Without proper planning, vulnerable children who are being mainstreamed from special education programs "can be set up to fail." Steven Banks, Legal Aid's Attorney-in-Chief, told The New York Times. "And that is in nobody's interest." Banks said that Legal Aid has been receiving “significant numbers of calls from very concerned parents who are just now learning about their children’s placements and have valid concerns that there are not sufficient supports in their locally zoned schools.”
A report by the Fund for Public Advocacy praised the New York City Department of Education for preparing for significant special education reforms. However, it also expressed concern about whether schools had enough money and whether teachers had enough training for the changes.
Previously, Cara Chambers, Director of The Legal Aid Society's Kathryn A. McDonald Education Advocacy Project in the Juvenile Rights Practice, testified before the New York City Council's Committee on Education about the "Oversight: Department of Education's Special Education Reform" in June. Ms. Chambers urged the City Council to "closely monitor the implementation of the reform to ensure that it truly benefits children with disabilities."
The New York Times
August 31, 2012
Mainstreaming Efforts Praised in Schools Study
By Al Baker
A study released on Friday said that the New York City Department of Education had done a good job of preparing for significant special education reforms that will begin in earnest next week, but it expressed concerns about whether schools had enough money and teachers had enough training to carry out the changes.
The reforms are intended to reverse a longstanding practice of segregating special education students in their own classrooms and schools. Beginning this year, all special education students, except those with the most severe needs, may enroll in neighborhood zoned schools. Those schools are being encouraged to move more special education students into regular classroom settings, a process known as mainstreaming.
Though federal legislation requires special education students to attend schools in their own neighborhoods when possible, 59 percent of the city’s elementary and middle-school students did not do so last year, with many of them facing long bus trips to and from school. In 2005, an Education Department report documented “longstanding, significant problems,” in the city’s ability to meet the needs of students with disabilities under federal and state law.
One major goal is to increase the graduation rates of those students. The rate reached 31 percent last year, up from 18.3 percent five years ago, but was less than half the 66 percent rate for all students last year. In all, 160,000 of the city’s 1.1 million students receive some kind of special education services. They include not only students who are in dedicated classrooms or schools, but also those in regular classrooms who receive occasional services, like speech therapy, once a week or more.
The report, prepared by the Fund for Public Advocacy, a nonprofit group affiliated with the public advocate’s office, found that the Education Department did well in preparing for the changes, including expanding its training for school personnel, developing a phone hot line for parents to call and setting up nine offices across the city devoted to providing information on special education.
But it questioned alterations in the way the department provided funds for special education, in particular its decision, in recent years, to compensate schools based on the number of special education students they had, rather than on the number of classes. Since some schools have special education classrooms with very few students, that could lead to financial shortages, because those schools would still have to hire the same number of special education teachers and aides as if they had fuller classrooms.
Citing a school official’s view of the costs associated with the changes, the report said that, “without increased funding it is difficult to debunk the myth that special education reform is ‘really all about saving money.’”
The study examined the first year of a two-year trial program, which began in 2010, in which 260 of the city’s 1,700 schools began making the changes. Education Department officials said on Friday that in the first year, those schools had an 11.3 percent increase in the number of special education students who were moved to less-restrictive class settings.
The officials said they were still analyzing data from the trial program’s second year, but acknowledged that change would take time.
“The overall picture is there have been very small shifts,” said Shael Polakow-Suransky, the Education Department’s chief academic officer. He said the department was moving slowly and carefully, examining each child’s needs individually. “This is not meant to be a very fast shift.”
The reforms were supposed to be adopted citywide last year, but in January 2011, Cathleen P. Black, then the schools chancellor, delayed its beginning to give schools more time to prepare.
Joseph J. Nobile, the principal at Public School 304 in the Bronx, one of the trial schools, said that a quarter of all special education students in his school had been moved into less restrictive settings over the last two years. He said they had achieved academic gains.
The changes are needed to help special education students reach their potential, he said. But many staff members came away feeling discouraged because, while more was being asked of them, they received no more time or money to accomplish their goals, he said.
“The philosophy was there, but the funding was not,” Mr. Nobile said.
Steven Banks, the chief lawyer for the Legal Aid Society, said his organization has been receiving “significant numbers of calls from very concerned parents who are just now learning about their children’s placements and have valid concerns that there are not sufficient supports in their locally zoned schools.”
“Mainstreaming is important, but without proper planning, very vulnerable children can be set up to fail,” Mr. Banks said. “And that is in nobody’s interest.”
Officials in the Education Department pointed out that the report did not analyze the trial program’s second year and did not reflect all the measures taken in the last year to support teachers, principals and others. In a letter accompanying the report, the schools chancellor, Dennis M. Walcott, cited increases in professional development, and money to achieve them.
As for money, Mr. Polakow-Suransky said, the report did not reflect how financial formulas were adjusted last year to funnel more resources into the kinds of programs that the special education effort demands.
“There were people that said they were worried there was a need for additional funding at a time of budget cuts,” said Mr. Polakow-Suransky. “The concern they raised, we heard it too, and we fixed it.”
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