in focus

Special-education overhaul leaves students less isolated, but schools struggle to keep up

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Stacey Saunders has seen her son make strides since the city overhauled its approach to special education, but she says she still must fight to make sure he gets the support he needs.

From the moment they met him, the staff at School of the Future were concerned about Joseph.

The incoming sixth-grader had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, another behavioral disorder, and a learning disability, which became apparent last year when they interviewed him and reviewed his academic records.

The educators at the public school in Gramercy Park are known for their prowess at integrating students with disabilities into general-education classes, and at first they tried that approach with Joseph. They placed him in a mixed class with typical and disabled students headed by two teachers, gave him modified assignments, sent him to small-group reading sessions, and dispatched a seasoned special educator to work with him.

None of it was enough.

Joseph still read at a third-grade level and acted out, sometimes lying on the classroom floor or picking paint chips off the wall while teachers tried in vain to get his attention. He rarely completed assignments and often skipped school.

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Finally, the staff decided that Joseph belonged in a class just for students with disabilities. But the small School of the Future has too few students who require a special-education-only class to justify creating one.

In the past, it would have been easy enough to send Joseph to a middle school with the class he required. But since the city instituted a new set of special-education policies, every school is now expected to meet the needs of all but the most severely disabled students.

Still, a school can’t offer what it doesn’t have.

So beginning in November, Joseph’s parents, an advocate, school-support network officials, and School of the Future staff began lobbying the education department to move Joseph to a school with the class he needed. By the time city officials had combed through the school’s finances and class offerings to determine if it could meet Joseph’s needs, then approved a transfer when it decided the school could not, the school year was almost over.

“The school was very supportive, but its hands were tied,” said Joseph’s mother, Clara, who asked that her last name be withheld because she works for the education department.

Department officials said such transfers are uncommon and rarely take so long to authorize. But while Joseph was waiting for the right school, Clara said, “the child was suffering.”

Over the past four years, the city has overhauled the way it educates nearly one-fifth of its public school students – those with disabilities – a group so large it outnumbers the entire Dallas school district.

Student Disabilities
Graphics by Jessica Glazer

No longer are special-needs students to be bused to distant schools to get the services they need or tucked away in forgotten rooms, the city decided. Instead, most are now expected to enroll at the same schools and learn the same material as their non-disabled peers, and take classes alongside them whenever possible.

Parents and teachers who have watched students languish in special-education classrooms have embraced the city’s new drive toward inclusion, which is backed by research and federal law. The shift honors the potential of students with disabilities and asks every school to play a part in helping them achieve it, proponents say.

But there is little data available about how the new policies have impacted students, even as some critics question whether they are always in students’ best interests. Meanwhile, interviews with more than two-dozen parents, students, educators, and advocates show that the changes have not come easily, with schools scrambling to carry out the new directives, while some students, like Joseph, are left stranded in mid-reform limbo.

“I really believe in the reform and the philosophy behind it,” said Stacy Goldstein, School of the Future’s principal. Still, she added, Joseph’s struggle “is a really good example of cases where students have fallen through the cracks.”

A move toward inclusion

Britt Sady found a spot for her son, Noah, who has Down syndrome, in a mixed general-and-special-education classroom in a neighborhood school.
PHOTO: Courtesy of GiGi's Playhouse
Britt Sady found a spot for her son, Noah, who has Down syndrome, in a mixed general-and-special-education classroom in a neighborhood school.

To Britt Sady, the city’s push for inclusion makes perfect sense.

She has seen the research showing that the more time students with disabilities spend in general-education classrooms, the less often they miss school or act out in class, the higher their test scores, and the better their job prospects.

And yet, integration has hardly been the norm in New York’s public schools. As recently as 2011, students with disabilities across the state spent more school time isolated from their non-disabled peers than in any other state, according to one analysis.

Whatever the cause, students with disabilities lag far behind other children in school. They have graduated at less than half the rate of their non-disabled peers for the past decade, with the gulf at times nearing 40 percentage points. Last year, just over 5 percent of the city’s special-needs students passed the state English exams, compared to over 31 percent of general-education students.

So when Sady met with the local school personnel who would decide the right kindergarten class for her son Noah, who has Down syndrome, she requested an integrated class.

