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.

School choice

Denver judge blocks school transportation provision added to Colorado law

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Sam Boswell, 7, all bundled up in his winter clothes, splashes his way to the school bus on May 12, 2010.

A Denver judge struck down a provision of a bill related to the education of youth in foster care that would have removed barriers to transportation for all students.

The transportation provision was an amendment added by Republican lawmakers late in the 2018 session. Soon after the bill was signed by Gov. John Hickenlooper, several Colorado school districts and the associations that represent them filed a lawsuit to block it.

In a ruling issued Friday, Denver District Court Judge David Goldberg found that the amendment violated rules in the Colorado constitution that require every bill to have a clear title that explains what the bill is about and to deal only with one subject.

The bill’s title was “Improving Educational Stability for Foster Youth,” and it seeks to improve graduation rates for foster youth by requiring child welfare officials and school districts to work out transportation to the student’s home district when that’s in the child’s best interest. It also creates flexibility around graduation requirements when students do change schools. Foster youth have the lowest four-year graduation rates in the state, much lower even than homeless youth and students whose parents are migrant workers.

The tacked-on language was added in the Republican-controlled State Affairs committee five days before the end of the session. It said that a school board “may furnish transportation” to students who are enrolled in the district but who live in another district. The provision applies to all students, not just those who are in the foster system. It also struck language from an existing law that requires the consent of the school district from which students are being bused.

The amendment language came straight from a separate bill about expanding school choice that had been killed by Democrats in the House the day before.

Many school districts opposed the transportation provision because they feared it would open the door for better-off districts to poach students and undermine the meaning of school district boundaries. Advocates for school choice argued the provision was good policy that would allow more students, especially those from low-income families, take advantage of opportunities. They also argued, apparently unconvincingly, that it was required for implementation of the foster youth portions of the bill.

The Donnell-Kay Foundation intervened in the case in defense of the law. (The Donnell-Kay Foundation is a funder of Chalkbeat. You can read our ethics policy here.)

In his ruling, Goldberg said this specific issue has never been litigated in Colorado before, and he relied in part on rulings from other states with similar requirements. Bills with broad titles, he wrote, can be construed broadly and encompass a range of issues as long as they have some connection to the title. But bills with narrow titles must be construed narrowly — and this amendment didn’t make the cut.

“The subject of House Bill 18-1306 is out-of-home placed students and efforts to ensure educational stability,” Goldberg wrote, while the amendment’s subject “is all students, with no qualifiers, conditions, restrictions, or reference to out-of-home placed students. … House Bill 18-1306 seriously modifies transportation for all students and is hidden under a title relating exclusively to out-of-home placed students.”

Goldberg ruled that the amendment is “disconnected” from the rest of the bill, and neither lawmakers nor the public had enough notice about its inclusion before passage.

That leaves the rest of the foster youth bill intact and advocates for expanded school choice facing an uphill battle in a legislature in which Democrats, who are more likely to give priority to school district concerns, now control both chambers.

This isn’t an abstract issue. In 2015, more than 150 students who lived in the Pueblo 60 district but attended school in higher-performing Pueblo 70 lost access to transportation when the city-based district ordered its neighbor to stop running bus routes through its territory.

Online Shopping

Jeffco launches universal enrollment site to make school choice easy

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat
Students in a social studies class at Bear Creek High School in Jeffco Public Schools read about Genghis Khan.

Starting Monday, parents in Colorado’s second-largest district will be able to shop online for schools and, once enrollment opens in January, apply to as many as they like.

The launch of Enroll Jeffco, following the path paved by Denver Public Schools, means some 86,000 students and their parents won’t have to go to individual schools during the work day and fill out paper forms if they want to apply somewhere other than their neighborhood school.

The online system cost about $600,000 to develop and operate for this school year. The district expects it to cost about half of that annually going forward.

Universal enrollment systems allow parents to compare and apply to traditional district-run schools, district schools with specialized programming or models, known in Jeffco as options schools, and charter schools with a single application on the same website. Universal enrollment systems are a key component of what some call the “portfolio model,” in which districts oversee a range of school types and parents vote with their feet. They’ve been controversial in places, especially when coupled with aggressive school accountability policies that lead to school closures.

