Pre-K delay

New York City promised free preschool to every family, so why do some students with disabilities struggle to find seats?

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Shavon Gilliam with her son, Mikel, outside their Bronx home.

Shavon Gilliam realized her son Mikel was different about six months after his first birthday.

His speech wasn’t developing like most other kids his age, and he didn’t seem to grasp how certain toys worked. “Like a big toy truck — he would turn it upside down and just play with the wheels,” Gilliam said. And even more worrisome: “He wasn’t even attempting to talk.”

After an early evaluation revealed Mikel was likely on the autism spectrum, Gilliam was able to secure early intervention services to help address his developmental delays. But once Mikel turned three and was no longer eligible for early intervention, Gilliam tried to enroll him in several programs near their Bronx neighborhood that offer special education preschool services.

She kept hearing the same thing: There are no spots left. So Mikel spent six months at home, occasionally visiting the aquarium and the library with his grandmother. “He didn’t get services right away,” Gilliam said. “He was just home for a while without anything.”

Mikel isn’t alone.

Across the city, parents of children with disabilities have struggled to find spots in preschool programs that offer the specialized services the city is required to provide. The city no longer releases the number of students waiting for services, though it has in the past.

But special education providers say a crisis is looming as years of flat state funding — and competition with the city’s pre-K programs — have made it increasingly difficult to keep their doors open.

“The city has expanded Pre-K For All and sought to ensure there is a prekindergarten seat for every child in the city,” said Randi Levine, an early childhood expert at Advocates for Children, which worked on Mikel’s case. “Parents, advocates, and providers are concerned that we have not done enough to ensure there is a preschool seat available for every preschooler with a disability who needs one.”

‘This is very concerning’

While thousands of students with disabilities are served in traditional preschool programs, including Pre-K for All, those with more complicated disabilities are eligible for preschool programs by age three that offer smaller class sizes and access to more specialized therapies. To meet these needs, the city contracts with private providers, who served roughly half of the city’s 32,000 preschoolers with disabilities as of June.

Quality Services for the Autism Community is one of those providers. Lisa Veglia, its deputy executive director, said she usually has open seats in September. Not this year.

“We are full now and have a waitlist of about 17 kids,” said Veglia, whose organization runs a program for 88 preschoolers on the autism spectrum in Douglaston, Queens. “That has never happened.”

Providers across the city have reported increasing demand for special ed preschool, and there appear to be shortages affecting entire boroughs.

In one case, the city told a parent there were no seats available for a six-student special education class anywhere in Queens, Levine said, even though that is the type of program listed on the child’s individualized education plan. In the meantime, that child is at home and receiving no services. The family declined to be interviewed for this story and the Department of Education declined to comment on the specific situation.

“This is very concerning, as it is only September, and six-student classes are commonly recommended for preschoolers with more severe cases of autism,” Levine wrote in an email to Chalkbeat, noting that more students are often identified as needing services as the school year progresses.

On Staten Island, the Early Childhood Direction Center, which fields inquiries from parents navigating the process, said they too have heard from families who are having trouble finding preschool placements.

“There’s an increased demand for families of children with more intense needs who seek more restrictive settings and services than is currently available,” said Laura Kennedy, director of Staten Island’s ECDC.

And United Cerebral Palsy of New York City, which serves more than 400 preschool students with disabilities across four boroughs, making it one of the city’s biggest providers, has also seen a spike in demand.

When they recently opened two new classes, “[We] are filling them practically overnight because there are no seats left,” said Marianne Giordano, a vice president at UCP. “There’s not enough programs to meet the needs of all the children with disabilities out there.”

The city’s education department did not deny that there are shortages for preschool special ed programs across the city, but largely declined further comment.

“We are dedicated to ensuring the individual needs of students with disabilities are met and work closely with families to provide an appropriate placement that provides a supportive learning environment for each student,” spokeswoman Toya Holness wrote in a statement.

Still, providers and advocates say many preschoolers with disabilities are unable to find seats. But figuring out exactly how many is more complicated than it seems.

As recently as 2014, the city gave service providers what was known as a “Pupil in Need” list that showed how many preschool students were waiting for the services that had been promised on a student’s individualized education plan. An old version of that list, which included month-by-month breakdowns, showed that anywhere from dozens to hundreds of students waited for seats at various points throughout the year, though the city has since stopped publicly releasing it.

