City Urged to Slow Down on Special Ed Plans

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A citywide special education plan that aims to put New York City more in step with other school districts around the country by including those students in general education classrooms is causing commotion here, with a growing chorus of parents, teachers and elected officials insisting it is being too hastily implemented with too little information.

The comprehensive “inclusion” plan, three years in the making, is scheduled to begin this fall. It would send all but the city’s most severely learning-disabled students into their neighborhood schools, a shift from past practices. And it encourages principals to enroll them in general education classes when feasible.

But detractors say the city's Department of Education is relying on its own inconclusive study to launch the changes, which they say may do more harm than good. The plan, they say, has not been thoroughly vetted and the educational impact has not been measured here.

Besides, they argue, too few school administrators and parents are really prepared to take on the challenges that will come with it.

"Special education and general education parents have not been informed,” said Mona Davids, president of the New York City Parents Union, an advocacy group, during a news conference on the steps of City Hall Tuesday. “There has been no outreach.”

Later, at a hearing of the City Councils’ Education Committee, some council members and the committee chairman, Robert Jackson, raised concerns that the city has given parents limited “info and data” on a program that is scheduled to launch in just a few months.

Laura Rodriquez, the deputy chancellor for special education, rebutted the criticism, saying the Education Department had conducted extensive training programs with both general education and special education teachers, has hired 60 coaches, and has held numerous workshops for teachers and principals.

Schools are responsible for informing parents about the changes and the Education Department has produced a guide book in nine languages and has provided information online about the new procedures, she said.

Still, Carmen Alvarez, the vice president of special education for the United Federation of Teachers, says when the union held a workshop for more than 600 teachers, parents and principals last week, many in attendance said they were still in the dark about the new program. “They didn’t know what it meant,” she said.

City officials have been criticized for disseminating limited information resulting from a pilot program in 260 schools. The program showed that students in those schools were far less likely to be classified as in need of special education services and those who were classified as special ed were more likely to be mainstreamed for at least part of the day -- both key goals of the program.

But it is unclear whether students made significant academic progress under the new system. Ms. Rodriguez said that will be more closely studied next year, after the program is in effect citywide.

Ms. Rodriguez said there is ample research supporting these kinds of plans, with numerous national studies indicating that special education students who spend time in general education classes perform better on English and math tests, have better attendance and are less likely to have discipline problems.

Under the new system, schools would be responsible for evaluating special education students' individualized education programs, known in special education parlance as I.E.P.’s, and would be encouraged to alter them often, with the goal of getting children into the least isolating environments possible, she said.

The city’s chief academic officer, Shael Polakow-Suransky, said the city needed to change a system that has not worked. Being classified as learning-disabled in New York and spending an entire academic career in self-contained classes can be “an academic death-sentence,” he told council members. Now many of the city’s 177,000 learning disabled students are bused far from home to special education schools.

Last year, only 4 percent of the city’s disabled students were mainstreamed. Statewide, more than 32 percent of special education students received isolated services for more than 60 percent of the day, contributing to New York State's low ranking among states for mainstreaming.

Only 31 percent graduated high school in four years, with a mere 4 percent who had been in special education classes from second grade through high school receiving a diploma.

Some of the critics pointed out that Ms. Rodriguez, who has been with the Education Department for 34 years, is retiring before the program is fully implemented this fall, depriving the system of her vast expertise at a critical time. She said her replacement, Corinne Rello-Anselmi, has been with the department for 33 years, much of that time working with special education populations.

Editor's Note: This post was updated to clarify remarks by Shael Polakow-Suransky.