data disparity

Special-ed students in some neighborhoods face longer odds when looking for help

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
Karen Sprowal outside her son's middle school following a meeting with staff to discuss his disabilities. Sprowal says services that had been mandated for her son's attention deficit disorder went unmet for three years in elementary school.

The city is failing to provide thousands of services to students with disabilities, and the shortfall is worst in some of the city’s poorest and least accessible neighborhoods, new data shows.

The gaps emerge from the labyrinthine system by which students get certain kinds of help for special needs, such as speech therapy and intensive counseling. When schools aren’t able to serve students on their own, they hire traveling specialists. When they can’t find a provider, it falls to parents to navigate the process on their own.

Spurred by the city’s pay structure, many providers take a dim view of trekking into homes and schools in the city’s far-flung corners. The result: Students from the South Bronx to Central Brooklyn to Coney Island face longer odds than other city students in actually getting the help they need.

The data sheds new light on the city’s ongoing efforts — and struggles — to meet the growing demand for “related services,” a type of special-education support that also includes occupational therapy, physical therapy, and help for sight or hearing problems.

The lapses are glaring in Jamaica, Queens, where 19 percent of those required services were unprovided in June of last year. In the South Bronx, where child poverty rates hover around 50 percent, 10 percent of required services went unprovided to students from four ZIP codes with an average median household income of $22,000. Just 1.5 percent of services went unprovided in the city’s five wealthiest enclaves, which have an average median income of $162,000.

“You don’t even know who to be angry with,” said Karen Sprowal, a Washington Heights parent who says her son struggled in elementary school because he did not receive the counseling and therapy services that had been prescribed for his attention deficit disorder. “It begins with the fact that the resources are not there.”

The data provided to Chalkbeat in response to Freedom of Information requests showed that the city had not provided 15,403 services in June of last year — 6 percent of all related services for traditional public school students in 2013-14. The total number of students who aren’t being served is unclear because a student may have more than one unmet need, and a Department of Education spokesperson would not provide that figure. (The city also did not specify how many of the provided services were incomplete.)

A complete breakdown of what types of related services are going unmet, by ZIP code, are available for 2013 and 2014.

The total number of unprovided services is actually down 15 percent since 2010, when 18,151 services went unprovided, according to a 2012 audit. The city has managed to lower the number even as demand for the services has increased by 18 percent.

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But in the Bronx and far-flung parts of Queens and Brooklyn, more students are going without those services than before. The ZIP code with the most unprovided services, 10459, which includes parts of the Bronx neighborhoods of Hunts Point and Longwood, saw the number increase from 591 to 758 last year. In Coney Island, the number nearly quadrupled in one year, from 82 to 303.

“Whenever you have an entire ZIP code area that appears to be underserved, that is an issue of concern,” said Roger Maldonado, the lead lawyer on a decades-old class action lawsuit whose plaintiffs assert the city is not doing enough to provide students with their mandated services.

Services lag in underserved areas for a host of reasons, according to special education advocates, teachers, parents, and providers.

The city spends more than $400 million annually to provide related services, with much of that money going to large service agencies that get first dibs when a student needs a service that they can provide and a school cannot. If none of the agencies take the job, the city offers vouchers to parents, who then have to arrange appointments with independent providers.

One issue that some advocates raised is that there are shortages in areas where there is high demand for services. And since therapists and providers who contract with the city aren’t required to take specific jobs, and don’t get paid for time spent commuting, they have few incentives to trudge far distances to homes or schools in distant neighborhoods.

Barbara Mates, a speech pathologist based in Manhattan, said there are no easy fixes. When finding a provider falls to parents, they must find someone with the time and interest in taking on the work and whose services fit their child’s specific need, she said — a process that can be burdensome for parents. In the Bronx, where there are many Spanish-speaking students, Mates said there is also a shortage of bilingual providers.

“It’s just a maze of problems,” Mates said.

Jean Mizutani, program manager at Resources for Children with Special Needs, agreed that it’s an imperfect system, but said parents can often do more to push for their child’s needs.

“It could be that parents are less likely to advocate and take additional steps to get action,” Mizutani said.

Education department spokesman Harry Hartfield said the city is already taking steps to address the issues. For years, the city has incentivized service providers to work in underserved areas through a loan forgiveness program for master’s degrees, a program started in response to the class action lawsuit. He credited the program with keeping the number of unprovided services from increasing even more.

“This has resulted in substantial improvements in service delivery to students in parts of the Bronx and other areas of the city where it has historically been difficult to hire related service providers,” Hartfield said.