The city’s Department of Education did not answer questions about why it stopped releasing those numbers. The department also did not comment on how many students are currently waiting for services, and declined interview requests. (A spokesperson wrote via email that they have “effective methods of communicating with relevant programs to notify them of individual students who are awaiting placement.”)

But even in the absence of hard numbers, there are other signs of shortages. This year, for instance, the State Education Department has asked for applications from providers to open more special education preschool programs in every borough “to address the specific regional need.” And while the state declined to comment for this story, a 2014 state report warned that funding shortfalls “may ultimately affect the quality and availability of preschool special education services.”

‘Finding it difficult to operate’

In an ironic twist, shortages of special education seats could partly be an unintended consequence of the city’s promise to offer a free seat to every child.

Since the city can pay thousands more in salary and benefits compared with the private preschool providers (whose funding is controlled by the state), special education programs face stiff competition for staff from the city’s own pre-K program, and many experience constant teacher turnover.

On average, privately operated preschool special education providers often pay between $20,000 and $30,000 less than the education department’s preschool programs, salary data show, which makes it difficult to retain experienced teachers, a problem that also exists among Pre-K for All providers.

“Last year, with the expansion of universal pre-K, we lost our staff in droves,” said Carol Verdi, a vice president at HeartShare Human Services, which runs three early childhood centers in Queens and one in Brooklyn. Her agency experienced roughly 50 percent staff turnover from last year to this year. “You can’t fault people for leaving to make their lives better, but we are at real risk for not being able to run our programs with qualified staff.”

Verdi’s staff losses may seem extreme, but in a survey conducted by the Interagency Council of Developmental Disabilities Agencies, 30 preschool special ed providers reported losing an average of 32 percent of their certified teachers in the second half of 2015, and 23 percent of their teaching assistants. In a more recent 2016 survey, providers continued to report dramatic rates of staff turnover.

“We have some programs right now that don’t even have enough staff to operate all their classrooms,” said Chris Treiber, a director for children’s services at the Interagency Council, which represents providers. “Those programs are going to close, and no one is going to take those kids. The children with the highest level of need — there aren’t going to be those services available.”

‘A dark cloud’

Competition with Pre-K for All is not the only problem. The private providers that offer special education preschool claim that their funding has not kept up with costs.

“They have gone a long time without any significant increase in their reimbursement rate and some of them are finding it difficult to operate,” said Levine. “And we’ve seen some programs close down as a result.”

Many of the providers say there’s a simple solution to this problem: a funding increase from the state.

For six of the past eight years, special education preschool programs received no funding increases. In the last two funding cycles, the providers got a 2 percent bump each year — roughly half the increase that similar school-age special education providers received.

The years of flat funding coincided with a wider state freeze for many human services providers. But state policymakers had another reason to choke financing: Special education preschool costs have soared, and a series of high-profile audits revealed that some providers misspent money on lavish vacations and executive salaries, which ultimately led to criminal charges. (For his part, Treiber said his association has supported legislation requiring stricter financial oversight.)

“It put a dark cloud over the whole industry and there were definitely some bad apples,” said Verdi, the vice president at HeartShare Human Services, which runs special ed preschool programs. “And as a result, we get painted with the same brush.”

The funding crunch, she said, has meant that her organization has started running $800,000 annual operating deficits on its preschool special education programs alone. “If my deficits keep going up, our board has told me that we don’t know how long we can continue to fundraise to offset the deficit.”

‘He’s not there yet’

Shavon Gilliam has felt the impact of the shortage firsthand. After struggling to find Mikel a special education preschool program for six months, she finally found a seat this September with help from Advocates for Children.

Shavon Gilliam runs through flashcards with her son, Mikel.
PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Shavon Gilliam runs through flashcards with her son, Mikel.

She acknowledges that part of why she didn’t get a preschool placement immediately is that she only started looking for a program in March. “That was my lapse in judgment,” she said. Still, even though Mikel’s individualized education plan called for a full-time special ed class, for months the city was only able to provide three hours per week of home-based therapy.

On a recent Friday evening, Gilliam sat with her son in their ground-floor apartment running through flashcards with different meats, fruits, and vegetables pictured on them.

