Complaint Department

Teacher complaints expose tensions as special-ed overhaul continues

Dr. Steve Berman, a pediatrician at Children's Hospital Colorado, at left, moderated a conversation on childhood hunger and obesity with Angela Glover Blackwell and Bill Shore.

At P.S. Q811 in Queens last year, several students with severe disabilities went without their full-time aides during lunch, fire drills, and certain classes, according to complaints filed with the teachers union. Because some of those students suffered from multiple daily seizures, leaving them without aides “may be a danger to the students,” the union reported to the city.

At the Unity Center for Urban Technologies, a small Manhattan high school, 20 juniors and seniors with disabilities were supposed to be in special classes last year led by two teachers, according to the union complaints. The problem was, the school didn’t offer co-taught classes in those grades, the complaints said.

And at P.S. 44 on Staten Island, the school modified the personal learning plans of some special-needs students last year so that they would be moved into general-education classes, the complaints said. This led to general-education classes where 19 out of 32 students had disabilities, leaving the teachers “overwhelmed” and unable to meet their needs, according to the complaints.

Those are among the 151 complaints related to special education that were filed with the United Federation of Teachers last fall, which the union then reported to the city, according to a Department of Education document obtained by Chalkbeat. That represents a more than 60 percent increase from the number of complaints filed during the same September-to-December period the year before, the document shows.

The complaints only provide a glimpse into the special-education issues that arise in schools, most of which are never reported or are resolved before they make it to the department’s central office. But those compiled in the department’s document suggest that some schools are unequipped to serve all of their students with disabilities, leading to overcrowded classrooms, missing support services, and questionable changes to students’ personal learning plans.

Some of the issues were minor and readily addressed. In fact, 111 of the 151 complaints were resolved by December 2013, according to the document.

Still, they reflect the new demands that have been placed on schools by the city’s special-education overhaul, which calls for neighborhood schools to serve special-needs students whom they might have referred elsewhere in the past, and to try to place those students in classes alongside their non-disabled peers whenever possible. The new policies had already been in effect for a year when these complaints were filed in 2013 and similar problems continue to crop up today, advocates say.

“We’re still getting cases that sound just like ones we were getting two years ago as they were just starting to roll this out,” said Maggie Moroff, special education policy coordinator at Advocates for Children, who backs the city’s new inclusion policies but said many schools still struggle to carry them out.

“Something gets lost in translation,” she said.

The teachers union declined to comment on this story, while the principals of P.S. Q811, Unity Center for Urban Technologies, and P.S. 44 did not respond to phone messages and emails seeking comment. Education department officials acknowledged they use the complaints document to track and respond to concerns brought by the union.

“We review any issues raised by educators in our schools and work to address them proactively and immediately,” said department spokesman Harry Hartfield.

One of the most common types of complaint alleged that schools packed too many students with disabilities into special-education classes. Many complaints said schools had violated the department’s rule that students with disabilities may make up no more than 40 percent of mixed-ability classes led by two teachers, which have become increasingly common as the reforms have rolled out. At Curtis High School on Staten Island, for example, all 41 mixed-ability classes exceeded that limit last October, according to one complaint.

Other common complaints said that students were not getting any or all of their mandated services, like speech therapy, small-group lessons, or paraprofessionals; or that classes that should have included special-education teachers were missing them.

Some of the problems were temporary.

For instance, four special-education classes at P.S. 503 in Brooklyn had 13 students in September 2013, according to a complaint, surpassing the legal limit of 12 students for that type of class. Principal Bernadette Fitzgerald said that many of those special-needs students were new arrivals who were promptly reassessed, then moved to larger classes with extra supports.

“We’re shifting kids constantly,” Fitzgerald said, noting that her large school has a sizeable budget and enough special-education teachers to meet students’ needs in different settings.

But other complaints have proved harder to resolve, hinting at the occasional clashes that have broken out as schools try to enact the new special-education policies with limited resources.

Some educators and advocates insist that school administrators have inappropriately altered the personal learning plans, or IEPs, of some special-needs students in order to shift them to mixed-ability classes, which come with higher funding. Those adjustments and others — such as restricting how often student receive certain services — are based more on available resources than the needs of the students, the critics say.

At a City Council hearing last October on the new policies, UFT Vice President for Special Education Carmen Alvarez said the overhaul had resulted in “IEPs changed — often en masse — to reflect the services the school is willing to provide.” She also emailed teachers that month to say that administrators cannot use the new policies as a reason to deny services to students, and to urge teachers to file complaints if that happened.

Several complaints that were filed say just that, the city document shows.

For example, one complaint alleged that the principal of the Urban Science Academy in the Bronx sent his staff a memo telling them that special-needs students could not be offered co-taught classes in the humanities or science. The complaint specifically notes that the special-education overhaul does not limit the types of services that can be offered to students. (The principal, Patrick Kelly, declined to comment.)

Another complaint alleged that several kindergarten students with disabilities at Manhattan’s P.S. 75 were given too few periods of co-taught classes. The complaint asks for “clarification” from the school administration about how it decides what services students should receive, adding, “IEPs shouldn’t match what is available but should match the needs of the individual students.”

Principal Robert O’Brien said in an interview that all students are given the services they require, and noted that the complaint had been resolved. He added that a team of educators and administrators creates each student’s learning plan based on his or her needs.

He and other principals said their push to move special-needs students into mixed-ability classes and to rethink whether they require intensive services is not connected to budgets or staff levels. Instead, it is based on evidence that students with disabilities sometimes do better outside of special classes, they said.

Madeline Rochelle, a special-education administrator in P.S. 75’s support network, said many educators are still grappling with this “paradigm shift.”

“The way this used to be done was throw a lot of services at children and hope they swim,” she said. “That has not been particularly effective.”

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”