Services aren’t just getting held up in faraway parts of the city. In Harlem and parts of upper Manhattan, where the average household income is $34,000, for instance, related services are going unprovided at a higher rate than the city average.

There are outliers. A bit further north in upper Manhattan, the non-compliance rate plummets to between 1 and 4 percent, even though household income is still well below the city average. In the West Village, less than two miles from the Department of Education headquarters, the average household makes more than twice the citywide average and yet 20 percent of related services went unprovided.

Still, the process of turning a referral into reality can be frustrating to parents everywhere, who say they must advocate for their child to get the services in school or arrange for outside therapies themselves. In many cases, it takes weeks or months to match a student with a provider.

“Already, we’re receiving calls because students had no services in place for the first month,” said Maggie Moroff, special education policy coordinator at Advocates for Children New York, which operates a helpline for parents.

Sprowal, the Washington Heights parent who describes herself as a “fierce advocate,” saw the process unravel first-hand. When her son was in third grade, he still had trouble holding a pencil, and his words were so hard to decipher that a school psychologist recommended he visit an occupational therapist. But her son went the next two years without ever meeting with one, even though the need was clearly specified.

“I went along with it because there were so many other things that were more concerning,” said Sprowal, of Washington Heights. “So [he] never got the services.”

Looking back on the occupational-therapy oversight, Sprowal said she understood how easy it would be for other parents to lose track of the progress of support services for their own children.

“This could be happening everywhere and the average parent is not even going to notice,” Sprowal said.

it's official

An integration plan is approved for Upper West Side and Harlem middle schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Middle schools in District 3, including Wadleigh Secondary School for the Performing Visual Arts, pictured above, will give struggling students priority in admission, the local Community Education Council announced.

The New York City education department on Wednesday approved a plan to integrate middle schools in Manhattan’s District 3, the culmination of years of advocacy amid vocal pushback against admissions changes aimed at creating more economically and academically diverse schools.

The plan marks the city’s first attempt under Mayor Bill de Blasio to integrate middle schools across an entire district, an effort that garnered national attention after the schools Chancellor, Richard Carranza, tweeted a blunt criticism of parents who protested the proposal.

Announcing approval of the plan, Carranza said in a statement that he hopes District 3 will serve as a model for other communities aiming for more diversity.

“Students benefit from integrated schools, and I applaud the District 3 community on taking this step to integrate their middle schools,” he said.

The new admissions system builds on growing momentum to unravel deep segregation in the country’s largest school system. A few weeks ago, de Blasio announced a contentious plan to overhaul admissions at the city’s elite specialized high schools. And later on Wednesday,  a set of recommendations is expected to be unveiled for integrating middle schools in Brooklyn’s District 15.

Under the plan approved in District 3, students who are poor, struggle on state tests, and earn low report card grades will be given admissions priority for a quarter of seats at the district’s middle schools. Of those seats, 10 percent would go to students who struggle the most, and 15 percent would go to the next-neediest group.

Education officials had considered weighing a number of different criteria to determine which students would get priority. They settled on a mix indicators including student poverty and academic achievement because it “identifies students most likely to suffer the consequences of long-term segregation in District 3,” according to a statement released by the Community Education Council, a group of parent volunteers who have supported the district’s integration efforts. 

Since academic performance is often linked to race and class, the new admissions system could integrate schools on a number of different measures. But in aiming for academic diversity explicitly, the district is pushing for a unique and controversial change. In District 3 and across New York City, high-performing students are often concentrated in a tiny subset of schools.

Parents who worried their children would be elbowed out of the most selective schools pushed hard against the plan, including a woman featured on a viral NY1 video saying that the proposal tells hard-working students “life sucks.”  

“I think it was definitely a much harder concept for parents to understand,” said Kristen Berger, a parent on the local Community Education Council who has helped lead the integration effort.  “We have a lot of talk about meritocracy… anything that challenges it, challenges a very basic concept parents have.”

With those concerns in mind, the district says it will boost training training for school staff in strategies to help struggling students. The district will also provide anti-bias training for all middle school staff and teachers will also focus on culturally relevant education practices, which ensure that all students are reflected in what is taught in classrooms.

Despite the backlash, the proposal would actually have a modest impact on many district schools, according to city projections. Among the schools expected to change the most is the Computer School, which would see a 16-point increase in the number of needy students who are offered admission. Still, only 28 percent of students would be poor and have low test scores and report card grades.  

Schools that currently serve the greatest number of struggling students aren’t expected to change much, if at all, according to projections. Many of those schools are in Harlem, prompting education council members to push the education department to do more for those schools.

The council pledged to take on the work itself. Parents want to weigh whether new school options are needed, and “address long-standing challenges such as disparities in resource allocation,” the council’s statement said.

