by JENNIFER MEDINA |New York Times
April 28, 2010--The Bloomberg administration, struggling to address the needs of a growing number of students with learning disabilities, is overhauling special education by asking every principal to take in more of the students and giving them greater flexibility in deciding how to teach them.
<<Justin Lane/European Pressphoto Agency -The city schools chancellor, Joel I. Klein, left, and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.
This fall, more than 250 schools will be asked to accept more students with disabilities rather than send them to schools that have specific programs for special education, as has been the case for decades. By September 2011, principals at each of the system’s 1,500 schools will be expected to enroll all but the most severely disabled students; those students will continue to be served by schools tailored exclusively to them.
The shift echoes one of the central philosophies of the administration, giving principals more responsibility and control over their schools. It is also an effort to bring New York more in line with the nationwide trend of allowing special education students to benefit from regular classroom settings.
But some special education advocates and principals worry that the changes could be too difficult for principals with little knowledge of special education, who are already strained by day-to-day issues and impending budget cuts.
“This is fundamentally looking to change the way kids with special needs are treated in the city — they’re talking about changing the culture of all the schools in the city so that they can serve students that many of them were previously shipping out,” said Kim Sweet, the executive director of Advocates for Children of New York, which helps parents navigate the special education system. “This could easily fall flat if it’s not done right.
“If kids are stuck in schools that don’t have the capacity to serve them and are denied requests to move elsewhere, that would be falling worse than flat.”
Like other large cities, New York has had difficulty figuring out how to provide appropriate services for disabled students without isolating them, and how to manage large spending increases on special education.
Enrollment in special education programs has climbed to some 177,000 students, or more than 17 percent of the system, up from roughly 13 percent in 2003. Experts in special education say it is difficult to know what has caused the increase. Theories include better identification of students with learning disabilities, particularly autism; parents being less reluctant to see their children identified as disabled; and the possibility that more children might actually have difficulties than in years past.
The city now spends $4.8 billion annually on special education, up from $3.8 billion five years ago. That includes $1.2 billion to send students to private schools. Recent state and United States Supreme Court rulings strengthened the rights of parents of special education students to receive private schooling at taxpayer expense if public schools cannot give them the services they need.
Education Department officials said that they did not believe they would save money and that costs did not factor in their decision to make the change. Rather, they said, it was an effort to improve results for special education students.
While graduation rates have risen over all, for example, the rates for special education students have remained stubbornly low — fewer than 25 percent received a regular diploma last year, compared with more than double that for traditional students.
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and the city schools chancellor, Joel I. Klein, first pushed to move more disabled students into mainstream classes in 2003. The effort never took hold. Making matters worse, many student files were misplaced or lost, and some students received no services for months at a time. Since then, the department has spent more than $40 million to computerize records.
Laura Rodriguez, the deputy chancellor for special education and students still learning English, who was appointed last year to oversee the changes, said she was confident they would stick this time because so many educators were frustrated with the system.
“There has never been a golden age of special education,” Ms. Rodriguez said. “For the vast majority of students, there’s no reason they cannot be in a regular classroom setting if they get what they need.”
Some schools have no special education students. Others, particularly in black and Hispanic neighborhoods, have as much as one-third of the student body receiving services. Ms. Rodriguez said there was a narrow divide between some students classified as special education and those who simply struggled in math and reading.
Exactly how the new policies will be carried out remains uncertain. The department could not say how it would enforce the requirement that principals accept more special education students. Officials did say there would be no quota for each school. Selective schools like Stuyvesant High School would continue to grant students with disabilities extra time to complete admissions tests and would not be expected to soften their entry requirements. Officials also said they did not expect to make changes in District 75, which serves 23,000 special education students in schools dedicated to them.
Principals are also wary of violating myriad complicated special education laws. Many of the city’s services for students with disabilities are governed by court-ordered consent agreements, the result of lawsuits brought by parents demanding appropriate services for their children. But Ms. Rodriguez said the law allowed principals more flexibility than most of them realized.
“On the one hand, this is incredibly exciting to have more freedom to do what we think is the best for students,” said Allison Gaines Pell, the principal of the Urban Assembly Academy of Arts and Letters middle school in Brooklyn, which is involved in the changes next year. “But it’s also scary. I need to know that all my teachers have enough training. I need to know what all the right services are.”
In New York City schools, special education students are generally taught in one of three ways — in a traditional class but with an extra teacher, an approach known as collaborative team teaching; in small classrooms with 6 to 12 students; or by being pulled out of a traditional classroom to receive extra services like speech or physical therapy.
Charlene Carroll-Hall, whose son Traé is a high school freshman, said she thought the goal of integrating special education students with their peers was laudable but worried that students could slip through the cracks.
“My son had to fail at a regular zoned school first before I could get him the help he needed — they just put him in there and didn’t expect much and didn’t care,” Ms. Carroll-Hall said of one school her son attended.
In schools more focused on special education, she added, “he could finally catch up; they expected him to actually learn something and they knew how to teach it.” He now attends Queens High School of Teaching, a regular school, where he has a part-time aide.
Some principals say they are particularly nervous about having more demands on them at a time of budget cuts, though public money is provided to cover special education students’ services. For example, Ms. Gaines Pell said, if she decided midyear that a student should have a dedicated aide for reading, she wondered whether the school could secure the money for it. Others are concerned that they may overlook a nuance in the educational plan that states which services a student should receive.
“The fundamental question is, How much special education expertise am I expected to have, and how much special education services am I supposed to provide?” said Randi Herman, a vice president of the principals’ union, who has been involved in the department’s efforts. “They want to do right by the parents and the child, but right now, there’s a real sense of uncertainty around that.”