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Noah’s preschool class had just eight students, all with disabilities, so Sady knew a mixed-ability kindergarten class with many more students would not be easy for him. But that was part of the allure. Anticipating the higher expectations of an integrated classroom, she had already started to set higher standards at home (no more skipping the broccoli) and trained him to use a toilet rather than a diaper.

Meanwhile, educators at the public school Sady requested, Castle Bridge in Washington Heights, prepared for the possibility of serving their first student with Down syndrome. They visited other schools that serve such students and invited Noah to sit in on classes.

With the blessing of Castle Bridge’s principal, Julie Zuckerman, the placement team agreed to put Noah in the integrated classroom this fall – an outcome that has become much more likely since the start of the reform.

“I just wept with happiness,” Sady said. “It was another day I didn’t have to give up my dreams for my son.”

Graph - Special Ed OutcomesFormer Mayor Michael Bloomberg first proposed a new approach to special education in 2003 – “We will no longer tolerate a largely segregated and largely failing system,” he said then – but it took until 2010 to pilot the new inclusion policies in 260 schools. Following a one-year delay, they were rolled out citywide in 2012.

The premise of the overhaul is that the school experience of students with disabilities shouldn’t be so different from everyone else’s and, in some ways, the system is headed in that direction.

The share of students sent to full-time classes just for students with disabilities has declined by 6 percentage points over the past two years, according to data released by the city. Meanwhile, the share of special-needs students recommended to receive only part-time support has spiked by 10 percentage points.

Students with disabilities who are entering kindergarten, sixth, or ninth-grade can now enroll at the same schools as other students in their neighborhoods, rather than the nearest school with the right services.

Corinne Rello-Anselmi, the deputy chancellor who oversees the education department’s special-education division, said the new policies are beginning to take hold.

“Students now have access to schools they never had access to before,” she said.

Grappling with a new approach

The first year of the reform, Margaret found a kindergarten spot for her autistic son at the public school two blocks from their home on Staten Island.

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Schools like the one in Margaret’s neighborhood, which might have served few special-needs before the reform, now have been told to take in almost every student who walks through their doors. But from the start, it has been unclear whether they have the expertise and staff to pull that off.

Margaret’s school never seemed to have enough of what her son needed. His full-time paraprofessional also had to assist other students, Margaret recalled. He could only see a speech therapist three times a week, even though his neurologist had prescribed daily sessions.

The following year, she asked for an integrated class for her son, but was told it was full. Only after she alerted department officials did the school find her son a space, according to Margaret, who asked that only her middle name be used since her son still attends the school.

“Let us open the door to your kid,” Margaret said, describing the school’s response to the reform, “but then we don’t know what to do with him.”

Since enacting the new policies, the city has provided training to thousands of educators. It also adjusted the way school budgets are set – giving schools more money for students in integrated classrooms than those in self-contained classes and increasing the rate for part-time services – as a way to encourage and fund the shifts.

Graph - Sped Student Placements

Schools have also been urged to mix and match services for students. So, for example, a student now might take English in a class with all special-needs students, math in a mixed-ability class, and history in a general-education class but using materials prepared by a special-education teacher.

But even with those changes, many educators say they are still unable to adhere strictly to each special-needs student’s personal learning plan, known as an IEP. Instead, schools sometimes adjust the IEPs to match the services they can actually offer, according to parents, advocates, and educators.

At one small Brooklyn high school, there are too few students who require self-contained classes to afford them, according to a teacher there. So if a student’s IEP calls for such a class, the school gets the parents’ permission to amend the IEP to recommend integrated classes and extra supports instead, the teacher said. That was the case last year for four students with “extreme learning delays,” according to the teacher.

“They would definitely be in a self-contained class if that was offered,” she said.

Other times, schools may simply fail to offer the services prescribed by an IEP.

Olga Vazquez, a family advocate at ICL, a human-service agency, said concerned school guidance counselors sometimes call to report that students are not receiving IEP-mandated services. Recently, she informed a woman in Brownsville, Brooklyn that her son’s plan calls for regular occupational-therapy sessions, and yet his school had not hired such a therapist.