“We need a Harlem vision. That’s really important and that’s key to the next steps,” Berger said.

Spread the wealth

A few Colorado charter schools won ‘the lottery’ in this year’s round of school construction grants

Samantha Belmontes, 7, tries to keep a foam ball rolling in the center of her tennis racket for as long as she can in a class at Ricardo Flores Magón Academy in 2011. (Photo By Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Five Colorado charter schools are among the nearly three dozen schools getting new roofs, HVAC systems, or even entire new buildings courtesy of state land proceeds, lottery funds, and marijuana tax revenue.

The State Board of Education this month approved $275 million in grants through the Building Excellent Schools Today or BEST program, with schools and districts contributing an additional $172 million for $447 million in total construction projects.

This is the largest award the state has ever given, a 60 percent increase from the nearly $172 million given out last year. It’s also likely to be the largest award for some time to come. With this grant cycle, the board that oversees the BEST program used up its existing ability to issue debt, similar to the limit on a credit card, and next year’s grants will be limited to cash awards of roughly $85 million.

Charter schools traditionally have not done well in the competition for BEST grant money – a sore point for advocates because the schools can’t bond off property tax revenue like school districts can –  but this year, with more to spend overall, the committee that distributes the money also gave more of it to charter schools.

In a typical year, the grant program funds about half of the requests that come in, after prioritizing them based on a number of criteria, including health and safety concerns. This year, almost 70 percent of requests were funded.

Jeremy Meyer, a spokesperson for Colorado Department of Education, said officials in the capital construction program also made a deliberate effort to reach out to charter schools and explain the requirements of the grant program. Some of the successful applicants had applied before and were able to make refinements to this year’s applications. Representatives of charter schools, meanwhile, said this iteration of the BEST board seems more receptive to their needs.

“A lot of it was a function of them having more resources to distribute,” said Dan Schaller of the Colorado League of Charter Schools. “It’s a very positive development, but it’s important to keep it in context that over the last five years, charter schools have received in aggregate less than 1 percent of the funding.”

About 13 percent of Colorado students attend charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run and exempt from some rules.

Legislation passed in the 2018 session increases the amount of marijuana tax money going to the grant program to 90 percent of all recreational marijuana excise tax revenue. Before, it had been capped at $40 million a year, even as the state took in far more pot tax money than was originally projected. Of this money, 12.5 percent will be set aside for charter school facilities needs.

However, state lawmakers balked at allowing the BEST program to borrow off of marijuana revenue, given the uncertain regulatory future under President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who is hostile to legal marijuana.

Without the ability to issue new debt, future awards are more likely to go to roof replacements and new heating and cooling systems than to new buildings, like the new elementary school approved in Adams 14 or the new buildings for Ricardo Flores Magón Academy in northwest Denver and Swallows Charter Academy in Pueblo.

Having the state fund a new building for a charter school is “like winning the lottery,” said Jane Ellis, who works with charters to find low-cost financing for their facilities.

This was Flores Magón Academy’s third attempt at getting a BEST grant. The state-authorized charter school serves roughly 300 students from kindergarten through eighth grade, most of them from low-income families. The school sits in a pocket of unincorporated Adams County at West 53rd Avenue and Lowell Boulevard, near Regis University, and most of the school’s families live in Denver.

In 2011, the school bought the Berkeley Gardens Elementary building, which had been shuttered for a decade. The school was built in 1906 and has several additions.

“Each add-on is very unique and reflective of its decade and comes with its own delightful challenges,” said Kaye Taavialma, a former executive director of the school who is working as a consultant on the building project. “We have to be very cognizant and aware of any precipitation.”

The roof leaks, the pipes leak, there aren’t enough bathrooms, and there’s asbestos in the walls and in the glue that holds down multiple layers of carpet. Portions of the school have been blocked off due to mold problems. The office is in the center of the building, without a clear line of sight on the entrances, creating security concerns. During one storm, a window blew out in a classroom. Fortunately, no students were injured, Taavialma said.

The school got $15.5 million from the BEST program and through a waiver only has to contribute $818,000 to the total project cost, rather than the $3.3 million that would normally be required under a state matching formula. The new building will be built on the site of the play fields and should open to students during the 2020-21 school year.

“For our school, this is tremendous because coming up with $3 million would have been darn near impossible,” Taavialma said. “As we see charters continue to proliferate and they’re being asked to move into buildings that either weren’t constructed to be school buildings, or like we experienced, a school building that has been sitting vacant for a long time, I hope this is a trend that continues.”

You can see the full list of grant winners here.