voucher void

Report: Special education voucher program leaves some of New York City’s poorest families without services

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Gloria Alfinez with her son, a rising fourth-grader with special needs, who she says did not receive appropriate services.

Thousands of students with special needs in New York City are not receiving required services due to a system that forces families to find certain therapists on their own if their schools are unable to provide them.

That’s according to a report released Wednesday by the city’s public advocate, Letitia James, who investigated the city’s system for providing what are called “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 figures provided by the public advocate’s office.

“The burden should not shift from the Department of Education to parents,” James said at a press conference. “The process itself is in violation of the law.”

Even as the city has made reforms to its special education system, the report offers another window into a system that often falls short. The city’s own statistics showed that during the same year, just 59 percent of students with special needs received the full range of services they were entitled to, and thousands received no services at all.

The voucher system disadvantages poorer neighborhoods, the report finds, especially those in the far corners of Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx. In the Bronx’s District 8, for instance, 91 percent of the 129 vouchers issued in the 2015-16 school year went unused — the highest rate anywhere in the city. In Queens’s District 27, 79 percent of vouchers went unused. Brooklyn’s District 14, covering Williamsburg and Greenpoint, had the lowest rate of unused vouchers, but nearly a quarter still went unused.

Based on interviews with families and providers themselves, the report attributes the large share of unused vouchers to a series of interlocking barriers: Families 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.

One parent, Yamile Henry, said through an interpreter that she wasn’t even aware she might need to take her son outside the school to get key services, and that letters were sent home in English (she speaks Spanish). “I cannot take my son to services because I work,” she said. “I still don’t know if my son is receiving them.”

But even parents who do try to arrange outside help often face roadblocks.

The public advocate’s office called scores of providers that the education department recommends to parents in the Bronx, and found the vast majority did not have any availability. Of the providers contacted, James said, just six were available and willing to travel to the Bronx.

The report notes that payment rates are low for providers in the voucher program, and reimbursement is often slow, meaning “many providers do not want to take [the vouchers] as a result.”

But even among the families who do manage to take advantage of the program, the services are often in place months after the school year starts, partly because of delays earlier in the referral process caused by the city’s notoriously dysfunctional special education data system.

Education department spokeswoman Toya Holness said the city has hired 700 new clinicians over the past three years for occupational, speech and physical therapy — and the percentage of students receiving required related services stood at 95 percent last school year, an 11 percentage point increase over five years.

Holness pointed out that only a small share of students who need related services are in the voucher program, and “we work closely with each family to connect them with an appropriate provider in their area and, if needed, provide transportation.”

Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children, said in an interview that the report’s findings did not surprise her and that related services are just as important as general academic instruction.

“It’s all the other things that go into a student’s ability to process and learn and develop in school,” Moroff said. “Without any of them, you’re denying a student a really important piece of their education.”

NEW DATA

To help students with physical disabilities navigate a maze of barriers, NYC releases new reports on high school accessibility

PHOTO: Cassi Feldman
Midwood High School is considered inaccessible to students with physical disabilities.

When Michelle Noris helped her son apply to public high schools, she knew the city’s directory would not be much use.

Since her son, Abraham, uses a wheelchair and the city’s official list of over 400 high schools contains little information about physical infrastructure, Noris knew she’d have to make phone calls and set up visits to find out whether cafeterias, auditoriums, and even front entrances could accommodate a wheelchair.

“I spent hours and hours on that,” said Noris, a former member of the Citywide Council on Special Education. “It felt like I shouldn’t have to do this.”

Now, after lobbying from Noris and other advocates, the city is starting to release more detailed information about how accommodating its high schools are for students with disabilities — an effort to reduce the burden on those students and their families to figure it out for themselves.

New online profiles indicate whether school bathrooms, gymnasiums, classrooms, libraries, hallways and other spaces are completely accessible on each floor, and if not, what barriers might be present.

