Kindergarten students in Joan Radigan's class at Public School 295 in Greenwood Heights, Brooklyn, sit on the floor together as they go over the calendar, learning the day of the week and the date. That does not mean they stay seated.
On a recent morning, this ritual was interrupted when one boy who had trouble paying attention popped up and headed straight for the door. Ms. Radigan left the calendar and brought him back to the rug, speaking in a tone that suggested she had done this before.
This boy and his 10 classmates at P.S. 295 all have special needs ranging from learning disabilities to autism spectrum disorders. It is up to Ms. Radigan, and two trained classroom aides, to help these students progress, with an eye on integrating them into regular classrooms next year.
P.S. 295 does not normally separate children with special needs. Usually they are funneled into classes with other children and taught by two teachers to provide everyone with more attention. Educators call that inclusion.
Most of these 11 students were in an inclusion class last year with Ms. Radigan. But when they did not make enough progress, the school decided to give them another year with her in a separate class.
To observers outside the system, that tactic looks like a big step backward.
More than one third of the city’s 165,000 special ed students are in separate classes for most of the school day. That is a bigger percentage than in Chicago and Los Angeles, according to those who have studied the city.
Some academics think anything less than full inclusion adversely affects special ed students for many years, and leads to poor graduation rates. Only 30 percent of New York City's special education students graduate in four years, less than the national average.
"What the research suggests is kids in segregated classes fall further and further behind academically and then socially," said Julie Causton-Theoharis, an assistant professor of teaching at Syracuse University. "The repercussions for being segregated from peers are intense."
She noted that other districts from Concord, N.H., to Charlotte, N.C., now have whole schools that are fully inclusive, with special ed students and trained staffers in every classroom, not just a few.
One study of four California districts that are fully inclusive found tests scores went up for special education students. And studies show that inclusion does not hurt the test scores of the other students.
But city officials say flexibility and principal training are central to their ongoing efforts to revamp special education practices.
"We’re looking at every single kid and we’re saying what could they use to become more successful? What could we give them, what can we provide?" said Deanna Marco, principal of P.S. 295.
Ms. Marco’s school is among 265 schools in which principals and teachers are getting extra training through the Education Department's new reform effort. One goal is to serve every child in his or her neighborhood school. Ms. Marco says that is a big change, because before, if a girl or boy was not progressing, she could send the child to another school.
Educators say a few local public schools have moved toward full inclusion. These include P.S. 186 in Queens and P.S. 396 in the Bronx, according to Dorothy Siegel, who runs a special education program at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Education.
The city says there is also full inclusion at Queens High School of Teaching, Liberal Arts and the Sciences.
But New York City’s chief academic officer, Shael Polakow-Suransky, does not favor getting rid of separate classes completely.
"Inclusion for everyone is potentially not the right thing for some, because some kids may need more support," he said.
Instead, given the city's tight budget, Mr. Polakow-Suransky said the goal of the latest reform effort was to change the way principals think by offering them training and more options. For example, they can pull a child out of class for just one or two periods of reading help, or bring a specialist into the regular class.
So far, Mr. Polakow-Suransky said, there are signs of progress at the pilot schools: fewer students with disabilities are sent to special education classes, as more children are integrated.
At P.S. 295, Ms. Radigan, the teacher, stands by her school’s decision to give 11 kindergartners and first graders an extra year alone with her. She sees the progress when they join other students a few times a week, she said.
"These children used to have trouble when they were in the large group, like in drama, in creative movement, in science," she said. "And now everybody loves them. They think they’re the best, the sweetest, the nicest group."
With that confidence, she expects these students will be ready to join their peers next fall. That is also when the special education changes are supposed to go citywide.