She was proud that he could correctly identify the names and colors of the images in front of him, but wondered whether he’d be further along if he had received services sooner.

“I think he would be saying more phrases by now,” Gilliam said. “Right now he should be saying paragraphs. He’s not there yet.”

Q and A

Former Success Academy lawyer hoping to start own charter network wants to ‘take it to the next level’

As the former top lawyer for Success Academy, Emily Kim had a hand in almost every aspect of New York City’s largest and most controversial charter-school network — from negotiating lunch times for schools in shared buildings to defending Success in court.

After spending six years with Success, Kim is setting off to launch her own charter network with locations in Manhattan’s District 6, which includes Inwood and Washington Heights, and the Bronx’s District 12, which includes the south and central Bronx. Called Zeta Charter Schools, she hopes to open in 2018.

PHOTO: Photo courtesy of Emily Kim
Emily Kim

Kim is still a big believer in Success — two of her children go there, and she praised its lightening-rod leader, Eva Moskowitz, as “brilliant” — but she thinks she has something different to offer.

“I chose the best schools possible for my own children,” she said during a recent interview with Chalkbeat near her home on the Upper West Side, “but I’m still going to innovate and take it to the next level.”

The school’s co-founders — Jessica Stein and Meghan Mackay — also have ties to Success, as do several board members listed in the school’s charter application. (One of the board members, Jenny Sedlis, is a Success co-founder and director of the pro-charter advocacy group, StudentsFirstNY.)

But Kim’s vision also seems tailored to avoid some of the usual critiques of charter schools, including that they rely on harsh discipline policies. By contrast, her plan for Zeta calls for limiting the use of suspensions. She also wants her schools to be diverse, though she admits that will be difficult in residentially segregated areas like the Bronx.

A mother of three, Kim has taught in classrooms in New York City, Long Island and even West Africa. She worked on special education issues in Philadelphia district schools before heading to law school at Temple and Columbia. While working as a corporate litigator, she took on a case pro-bono for Success — and was soon offered a job as the network’s first general counsel.

Below are edited highlights from our interview with Kim earlier this month where she described how her experience as an Asian-American growing up in Iowa shaped her views on school segregation, why she believes high-stakes tests are important, and what role she sees for charter schools like hers.

Kim talked about sending her son to Success:

My child was 4 years old when all of this kind of unfolded. The first school I visited was Eva’s school, Harlem 4.

… I was so astounded by what I saw — which is the energy of the teachers. Just the level of dedication, commitment, the joy and energy of their teachers — I was blown away.

Then Eva gave a talk at the end. She was clearly a hard-driving, almost in a sense, from my perspective then, a business person. So I thought, “That’s the type of person who should be running schools.”

What’s your role going to be as you launch your own charter schools?

I’ll be the CEO. I want to take all of the great things that I saw at Success and at other schools and — like in any other enterprise — I want to take the best of the best, and I want to implement it.

And then I want to work on implementing some of the ideas that I have as well.

What’s your goal for your schools?

The number one goal is to just create additional education opportunities. As a parent, I feel this very strongly: No parent should have to send their child to a school that is not a good school.

… Our schools are going to prepare kids for the tests, and the reason is that tests are access to power. And whether you like it or not, if you want to go to college — to a good college — if you want to go to law school like I did, you take the SATs. You take the LSAT. You have to do a good job.

How are you going to measure your schools’ success?

Academic outcomes are first and foremost because truly, if I can’t hit the academic outcomes, there’s no point. I’m wasting everybody’s time and I don’t want to do that. That’s number one.

… We’re looking at going backward from very rigorous high school and college curricula, and working backwards from there. So that’s our vision when we’re establishing our schools. What do kids need to be successful in college?

And it’s not just the testing outcomes, but it’s also the soft skills that kids need in order to get there. Kids need to be able to self-regulate, and that’s got to start in elementary school, in order to be successful in middle school.

On what her schools will look like:

One of the most important elements of our school design is going to be technology.

We’re still in early days, but I’m visiting many schools across the nation that are doing things that are very exciting in technology. I’m also going to be looking in the private sector to understand what are the skills that kids need to actually be innovators. I’d love if one of our students were able to invent an app that made a difference in the world.

