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.

spedservices2 (1)

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.

awards season

For the first time in two decades, New York’s Teacher of the Year hails from New York City — and West Africa

PHOTO: New York State Education Department
Bronx International High School teacher Alhassan Susso, center, is New York State's 2019 Teacher of the Year.

An immigrant from West Africa who teaches social studies to immigrant students in the Bronx is New York State’s newest Teacher of the Year.

Alhassan Susso, who works at International Community High School in Mott Haven, received the award Tuesday, becoming the first New York City teacher to do so since 1998.

As the state’s Teacher of the Year, Susso will travel the state to work with local educators — and will represent New York in the national competition at a time when federal authorities are aggressively seeking to limit immigration.

A decorated teacher with significant vision impairment since childhood, Susso came to New York from Gambia at 16 and had a rocky experience at his upstate high school, which he chronicled in an autobiography he published in 2016. Assuming that he would struggle academically because he was an immigrant, even though English is the official language of Gambia, his teachers assigned him to a remedial reading class. There, he found a compassionate teacher who was attentive to the diverse needs of her students, who came from all over the world.

Now, Susso is playing that role at his school. International Community High School, part of the Internationals Network for new immigrants, has a special program for students who did not receive a formal education before coming to the United States.

“Alhassan Susso exemplifies the dedication and passion of our 79,000 New York City teachers,” city Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza said in a statement. “Using the obstacles he’s overcome and lessons he’s learned in his own life, Alhassan has changed the trajectory of students’ lives and helped them pursue their dreams.”

New York City teachers make up nearly 40 percent of the state’s teaching force but have won the Teacher of the Year honor only six times since 1965, the last in 1998. This year’s winner had a strong chance of ending the two-decade shutout: Two of the three finalists teach in the Bronx. In addition to Susso, Frederick Douglass Academy III chemistry teacher William Green was up for the award.

regents roundup

Regents support a new way of evaluating charter schools and soften penalties for schools with high opt-out rates

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Chancellor Betty Rosa, center, at a recent Board of Regents meeting.

New York’s top education policymakers tentatively approved new rules Monday on two hot-button issues: the penalties for districts and schools where many students opt out of state tests — and how nearly 100 charter schools across the state will be evaluated.

Here’s what you need to know about the new policies that the state’s Board of Regents set in motion.

Potential penalties for high opt-out rates were softened

After criticism from activists and parents within the opt-out movement and pushback from the state teachers union, the Regents walked back some of the consequences schools and districts can face when students refuse to take state exams.

Among the most significant changes, which state officials first floated last week, is that districts with high opt-out rates will not be required to use a portion of their federal funding to increase their testing rates.

“I do not ever want to be the person who takes money away from children,” State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said.

The regulations are part of the state’s plan under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act and stem from a federal mandate that 95 percent of students take the state’s annual reading and math exams.

The Regents tweaked other rules requiring schools to create improvement plans if they fall below the 95 percent threshold. Schools with average or higher test scores will not have to come up with those plans.

Still, some parents who support the opt-out movement and who attended Monday’s meeting said the changes don’t go far enough and that schools with lower test scores should also be exempt from coming up with plans to boost participation rates.

“There’s still so much left to be addressed,” said Kemala Karmen, a New York City public school parent who attended the meeting.

The new regulations will likely not have a major effect in New York City, where opt-out rates have remained relatively low. Although New York State has been the epicenter of the test-boycott movement — with roughly one in five students refusing to take the tests, according to the most recent data — less than 4 percent of the city’s students declined to take them.

The Regents unanimously approved the changes, although their vote is technically preliminary. The tweaks will still be subject to a 30-day public comment period and will likely be brought to a final vote in December.

New criteria for evaluating charter schools

The Regents also narrowly approved a new framework for evaluating the roughly 100 charter schools that the board oversees across the state, 63 of which are in New York City.

The new framework is meant to bring charter schools in line with how the state judges district-run schools. Under the new federal education law, the Regents have moved away from emphasizing test scores as the key indicator of a school’s success.

In keeping with that shift, the new charter framework will require schools to have policies covering chronic absenteeism, out-of-school suspension rates, and other measures of school culture to help decide whether they are successful enough to remain open.

And while the new framework does not spell out specific rates of chronic absenteeism a school must fall below, for example, it does explicitly add those policies to the mix of factors the Regents consider. (Officials said that test scores and graduation rates would still remain among the most important factors in evaluating charter schools.)

At Monday’s meeting, discussion of the charter framework prompted broad complaints about the charter sector from some Regents. The state’s framework for evaluating charters was last updated in 2015; the board has added several new members and a new chancellor since then.

The current board has repeatedly sent mixed messages about the sector, approving large batches of new charters while also rejecting others and raising questions about whether the schools serve a fair share of high-need students.

“We’re giving money away from our public schools to charters,” Regent Kathy Cashin said, emphasizing that she believes the state should more deeply probe when students leave charter schools and survey families to find out why.

Charters receive some freedom from rules governing most district-run schools, but in exchange the schools are expected to meet certain performance benchmarks or else face closure.

State officials said the new framework does not include new standards for how New York judges enrollment and retention. Under the current rules, schools must enroll a similar number of students with disabilities, English learners, and low-income students as other nearby district schools. If they don’t, they must show that they’re making progress toward that goal.

Ultimately, the new framework was approved eight to five in a preliminary vote and will be brought back to the full board for approval on Tuesday.