They are meant to correct a major challenge for families seeking accessibility information about New York City’s high schools: 62 percent are deemed “partially accessible,” an ambiguous term that is supposed to mean students with disabilities can access “relevant programs,” but in practice gives little sense of the scope of accessibility issues. Just 13 percent of high school buildings are fully accessible, according to 2016 data.

A partially accessible school might have a ramp, but it’s connected to a service entrance designed to transport garbage rather than wheelchairs. A school could have an accessible bathroom, but it’s on the second floor. An auditorium might accommodate a wheelchair, but provide no access to the stage.

In recent months, the education department has posted on its website new “Building Accessibility Profiles” that offer such granular, crucial details — based on a 58-question survey conducted by department employees.

One Upper Manhattan school building, which houses New Design Middle School and two KIPP charter schools, earned one of the highest possible accessibility ratings. But its profile notes that the bathrooms might not be maneuverable; some stalls are missing grab bars; there is no braille signage throughout the building; and some of its hallway doors may be too heavy for students with limited upper body strength. (The reports do not differentiate between schools that share buildings, a concern among some advocates because students at each school may have different accessibility needs.)

For now, the profiles only exist for high school buildings in Manhattan, Staten Island and the Bronx, putting the city behind on its original schedule to have every high school profile available in time for this year’s application season. City officials said they plan to complete profiles for all partially accessible high schools by January, but could not offer a timeline for middle or elementary schools. (The decision to release more high school accessibility data comes almost two years after a scathing U.S. Department of Justice investigation revealed “inexcusable” accessibility problems in elementary schools.)

Experts largely praised the city for beginning to make the high school choice process less onerous for students with disabilities by offering them more information about physical accessibility.

But some also pointed out that the information is difficult to find. The city’s official high school directory only says whether schools are “accessible” or “not accessible,” a potentially misleading indicator given that most schools fall somewhere in between. And the city’s “School Finder” site, essentially a digital version of the directory, does not link to the new accessibility data, though a spokesman said that information will be included in future updates.

“This is all really, really valuable information,” said Maggie Moroff, a special education policy expert at Advocates for Children. “But if families don’t have a way of getting to it easily, it doesn’t do them a whole lot of good.”

The easiest way to get to the information is on the city’s Office of Space Planning website, which lists each school’s accessibility profile.

Still, there are significant upsides to the new data — and not just for parents.

More detailed information about building infrastructure could help the city better-allocate capital funding to schools that might only need modest improvements to become significantly more accessible, Moroff said. The city’s current five-year capital plan includes $100 million for such improvements.

“We work diligently with families and school communities to ensure every student has a seat at a school that meets their accessibility needs,” said education department spokesman Michael Aciman.

While Noris, the parent and disability advocate, said she would have loved the additional information when she was searching for a high school for her son, she’s glad her advocacy paid off. She used to carry around mock surveys to show city officials what kinds of information would have helped her, and even used the surveys to rate a few schools, partly to show that useful information about buildings could be extracted in under an hour.

So when Noris saw the data appear on the city’s website, she couldn’t help but feel like she played a role.

“My first reaction was, ‘Oh, they listened to me,’” she said. “I was very pleased.”

now hiring

With a new school year underway, hundreds of teaching positions remain unfilled in New York City

PHOTO: Jaclyn Zubrzycki

Hundreds of schools are missing teachers and support staff two weeks into the school year, with many of the openings in high-poverty districts and struggling schools that are typically the hardest to staff, according to postings on a city database in mid-September.

There were almost 1,700 job postings as of Sept. 19, according to data obtained by Chalkbeat. The listings offer a snapshot of the jobs advertised that day — not an official tally of the total citywide staff openings.

Still, they indicate a critical need for special-education teachers and paraprofessionals, teaching assistants who tend to work with young students and those with disabilities. Many of the unfilled positions were in low-income districts in the Bronx and Brooklyn, and dozens were in schools in the city’s Renewal program for low-performing schools.