In Jeffco Public Schools, which is more affluent than many Denver metro area districts, officials see the move to a single, online enrollment system as a valuable service for parents.

“Regardless of how people feel about it, we operate in a competitive school choice environment, both inside the district and outside the district,” Superintendent Jason Glass said. “That compels us to make thinking about that transaction, making people aware of the options and enrolling in our schools, as frictionless and easy as possible.”

Colorado law requires schools in any district to admit any student for whom they have room and for whom the district can provide adequate services, after giving priority to students who live in the district. But many districts still require paper applications at individual schools, and schools in the same district might not have the same deadlines. A recent report by the conservative education advocacy group Ready Colorado found that parents who use school choice are more likely to be white, middle- or upper-class, and English-speaking than the state’s student population. The authors argue that districts should streamline the enrollment process and consider providing transportation to make choice more accessible.

Jeffco isn’t rolling out new transportation options yet, but it might use data from the enrollment process, including a parent survey that is built into the website, to see if that’s desired or feasible. And officials believe strongly that the new online enrollment system will open up more opportunities for low-income parents and those who don’t speak English.

The website will provide information in the district’s six most commonly spoken languages and should be optimized for use on mobile phones. All parents will be required to use the system to express their preferences, including the majority of parents who want to stay in their neighborhood school, and the district is planning significant outreach and in-person technical assistance.

We believe that if all parents are participating, it improves equity,” Glass said. “One of the things we struggle with is that upwardly mobile and affluent parents tend to be the ones who take advantage of school choice. We want all of our schools to be available to all of our families. We think being able to search through and make the enrollment process as easy as possible is an equity issue.”

But critics of universal enrollment systems worry that the ease of application will encourage parents to give up on neighborhood schools rather than invest in them.

Rhiannon Wenning, a teacher at Jefferson Junior-Senior High School, said the link between charter schools and open enrollment systems makes her distrustful, even as many of her students are using the choice process to stay at the school after rising home prices pushed them into other parts of the metro area.

“I understand parents want what is best for their child, but part of that as a citizen and a community member is to make your neighborhood school the school that you want it to be,” she said, calling the universal enrollment system an attack on public schools.

Joel Newton of the Edgewater Collective, which provides community support for lower-income schools in the eastern part of the district, said Enroll Jeffco will give the district much better data on which to base decisions, but he worries that Title I schools, which serve large numbers of students from low-income families, won’t be able to compete.

“With an online system like this, it really needs to be a level playing field,” he said. “And in my area, I’d much rather have resources going to curriculum and instructional aides to catch kids up than going into marketing support. But other areas can do that and they have these big, well-funded PTAs.”

Until now, parents have had to seek out information on each school’s website. The online portal starts by asking parents to enter their address and the grade in which they’re enrolling a student. It then displays the parents’ neighborhood school, with an option to explore alternatives. Each school page has extensive information, including a short narrative, descriptions of special programs like math, arts, or expeditionary learning, the school mascot, and the racial and economic breakdown of the student population. The intent, district spokesperson Diana Wilson said, is to let schools “tell their own story.”

Parents can select as many schools as they want when enrollment opens Jan. 22, and they’ll learn in mid- to late February where they got in. However, they have to commit within five days to one school, ending a practice by which parents in the know kept their options open through the summer months. District officials say this will help them plan and budget better.

Kristen Harkness, assistant director for special education in Jeffco, served on the steering committee that developed the system, and she’s also a parent in the district. Even as a district employee who thought she knew the process inside and out, she managed to miss a deadline for her son to be considered at another middle school.

She said that choosing between schools isn’t a matter of which schools are better but which are a better fit for a particular student. In her case, her son could have stayed at a K-8 or transferred to a combined middle and high school, with each option presenting a different kind of middle school experience. He’s happy at the K-8 where he stayed, she said, but parents and students should have the chance to make those decisions.

The new universal enrollment system is poised to give more families that chance. In the course of the rollout, though, there may be a few glitches.

“We’re doing all we can to look into the future and foresee any technical problems and design solutions to that proactively,” Glass said. “That said, this is our first time, and we ask for people’s patience.”