Category Archives: Special Education

Progress Report 2012: Special Education Reforms

In 2010, the New York City Department of Education (“DOE”) implemented special education reforms, which included a multi-phase overhaul of the City’s special education programs. The DOE’s chief concerns appeared to be increasing graduation rates for special education students and the proportion of the special education population served in general education settings, as opposed to specialized, segregated special education environments. This was a major undertaking considering, according to DOE-provided statistics, that City schools serve an estimated 160,000 special education students, only about 31% of those students with identified special needs graduate from high school and only 4% of students in self-contained special education classrooms graduate from high school.

When these reforms began in 2010, the 260 schools selected to participate in Phase One were charged with implementing many sweeping changes, but because the reforms initiated funding on a per capita, rather than whole-classroom, basis, most schools realized no significant uptick in funding to implement the required changes.

This fall, the DOE implemented the reforms Citywide. However, several studies conducted during Phase One have yielded disappointing results.  Most educators involved in the process have acknowledged difficulty changing the culture of schools to the point where there are sufficient staff with the knowledge and desire to effect the reforms’ systematic changes.  Furthermore, contracts with service providers (such as psychologists and speech-language pathologists) are geared to the old system, when special needs students were segregated into a handful of schools; now that special needs students are attending their neighborhood schools, many find service providers too geographically remote to obtain effective, consistent services.  And, as Randi Levine, an attorney at Advocates for Children of the City of New York, expressed in testimony before the New York City Council in June, “ambitious reforms require significant planning, capacity building and community buy-in.  While the DOE has met with us on a regular basis and has implemented many of our ideas, we are distraught that the DOE has not answered some basic questions that we have been asking for more than a year.”  Specifically, says Levine, the DOE has not set forth a consistent, thoughtful plan for a presumably common scenario: when a student’s zoned school does not offer the specific type of classroom or services required by that student’s IEP.  According to another recent article, Advocates for Children has fielded more than 40 calls from parents of special needs kindergarteners whose zoned schools have been unable to provide these students with the classroom type they require.  Many of these situations have been remedied by the DOE; however, the 40 families that contacted Advocates for Children do not represent the full universe of children who are not well served under the reforms, only those whose parents have spoken out on their behalf.

In a recent article in the New York Daily News, educators and their union representatives expressed concern that students enrolled in Phase One programs were actually faring worse on standardized tests than students remaining in self-contained special education classes.  Even though a study conducted by the DOE did not show the same disparity, the DOE study did show that students in Phase One did not demonstrate any improvement over non-Phase One students.  This did not, however, stop the DOE from rolling out the reforms Citywide this past September, nor did it cause the DOE to substantially tweak the program.

It is clear that parents and advocates should not jump to conclusions in the face of this data.  Two years is simply not long enough to accurately assess the long-term potential of the DOE’s reforms.  However, it is troubling that the DOE has not been forthcoming with data supporting its assertions that special needs students are faring better under the reforms than in traditional, self-contained classrooms.

So what can be done?  Certainly, at a minimum, DOE needs to provide comprehensive training to classroom teachers, administrators and support staff charged with implementing these reforms.  The DOE also needs to enforce a policy of transparency relating to educational data concerning the efficacy of the reforms, and how this data is being used to improve educational outcomes.  However, it is of the utmost importance that New York City parents of special needs students remain engaged and informed so that they can become successful advocates for their children.  While the DOE is ironing out the wrinkles, it is imperative that children not be left behind, and there are resources available to parents, including legal services such as those provided by this firm, to ensure that the transition to the educational environment envisioned under these reforms is a smooth and productive one for all students.

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Navigating the CSE System: Like David to the DOE’s Goliath, Part One

Time for a change of pace, and an area of the law near and dear to my heart: special education advocacy.  With the start of each school year, countless children struggle to overcome various obstacles to scholastic success.  Some receive the assistance and tools they need to succeed; many, however, do not.  Sadly, the majority of the parents and guardians of students whose needs are not being met do not fully understand their families’ rights, nor do they realize the tools available to them.

All students in this country are guaranteed a “free appropriate public education” (FAPE).  This means that any student in need of special education or other services must be provided necessary instruction, services and modifications, at public expense, according to established standards, and conforming to each student’s Individualized Educational Program (IEP).

The FAPE process may begin long before a child enters kindergarten.  Infants or toddlers identified as having developmental delays may receive services in New York City through the Committee on Preschool Special Education (CPSE), but may no longer require services when they are school-age.  Then again, the need for services and individualized instruction may be just as apparent during the school years as it was during the preschool years.  Children who received services and interventions from the CPSE will, upon entering kindergarten, be referred to the Committee on Special Education (CSE) to determine if further services and interventions are needed.  Other students, who may have entered school without previously receiving services of any kind, may be referred to the CSE at any time if it appears that the child may need services, modifications or interventions.

Once referred to the CSE, the student begins an evaluation process, including medical, behavioral and other examinations designed to shed light on that student’s particular academic and social needs.  The CSE will also gather reports and observations from past teachers and other professionals who have worked with the child in order to fully evaluate that child’s progress.

When the system works, the tools students need to succeed are identified, and parents, teachers and other professionals successfully implement them.  More often than not, however, the system is not a well-oiled machine, and needs some coaxing along.  Even students who are properly referred and evaluated may face an unsympathetic CSE, not receive a proper classification and be denied crucial services.  In such cases, parents can be frustrated, unheard and marginalized, the students suffer, and some well-timed, focused advocacy work can bring about desired results.  In blog posts to follow, we will discuss some of the ways New York City students can fall through the cracks, and what options are available to parents.

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