“Sometimes, if the parent doesn’t question it,” Vazquez said, “it just goes under the radar.”

Troubles with inclusion

As the reform steers students out of special-education-only classes, they are most commonly sent to classrooms that have two teachers and a mix of students with and without disabilities.

Eileen Reiter, the principal of P.S. 112 in East Harlem, runs a successful program that puts students with autism in the same class as their non-disabled peers.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Eileen Reiter, the principal of P.S. 112 in East Harlem, runs a successful program that puts students with autism in the same class as their non-disabled peers.

At P.S. 112 in East Harlem, those classes are so popular that the parents of non-disabled children often request them. The school is among a select few across the city where high-functioning students with autism are placed in integrated classes alongside their typical peers, through a program called ASD Nest.

The autistic students benefit from watching their peers’ social habits, while the autistic students often have expertise on pet topics to share, according to teachers. All the students learn to use yoga and meditation to control their behavior, and each child has access to an individual iPad.

To pull it all off, the co-teachers attend trainings together and meet weekly with other staffers to discuss each student’s progress – a strategy they have perfected after nearly a decade of participating in the NEST program. They also make use of the specialized training and small class sizes provided by the program, and the extra funding that comes with the school’s high number of special-needs students.

“Schools need to be trained and given the resources to do this,” said principal Eileen Reiter. “We’re just very fortunate that we can meet the kids’ needs here.”

Most integrated classes do not look like the ones at P.S. 112, which is one of only about 30 schools across the city with integrated co-teaching, or ICT, classes geared specifically for students with autism. Instead, most mix students with a variety of special needs with non-disabled children.

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As the reform kicked off, many schools’ “kneejerk reaction” (as an education department official recently put it) was to place more students in the integrated classes as a way to promote inclusion while giving special-needs students the support of an extra teacher.

“People think that having two teachers is something magic,” said Dan Lupkin, a teacher at P.S. 58 in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn who taught integrated classes for several years. But in reality, such classes are not right for every student, he said.

Integrated classes can be large and bustling and ill suited for students who are easily distracted or have trouble working independently, Lupkin and others note. Christon Solomon, a sixth-grade student with a learning disability who attended P.S. 276 in Brooklyn, said he could concentrate better and he received more attention during small-group sessions with other special-education students than in his integrated class.

“When I’m in my regular class,” he said, “sometimes they don’t notice me.”

The value of integrated classes can also be lost when too many students with disabilities are placed in them, overwhelming the teachers and depriving those students of non-disabled classmates who might serve as models or mentors. The city does not allow more than 40 percent of the students in an inclusion class to have IEPs, but teachers say that space- and staff-starved administrators sometimes find ways around the rules.

At a large elementary school in the Bronx in 2011, for instance, 23 out of 28 students in one integrated class had disabilities, or 82 percent of the class, according to the co-teachers. The situation drove one of the teachers out of the school. The following year, fewer students in the class had IEPs, but more than 40 percent still did, according to the teacher who remained. Last year, that teacher requested a general-education position because the integrated class had become too burdensome, she said.

“If it’s not implemented properly,” the teacher said, “merely moving [special-needs students] from self-contained to inclusion isn’t going to work.”

Christon Solomon and his mother, Nicole Johnson, said he did not get as much personal attention in an integrated class as he did in  a special-education room.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Christon Solomon and his mother, Nicole Johnson, said he did not get as much personal attention in an integrated class as he did in a special-education room.

Department officials note that teachers can anonymously report such out-of-compliance situations. Teachers-union officials say the city responds promptly to such reports, but add that the fear of retaliation keeps some teachers and parents silent.

Even at the right enrollment levels, co-taught integrated classes are hard to run. The teacher-pairs must be well matched and well trained and have plenty of time to plan together, educators say. It is rare for all of those conditions to be in place, they add.

In a series of reports on the special-education reform commissioned by then-Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, the consultancy Perry and Associates found after hundreds of interviews with educators “an overwhelming request for more professional development.”

“The two things we heard repeatedly from schools,” said George Perry, Jr., the group’s executive director, “is that they want to make this work, but they need help.”

Looking for results

The city’s special-education system today looks very different from how it did a few years ago, with special-needs students attending schools and classes they wouldn’t have before.

