’ needs, the DOE must “reform and integrate the currently bifurcated system of services for students with disabilities into a universal and seamless design.”  Amen to that.  Parents need to be reassured that inclusion in the mainstream structure will strengthen, not diminish, their children’s instructional and career futures.

This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to addressing the ills of special education in New York’s public schools.  In addition to chronic problems of timely, appropriate evaluation and placement and below-par services, reports are surfacing of changed IEPs in small schools, failure to hire required related service providers under the current job freeze, the absence of students with disabilities in charter schools, inadequate funding under the DOE’s budget formula, and the instructional vacuity of many Collaborative Team Teaching classrooms.  These and other issues require urgent scrutiny and resolution by the administration.  Educators, advocates, and technocrats have spent years exploring the subject.  Substantive action, not electoral posturing, is now required.

First Person

I’ve been mistaken for the other black male leader at my charter network. Let’s talk about it.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

I was recently invited to a reunion for folks who had worked at the New York City Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It was a privilege for me to have been part of that work, and it was a privilege for me to be in that room reflecting on our legacy.

The counterweight is that only four people in the room were black males. Two were waiters, and I was one of the remaining two. There were definitely more than two black men who were part of the work that took place in New York City during that era, but it was still striking how few were present.

The event pushed me to reflect again on the jarring impact of the power dynamics that determine who gets to make decisions in so-called education reform. The privileged end up being relatively few, and even fewer look like the kids we serve.

I’m now the chief operating officer at YES Prep, a charter school network in Houston. When I arrived at YES four years ago, I had been warned that it was a good old boys club. Specifically, that it was a good old white boys club. It was something I assessed in taking the role: Would my voice be heard? Would I truly have a seat at the table? Would I have any influence?

As a man born into this world with a black father and white mother, I struggled at an early age with questions about identity and have been asking those questions ever since.

As I became an adult, I came to understand that being from the suburbs, going to good schools, and being a lighter-skinned black person affords me greater access to many settings in America. At the same time, I experience my life as a black man.

Jeremy Beard, head of schools at YES, started the same day I did. It was the first time YES had black men at the leadership table of the organization. The running joke was that people kept mistaking Jeremy and me for each other. We all laughed about it, but it revealed some deeper issues that had pervaded YES for some time.

“Remember when you led that tour in the Rio Grande Valley to see schools?” a board member asked me about three months into my tenure.“That wasn’t me,” I replied. I knew he meant Jeremy, who had worked at IDEA in the Valley. At that time, I had never been to the Valley and didn’t even know where it was on the map.

“Yes, it was,” he insisted.

“I’ve never been to the Valley. It wasn’t me. I think you mean Jeremy.”

“No, it was you, don’t you remember?” he continued, pleading with me to recall something that never happened.

“It wasn’t me.”

He stopped, thought about it, confused, and uttered, “Huh.”

It is difficult for me to assign intent here, and this dynamic is not consistent with all board members. That particular person may have truly been confused about my identity. And sure, two black men may have a similar skin tone, and we may both work at YES. But my life experience suggests something else was at play. It reminds me that while I have the privilege of sitting at the table with our board, they, as board members, have the privilege of not having to know who I am, or that Jeremy and I are different black dudes.

It would be easy to just chalk this all up to racial politics in America and accept it as status quo, but I believe we can change the conversation on privilege and race by having more conversations on privilege and race. We can change the dynamics of the game by continuing to build awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We can also advocate to change who has seats at the table and whose voices will be heard.

I remain hopeful thanks to the changes I have witnessed during my time at YES. The board has been intentional in their efforts to address their own privilege, and is actively working to become more diverse and inclusive.

Personally, I have worked to ensure there are more people of color with seats at the table by mentoring future leaders of color at YES Prep and other black men in this work. Jeremy and I also created Brothers on Books, a book club for black men at YES to find mentorship and fellowship. Through this book club, we can create a safe space to have candid discussions based on literature we read and explore what it means to be black men at YES.

When I think about privilege, I am torn between the privilege that has been afforded to me and the jarring power dynamics that determine who gets to have conversations and make decisions in so-called education reform. White people are afforded more voices and seats at the table, making decisions that primarily impact children of color.

It is not lost on me that it is my own privilege that affords me access to a seat at the table. My hope is that by using my role, my voice and my privilege, I can open up dialogue, hearts, minds, opinions, and perceptions. I hope that readers are similarly encouraged to assess their own privileges and determine how they can create positive change.

Recy Benjamin Dunn is YES Prep’s chief operating officer, overseeing operations, district partnerships, and growth strategy for the charter school network. A version of this piece was first published on YES Prep’s blog.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.