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.


Memphis candidate says no longer in running to lead Achievement School District

The only Memphis applicant to lead Tennessee’s turnaround district is no longer under consideration, the state Department of Education confirmed Thursday.

Keith Sanders told Chalkbeat on Thursday that Education Commissioner Candice McQueen called him and said that he would not advance in the application process to become superintendent of the Achievement School District. Sanders is a Memphis-based education consultant and former Memphis school principal who most recently was chief officer of school turnaround at the Delaware Department of Education.

The state later confirmed that Sanders will not advance, citing concerns from the search firm hired to find the next leader of the turnaround district.

In a March 21 letter to McQueen, the search firm highlighted Sanders’ time as a charter school leader in New Orleans as a reason he should not advance. Sanders co-founded Miller-McCoy Academy, an all-boys public school that closed in 2014. The school was academically low-performing, and Sanders and his co-founder left the school before it shuttered amidst allegations of financial mismanagement and cheating, according to the letter.

The announcement comes a day after Stephen Osborn, a finalist for the position, visited Memphis for a second interview with McQueen. Osborn is currently the chief of innovation for Rhode Island’s Department of Education.

Sanders said he was shocked at the news, as just weeks earlier he was told that he would advance as one of two finalists for the position.

“I was given an itinerary for two days next week for my final interview process,” Sanders said. “I’m shocked that I’ve been suddenly and abruptly removed from this process. I want to be clear in this community I reside in — I did not withdraw.”

In addition to Sanders and Osborn, other candidates under consideration were: Brett Barley, deputy superintendent for student achievement with the Nevada Department of Education, and Adam Miller, executive director of the Office of Independent Education and Parental Choice at the Florida Department of Education.

McQueen emphasized during her Memphis visit on Wednesday that the superintendent search is still in progress.

“We certainly have an expectation that we’ll bring in others,” she told reporters. “At this point, we wanted to move one forward while we’re continuing to solicit additional information from the search firm on current candidates as well as other candidates who have presented themselves over last couple of weeks.”

The new superintendent will succeed Malika Anderson, who stepped down last fall after almost two years at the helm. Kathleen Airhart, a longtime deputy at the State Department of Education, has served as interim leader.

The job will require overseeing 30 low-performing schools — the majority of which are run by charter organizations in Memphis.

Play nice

How can Michigan schools stop skinned knees and conflict? Use playtime to teach students kindness

PHOTO: Amanda Rahn
Macomb Montessori kindergartner London Comer plays with a ball during a Playworks session at her school.

Kindergartners play four square, jump rope and line up in two rows with outstretched arms to bump a ball during recess. What’s unusual is that the four- and five-year-olds don’t fight over balls or toys, and when one child gets upset and crosses her arms, a fifth-grade helper comes over to talk to her.

This is a different picture from last spring, when the students at the Macomb Montessori school in Warren played during recess on a parking lot outside. The skinned knees and broken equipment were piling up, and school administrators knew something needed to change.

“Recess was pretty chaotic, and it wasn’t very safe,” Principal Ashley Ogonowski said.

The school brought in Playworks, a national nonprofit that uses playtime to teach students how to peacefully and respectfully work together to settle disagreements — also known as social emotional learning, said Angela Rogensues the executive director of the Michigan Playworks branch.

Ogonowski said the change she has seen in her students has been huge. Kids are getting hurt less, and teachers have said they have fewer classroom behavior problems.

The program teaches better behavior through physical activity. Games focus on cooperation, not winners and losers. When tensions rise on the playground, kids are encouraged to “rock, paper, scissors” over conflicts.

Playworks is adamant that their coaches are not physical education teachers, nor are their 30-45 minute structured play periods considered gym class. But the reality is that in schools without them, Playworks is the closest many kids come to receiving physical education.

Macomb Montessori does not have a regular gym teacher, a problem shared by schools across the state and nearly half of the schools in the main Detroit district, and a symptom of a disinvestment in physical education statewide. In Michigan, there are no laws requiring schools to offer recess. As for physical education, schools are required to offer the class, but the amount of time isn’t specified.

But with Playworks, the 210 elementary-aged children at the school have a daily recess and a weekly class game time lasting about 30 to 45 minutes.

Another benefit of the program is the chance to build leadership skills with upper elementary students chosen to be junior coaches. Shy kids are picked, as are natural leaders who might be using their talents to stir up trouble.

“I made it because I’m really good with kids. I’m nice and kind and I really like the kids,” Samerah Gentry, a fifth-grader and junior coach said. “I’m gaining energy and I’m having fun.”

Research shows that students are benefitting from both the conflict resolution tools and the junior coach program.

“The program model is really solid and there’s so much structure in place, I can’t really think of any drawbacks,” Principal Ogonowski said.

The program, however, is not free.  

Part of the cost is handled on the Playworks side through grants, but schools are expected to “have some skin in the game,” Rogenesus said. The program at Macomb Montessori costs between $60,000 and $65,000, but poor schools can receive a 50 percent subsidy.

The cost hasn’t prevented eight Detroit district schools from paying for the program. Rogenesus said she is talking with Superintendent Nikolai Vitti about putting the program in even more schools next year. He also identified Playworks as one organization that could be brought in to run after-school programs at a time when he’s rethinking district partnerships.

Part of Playworks’ mission is to work together with schools, even if they already have gym and recess in place or plan to hire a physical education teacher.

“PE is a necessary part of their education in the same way social-emotional learning is a necessary part of that education,” she said.