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Those changes suggest that the city’s directives and the new budget formula had their desired effect: Students with disabilities have become less isolated. But the reform isn’t meant to simply move special-needs students around − it’s also supposed to help them perform better in school and eventually graduate.

The record on that front is mixed.

For instance, the city found that state test scores inched up slightly more from 2011 to 2012 at schools that piloted the new policies than at comparison schools. But in 2013, both sets of schools did the same on the state English exams (though the pilot schools did better in math), according to the Perry report. An analysis by the city teachers union found that the test scores of students with disabilities improved less from 2010 to 2012 at the pilot schools than they did citywide. Meanwhile, the share of suspensions that go to students with disabilities has actually increased since the reform started.

Department officials insist that it is too soon to expect clear results from the reform, which is a long-term endeavor. Still, they say the new student placements mark a major development.

As the overhaul continues, the department is responding to educators’ concerns, the officials added. For example, it plans to set up more specialized programs at schools, like the one for autistic students at P.S. 112 and others for students with disabilities who are not native English speakers. It is also beefing up supports for struggling readers and training teachers to better manage student behavior.

But Chancellor Carmen Fariña does not appear poised to make any major changes to the new policies.

“The new chancellor is putting out the message to all schools that she strongly believes in an inclusive environment,” said Rello-Anselmi, the deputy chancellor.

Stacey Saunders said Thomas' school has sometimes struggled to manage his emotional disorder. But it has also started to successfully integrate him into classes with general-education students.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Stacey Saunders said Thomas’ school has sometimes struggled to manage his emotional disorder. But it has also started to successfully integrate him into classes with general-education students.

That bodes well for Stacey Saunders and her son Thomas – though, for him and most special-needs students, inclusion alone won’t be enough to set him on the path to graduation.

After a rough kindergarten year, where Thomas spent some 45 days in suspension, Saunders moved him to a different school near their apartment in Harlem.

The new school also had trouble serving Thomas, who has been diagnosed with an emotional disturbance. Teachers in Thomas’ special-education classroom rarely used the strategies outlined in his behavior plan, Saunders said, and she had to send him to a private clinic to get the counseling services she had requested from the school.

But, in line with the reform, the school has also tried to shepherd Thomas into general-education classes. After he kept up with the work in an integrated math class, he was soon nudged into integrated science and reading classes.

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Suddenly, Thomas saw that he was doing well in school and his self-esteem improved. This fall, he will split his time between integrated and general-education classrooms.

“He’s made a lot of progress – a lot, a lot, a lot,” Saunders said. “Now, I just need to make sure he keeps getting the services he needs.”

Play nice

Gov. Bill Haslam convened a ‘power meeting’ between Tennessee’s charter school and district leaders. Here’s why.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
State Rep. John Forgety is chairman of a House education committee and has become the mediator of a dispute over Tennessee's 2017 charter school law. The Athens Republican is also a retired teacher, principal, and superintendent with McMinn County Schools.

There isn’t a charter school within 100 miles of Rep. John Forgety’s district, but the East Tennessee lawmaker has become the mediator in a lingering dispute between the state’s charter sector and its two largest school districts, in Memphis and Nashville.

As chairman of a House education committee that green-lighted last year’s sweeping update of Tennessee’s charter school law, Forgety said he felt partly responsible for one provision that’s created confusion, anger, and even litigation over whether local districts must share student contact information with charter operators.

And while his own legislative proposal to clean up the ambiguity has been sidelined, Forgety managed to get all parties at the table last week with Gov. Bill Haslam — no small feat given that two of them already are in court over the issue.

The Feb. 13 power meeting included Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson, Metropolitan Nashville Schools Director Shawn Joseph, and Maya Bugg, CEO of the Tennessee Charter School Center.

At issue is the intent of the new charter school law, which included a provision directing districts to share student directory information requested by charter operators. Charter leaders say they need the information to make parents aware of their public school options, while Nashville leaders argue that a federal privacy law gives them discretion over who gets those lists.

“It was a very productive conversation,” said Forgety, a retired McMinn County school superintendent who asked Haslam to convene the gathering. “Before we start legislating and litigating this, we just needed to sit down and listen to each other.”