Many New York City schools, district and charter alike, are highly segregated by race and class. Kim spoke about the city’s segregation:

In New York City, with the exception of Success Academy and other high-performing schools, you can go to the playground and look at the skin of the children who are playing there or look around the neighborhood and the socioeconomic status of the neighborhood, and you’ll know the quality of the school. It’s a terrible, terrible situation. And that’s 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education.

And how her own background informs her views on the issue:

I grew up in Iowa. I was one of the very few students who looked like me. My dad was a math professor. There were very few African Americans, few Hispanics, and very few Asians. That was hard in a lot of ways in that I grew up with a lot of teasing and whatnot. But I also was forced to navigate a world that I didn’t understand from my own experience.

… I have the perspective that it shouldn’t [just] be the case that minorities are integrating into the larger majority population. The majority population also has to integrate themselves in the minority enclaves. As long as we have this idea that it has to go one way only, that’s perpetuating the problem.

Have the city’s charter schools done enough when it comes to integration?

… It’s just so challenging for charters because honestly, opponents of charters use the segregation idea as another weapon against charters in terms of why they’re not serving the greater good — because they’re segregated.

Well, they’re segregated because they went into areas that were low income. Unfortunately, those kids weren’t getting a good education.

So what should the mission of charter schools be?

Charter schools were largely, originally intended to bring options to children who didn’t have them — so that would be low-income [students]. That’s not really my vision of charter schools. I think that charter schools are places where innovation can happen.

… I would love for what we learn through our [research-and-development] approach to be implemented at district schools. I’m very interested in district reform. I think there are a lot of challenges to district reform, but we’d love to come up with solutions that can be applied in other contexts.

Kim explained her decision to leave Success and start her own schools:

Staying with Success surely would have been a very rich experience, but I also thought I wanted to build something and I had some ideas.

… It was a really hard decision. But I’m really glad I did and every day I’ve made that decision, I feel like I’ve made the right decision.

I guess it will be answered once I have the schools up and running. If they’re doing well, then I’ll have my answer.

legal showdown

Lawsuit targets New York City program that strands poor students without required special ed services

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Public Advocate Letitia James announced a report earlier this month criticizing the city's special education voucher program.

A program that makes New York City parents responsible for finding their own special education services — but that often leaves them with no services at all — is under legal attack.

The class action lawsuit, filed Thursday in a federal district court, aims to reform the city’s process for ensuring that students with disabilities receive “related services” — which include physical therapy, certain medical services and counseling, among other therapies.

When the city’s education department is unable to offer those services itself, or through a contractor, parents are given a voucher that can be used to pay an outside provider. But that system puts the onus on families to find providers, and about half of the 9,164 vouchers issued during the 2015-16 school year went unused, according to a report issued earlier this month by the public advocate’s office.

The lawsuit centers on the Bronx, where the problem is particularly acute. In District 8, which includes Hunts Point, Throgs Neck and Soundview, 91 percent of the 129 vouchers issued last school year went unused — the highest rate anywhere in the city.

The city’s public advocate found that families face a number of barriers to using the vouchers: They often struggle to find providers in their neighborhoods, have difficulty arranging for transportation and getting reimbursed to send their children elsewhere, or simply can’t find providers who are responsive.

In part because of those challenges, an attorney who helped bring the lawsuit said the city can’t simply offer a voucher to fulfil its obligation to provide special education services.

“The DOE has to ensure that students actually get [services]” said Seth Packrone, a lawyer at Disability Rights Advocates, which contributed to the public advocate’s report. “They can’t just issue a voucher and then step away.”

The goal of the litigation is to force the education department to come up with a plan to ensure that students in the Bronx receive the services they have been guaranteed, Packrone said. It is not yet clear what that plan could entail or how it could affect other neighborhoods, which also have large numbers of unused vouchers.

The complaint says the city’s voucher program violates multiple federal laws that guarantee students with disabilities a free and appropriate public education. The plaintiffs in the case are two Bronx students and Bronx Independent Living Services, a nonprofit that works with students who have disabilities.

Education department spokeswoman Toya Holness wrote in a statement: “We are dedicated to meeting the needs of students with disabilities and in the small percentage of cases when we issue a related service authorization, we work with families to connect them with an appropriate provider in their area.”

She referred questions about the lawsuit to a law department spokesman, who said the city is reviewing the complaint.