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Special Education Overhaul Brings New Concerns About Students' Programs

Monday, July 02, 2012 - 02:46 AM

As more neighborhood public schools open their doors to students with disabilities this fall, advocates, parents and educators say they are worried about a potential lack of support, especially when it comes to negotiating a student's Individualized Education Program, or I.E.P.

The legally binding document is the cornerstone of a quality education for a child with disabilities, according to the United States Department of Education, and reaching agreement on one can be difficult.

Shael Polakow-Suransky, the Education Department's chief academic officer, said individual meetings to devise a plan should be a time for parents and schools to "have a real dialogue about what's right for the child."

Both the parents and the school team must agree to the plan. Getting the right mix of services and supports, and fleshing out how the document will guide classroom experience, can be hampered when parents and schools do not see eye to eye.

This why some parents and advocates expect the process will get only harder next school year, when most students with disabilities will attend school in their local communities as the city overhauls special education and moves closer to many other states that have adopted an "inclusion" model, with all but the most disabled special education students mainstreamed into regular classrooms.

Now many of these students must travel to schools that offer relevant services and presumably are more experienced in devising students' individualized education programs. But even among experts, the negotiation is fraught.

Sheindel Katz, a school psychologist at Public School 380 John Wayne Elementary and Juan Morel Campos Secondary School in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, said there can be miscommunication because parents and staff members see the child in different settings, and have different impressions.

"Oftentimes parents and teachers and providers are coming to the table, they're coming to the meeting, and they have emotional ties to the situation," she said.

Andrea Lella, an advocate, expects the changes in the special education approach will increase her caseload. Ms. Lella works with the parents of special education students on Staten Island, through a nonprofit organization called Families Helping Families. She helps them figure out what services are available and what the right classroom environment might be.

"I have to go in there and teach the people how to write goals, teach the people how to write an I.E.P., and teach the people what testing accommodations are available," she said.

There currently are about 145,000 students with Individualized Education Programs who attend community district schools, the schools that will be affected by special education reform. (There are an additional 20,000 students enrolled in schools in District 75, the city's special education district.)

With changes rolling out to community district schools next school year — starting with students entering kindergarten, sixth grade and ninth grade — Mr. Polakow-Suransky says schools will have ample support. Principals and teachers have already received some training, he said, and the Education Department has hired more specialists to work in the school support networks.

Schools will also create "school implementation teams," made up of trained staff members, to help oversee the changes, he said.

“Our commitment to teachers is, if you aren't getting what you need in your school, we need to know that," Mr. Polakow-Suransky said. "And we will push in and give you additional training.”

Mr. Polakow-Suransky added that he understood the anxiety that comes with change, but that special education reform takes the long view of closing a wide achievement gap between students with disabilities and students without disabilities.

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