PHOTO: TN.gov
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen and Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson flank Gov. Bill Haslam at a 2016 event in Memphis.

The hour-long conversation ended with McQueen agreeing for her department to pound out a compromise to bring back to the table.

One question now is whether a consensus can be achieved before a judge’s March 16 deadline. Another is whether any proposal can hit the right notes so parents can reasonably learn about their options without being targeted with heavy-handed recruitment tactics.

Nashville is in a legal battle with the state’s charter-driven school turnaround district for refusing to share information on students zoned to failing schools. The state sued the Nashville district for its obstinance, and a Davidson County judge sided with the state and its charter operators in January. But the judge also gave Nashville more than two months to comply or appeal.

“That’s ample time to fix this problem,” Forgety said of the March 16 deadline. “We may not be able to, but what have we got to lose?”

Memphis schools are not part of the legal battle, but leaders of Shelby County Schools have the same concerns as their Nashville counterparts. And school boards in both cities voted last year to defy McQueen’s order to turn over information requested by charter operators LEAD in Nashville and Green Dot in Memphis.

Hopson vented to state lawmakers on the matter just last week, on the same day he went to the governor’s meeting.

“It’s not (that) we’re trying to be sinister and don’t want to give information. We used to give the information to (Tennessee’s Achievement School District) routinely,” he told a joint House education committee.

But Hopson halted the flow of information in 2015, he said, when the ASD shared it with the parents group Memphis Lift, which was going door-to-door to talk with other parents about their schools. “I’ve got a 10-year-old and 8-year-old,” he said. “If someone shows up at my door asking about my baby boy and baby girl with a folder with their information, we’re going to have a problem.”

Student directory information includes names, addresses, phone numbers, and students’ date of birth. School districts may choose to share such data with approved third-party vendors like government agencies and some companies.


Here’s what parents should know about how schools share student information


Bugg says such lists should be used appropriately, whether by charter operators talking with parents or companies that publish and sell school yearbooks. “We definitely are in agreement that if information is shared, it must be done so appropriately and according to agreed-upon parameters,” she told Chalkbeat. “And if it’s not, there should be consequences.”

A spokeswoman for McQueen declined this week to offer details about ongoing conversations or a potential agreement, but said the state is “encouraged about the possibility of reaching a path forward.”

But any proposal still has to go before school boards in Memphis and Nashville. And Nashville’s board may opt to pursue a legal avenue at the same time it awaits a possible legislative fix.

“The board has their principles and they want to protect student privacy and protect families from hardline, heavy-handed recruiting,” said Mark North, who lobbies for Metro Nashville Public Schools.

"We didn’t get here overnight and I don’t know if we’re going to fix it overnight, but we need to try."Rep. John Forgety, R-Athens

As for Forgety, who isn’t running for reelection and says he doesn’t “have a dog in this fight,” he’s just grateful that all the parties are at least sitting down to listen to each other.

“We didn’t get here overnight and I don’t know if we’re going to fix it overnight, but we need to try,” Forgety said. “I can assure you that both school systems and the charter center and the state of Tennessee have better things to spend their money on than attorneys on the second floor of the Davidson County Courthouse.”

race in the classroom

This test-prep passage about Robert E. Lee made a New York City teacher feel ‘angry and sick’

PHOTO: Grace Tatter

Soon after Ruben Brosbe handed out an assigned test-prep packet to his fifth-grade students in Harlem this month, he became concerned.

As he read over his students’ shoulders, he noticed a passage about Robert E. Lee that appeared to minimize the Confederate leader’s role in preserving slavery.

Lee “claimed that he didn’t like it that slavery existed,” read the passage, which was part of a practice test created for New York schools by Curriculum Associates, a company that makes tests, educational games and classroom materials for schools across the country. The passage went on to say that Lee’s wife “did show genuine concern” for the family’s slaves, teaching them to read and sew.

Brosbe said he found the piece to be “very biased.” But he said he couldn’t discuss it with his students, who are mostly black and Hispanic, because they were taking the practice tests, which Brosbe said the city requires certain low-performing schools to administer twice per year.