The vacancies were posted in the city’s Excessed Staff Selection System, which lists jobs available to teachers in the Absent Teacher Reserve — a pool of teachers who lack permanent positions because they face disciplinary or legal issues, or their schools were closed or downsized. The listings hint at where teachers in the ATR pool may land this year, since the city recently announced it will place such teachers in schools that still have vacancies after Oct. 15.

Education department officials said the data “doesn’t provide accurate or precise information on school vacancies.” In particular, they said there could be a lag in updating the postings, or that schools could post positions that are expected to become available but are currently filled.

In addition, schools may list the same job more than once in order to advertise the position to teachers with different certifications, officials said. For example, a posting for a computer science teacher could also appear as openings for math and science teachers.

Still, the postings suggest where the need for teachers may be greatest — and where ATR teachers could likely end up.

Four out of the five districts with the most postings were in the Bronx. They include Districts 7 and 9 in the South Bronx, along with Districts 10 and 12. District 19 in Brooklyn, which includes East New York, also had dozens of listings.

In District 7, where more than 90 percent of students are poor, there were 60 postings for teachers in subjects ranging from Spanish to physical education and music. That includes 26 listings for paraprofessionals, who are often mandated by students’ special-education plans.

Overall, there were more than 600 listings for paraprofessionals, about half of which were needed to work with students who have disabilities. Almost 400 of the postings were for special-education teachers, who are often in short supply.

Devon Eisenberg knows these staffing challenges well. She is co-principal of The Young Women’s Leadership School of the Bronx in District 9. Despite boasting a staff-retention rate of about 90 percent, the school started the year short one teacher. To plug the hole, Eisenberg relied on substitutes and other teachers to cover the class. She was able to find a permanent hire this week, though the pool of qualified candidates was slim.

“This is definitely not fair for our students as they are not receiving consistent and coherent instruction,” she wrote in an email. “It is also stressful for the teachers covering these holes.”

Starting the school year with a substitute teacher can become a barrier to learning. Research has shown that staff turnover leads to lower test scores, even for students who weren’t in the class that lost its teacher.

Turnover tends to be highest in struggling schools, which often serve the neediest students.

Schools in the Renewal program — which includes 78 low-performing schools — posted about 70 openings, according to the data analyzed by Chalkbeat. The greatest shortage was for special-education teachers, for which there were 16 postings. That was followed by math teachers, with nine openings.

At M.S. 391 The Angelo Patri Middle School, a Renewal school in the Bronx, there were two postings for math teachers. Last year, only 8 percent of students passed state math exams at the school, which has a new principal.

Carmen Marrero teaches special education at M.S. 391 and has worked in other Bronx schools that struggle with staffing.

“We tend to deal with a lot of behavior challenges,” she said, referring to schools in the Bronx. “I guess that keeps some of the aspiring teachers or some of the teachers who are already in the field away from this side of town.”

This year, the openings come with an additional consequence: Schools with vacancies could be prime candidates to receive teachers in the ATR.

Though officials say they will work closely with principals, the department could place teachers even over the objections of school leaders. Some principals have threatened to game the hiring system by simply not posting openings in order to avoid having a teacher from the ATR placed at their school.

Meanwhile, some teachers in the pool dread being assigned to schools whose openings could signal poor leadership or a tough work environment.

Teachers who are in the ATR will not be placed in positions outside of their license areas, which may limit how many of the openings the education department can fill after mid-October.

Critics say the policy will place the least effective teachers in the neediest schools. Education department figures show that only 74 percent of ATR teachers were rated effective, highly effective or satisfactory in 2015-16 — compared to 93 percent of all city teachers.

Education department officials said the city has worked with schools to fill their vacancies well before the start of the school year.

Maria Herrera, principal of Renaissance High School for Musical Theater in the Bronx, said she tries to have all her hires in place by June. That way, she can involve future teachers in end-of-the-year activities that help build a sense of community, and provide training over the summer.

This year, she was able to start school fully staffed. The education department allowed schools to fill positions earlier this year and held numerous job fairs, she said.

“I feel really supported,” she said.