Beth Fertig is WNYC’s Contributing Editor for Education. She previously covered politics, which included City Hall during the Giuliani administration, and the U.S. Senate campaigns of Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton. She also covered transportation and infrastructure.
Special Ed Enrollment Rising in Some Small High Schools
WNYC News Investigation
Wednesday, December 05, 2007
New York, NY –
New York City has opened about 200 small new schools since Mayor Bloomberg took office. The effort is part of a national movement to phase out large failing high schools. Many education advocates believe these smaller and more personalized schools are good environments for special education students. But two years ago, an investigation by WNYC found special ed students are less likely to attend the new schools than other kids. As WNYC’s Beth Fertig reports, that’s now starting to change in a few schools.
REPORTER: The afternoon Global Studies class at the Lyons Community School in Bushwick looks like any other high school class, except for the way the desks are arranged in a circle. But these ninth graders have two teachers instead of one.
TEACHER: What can you tell me, I want to know everything you know about this god.
STUDENT: He like to help people.
REPORTER: The two teachers are needed because the class of 26 students includes five teenagers with learning disabilities and other special needs.
STUDENT: How you spell help? TEACHER: H-E –L-P
REPORTER: One teacher is a subject teacher and the other is certified in special ed. The students don’t know which is which, or the status of their classmates – who may get assignments customized to meet their needs. Fourteen-year-old Ariana Tavares says having two teachers is great.
ARIANA: There’s like, when you raise your hand they come quicker.
REPORTER: But the students with special needs are getting more than attention. Matthew Baez says back when he was in middle school, he was often pulled out of regular classes to get the help he needed for math and reading. Here, he says, he no longer feels like he’s different.
MATTHEW: Because I’m in a class like everybody else. I’m still learning like everybody else. I’m not missing nothing.
REPORTER: The Lyons Community School is one of a handful of small high schools that are using collaborative team teaching. The school opened in September with 81 ninth graders – ten of whom have disabilities. That’s 12 percent of its population, which is a little larger than the overall share of special education students in academic high schools. Principal Taeko Onishi says her school made a conscious effort to include them.
ONISHI: I know a lot of parents of special ed kids who are always bemoaning the fact that their kids can’t go to these new schools. So that has always sat on my conscience.
REPORTER: But Onishi says taking more special education kids also makes sense because teachers need to know how to reach students of all different levels.
ONISHI: Having a special ed teacher kind of is like a formal way of forcing you to deal with these issues that you have to deal with anyway. To say that you don’t have the same wide range of students in a school that doesn’t have special ed students is ludicrous.
REPORTER: But the Lyons school is unusual. WNYC has been studying high school enrollment data provided by the Department of Education. During the last school year, we found small new high schools had about the same proportion of special education students as they did two years ago: between 7 and 8 percent. Our analysis included 120 small new schools compared to 73 two years ago.
But the Education Department says the numbers are actually much more promising when you take a closer look.
HARRIES: We actually see the enrollment going up in the entering classes and it takes some time for that obviously to percolate through the schools.
REPORTER: Garth Harries has been working closely with the small schools as the department’s chief executive for portfolio development. The city has maintained all along that the new schools needed time to grow before taking a larger share of special education students. Harries says that’s finally happening among their ninth graders.
HARRIES: In new schools that have been open three years or more, it’s 14 and a half percent special education students. In schools that have only been open for one or two years it’s a lower percentage. It’s only 6 and a half percent. But over the whole initiative, what that means is the small schools are absorbing higher than average numbers of special ed students.
REPORTER: Harries is using the latest numbers from this fall. He’s also including middle schools that take ninth graders. WNYC only looked at high schools.
Our analysis also found special education students and English Language Learners are still over-represented at violent and failing high schools – though not to the degree they were two years ago. Then, they accounted for 16 to 18 percent of the populations in Schools Under Registration Review, meaning they’re danger of being shut by the state. This past spring they were 13 to 14 percent, though English Language Learners were a little more likely to attend schools the city considers violent and needing extra police. Officials suggest these populations are still a bit skewed because students with special needs often take longer to graduate – and because of another trend acknowledged by Harries.
HARRIES: We have had historically in this city large high schools that have been quote, dropout factories and quote, dumping grounds and it takes some time to unwind that and we’re doing that in different ways. We’ve done that with campuses of small schools, we’ve done it by trying to re-direct and be more strategic about our enrollment including where special education students are going.
TEACHER: What does this creation myth tell you about the hierarchy in India, somebody remind me what’s hierarchy?
REPORTER: The Department even offered grants this fall for new high schools and middle schools to take more special education students in the sixth and ninth grades. But several schools had staffing problems. The Lyons School actually had to forgo its grant because its principal says the special ed teacher she wanted wasn’t on the city’s pre-approved list. She paid for her two teachers by cutting back on other items like computers.
That’s why some watchdogs say the city needs to do even more to help startup schools take special education students. Kim Sweet, executive director of Advocates for Children, says it’s not enough to recruit new ninth graders.
SWEET: I think this data shows they’re going to have to do a lot more than that. I think that the board of ed cannot just say as these schools thrive more special ed students will end up in them. I think actually affirmative steps are going to have to be taken to set up programs that will meet the needs of students with special needs that require more significant level of service than they’ve so far been serving.
REPORTER: And by that, she means programs for students in all grades - who could benefit greatly from smaller and more personalized schools. For WNYC I’m Beth Fertig.
» Download the complete analysis of Special Education and English Language Learners Source: NYC Department of Education, enrollments from. Does not include District 75 and District 79 schools