“I thought it was very problematic and it didn’t make any sense to me why it would show up on a test when teachers aren’t able to provide any context,” Brosbe told Chalkbeat. He also blogged about the experience, writing that the passage “is a glaringly bad example of the racial bias embedded into tests, curriculum, and the U.S. education system in general.”

A spokeswoman for Curriculum Associates said the passage was flagged during a review last fall and is no longer included in new materials.

“As a company, Curriculum Associates takes cultural responsiveness seriously and is committed to constantly evolving our materials to ensure we serve all students equitably,” said Charlotte Fixler, the company’s director of communicationsin an email. “We agree with the fundamental concerns shared by this educator and felt that presenting this content in a non-teacher-led environment was not in the best interest of students.”

She added that the company is working with experts to make sure its materials “don’t marginalize” any students.

New York City education department spokesman Michael Aciman said the passage “lacks important context” and will no longer be included in materials used in city schools.

Brosbe’s concern about the test passage comes amid a new wave of attention to racial bias in classroom materials and instruction in New York City. The incident highlights how even seemingly neutral materials like test-prep booklets can reflect baked-in biases and values.

Reports about several racially charged lessons, including an incident where a teacher is accused of stepping on the backs of students of color to simulate slavery, have given new ammunition to advocates who say the education department needs to provide teacher training and classroom materials that are culturally sensitive and reflect all students.

As Brosbe’s experience shows, even teachers who try to make their classrooms welcoming for all students can be thwarted when they are required to use curriculum materials that they don’t control.

The Southern Poverty Law Center zeroed in on that problem in a recent analysis, finding that popular textbooks rarely detail the “comprehensive history” of slavery, including white supremacy. In a survey, 58 percent of teachers found their textbooks “inadequate” and 40 percent said their state did not offer enough support for how to teach about slavery.

Presented with the passage that Brosbe’s students read, Maureen Costello, the director of Teaching Tolerance — an arm of the law center which provides free resources for educators — said she saw numerous problems.

“It’s overly-simplified and, worse, lacks context,” she wrote in an email. Those issues, she added, could undermine the test’s effectiveness.

“It reflects a white sensibility that assumes this is a good neutral topic on which to base a test question,” she wrote. “When you use a passage as loaded as this one with assumptions about history, it introduces new variables (does it jibe with what a student believes? Does it make the student angry? Does it demean the student?) that may make it harder for the test to actually measure what it’s intended to.”

Curriculum Associates is a Massachusetts-based company that also produces online “personalized learning” programs that are widely used across the country. Its materials are used by 6 million students, according to a company press release. The passage was included in the company’s “Ready” materials that are designed to mirror New York state tests, Brosbe said.

Many New York City elementary and middle schools use the company’s materials, and the state has previously approved its assessments for use in teacher and principal evaluations.

Brosbe blogged about “feeling angry and sick” after reading the questions about Lee, and included a link to the Curriculum Associates website where the passage was posted. The link stopped working after Chalkbeat sent the company a request for comment late Tuesday.

Brosbe’s concerns about the test passage are in line with a growing push in New York to root out bias in the city’s classrooms and teaching materials.

On Wednesday, a group of parent leaders called for “systemic changes to begin addressing racism in our schools and the school system.” The Education Council Consortium, which represents all the local parent education councils in the city, pointed to a number of other problematic incidents — including a PTA fundraiser ad that featured performers in blackface — but did not specifically address the test passage.

“Underneath these overtly racist incidents,” the group said in a statement, “are microaggressions and implicit biases that plague many students of color on a daily basis, taking a toll on their socio-emotional well being.”

Here’s more from the test passage:

Lee didn’t support secession. He believed that states did not have the right to leave the Union, and he worried that war would come if they did. Lee also did not like the idea that a war would be fought over slavery. He claimed that he didn’t like it that slavery existed in the United States, and he once wrote that “slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil.” At the same time, he was very much against an immediate end to it. He favored what he later called a “gradual emancipation,” one that would take place over time.
Lee and his family owned slaves, and by all accounts, he treated these people as property. Legally, he could have freed them, but he didn’t.

His wife, Mary, however, did show genuine concern for the slaves at Arlington, the estate where they lived. She taught the female slaves there to read, write, and sew, so that they would be better prepared for freedom when the time came.

Monica Disare contributed reporting.