City Sees Special Ed Reforms as Costly but Necessary

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New York City's chief academic officer, Shael Polakow-Suransky, said the overhaul of special education in the public schools would be costly and complicated, but the alternative of maintaining the status quo was untenable, citing the low 5 percent graduation rate for the students currently in self-contained, or separate, special education classes.

"It is a complicated thing to do well but we know that the current structure is failing our kids," he said. "It’s an academic death sentence for those students, and we need to change something.” This fall the city is expanding its 250-school pilot program across the whole school system with the goal of integrating more special education students into mainstream classrooms while still providing the individualized support they may need.

Speaking on WNYC's Brian Lehrer Show, Mr. Polakow-Suransky also said the city hot line for parents of special education students would be up and running this Wednesday. The number is (718) 935-2007.

A high school English teacher who identified himself as Max called the show to raise concerns about inclusion for teachers like him who have their hands full with large classes of teenagers.

"I don’t have paras in my classroom. I teach in an urban high school. Thirty-three kids and you're going to put in a student that needs a lot more support with all the noise and all the things that are going on? I am going to still be held responsible, 1, and the student will not necessarily get all the help they need," he said.

"So, again, when we think about special education and all these things that over time we have built up and then we are going to say well, in September we say we are going to chuck it and start mainstreaming some of these students. Really, is it for the benefit of the student? Or is it for the benefit of well, we need to save more money?"

Mr. Polakow-Suransky told the caller that the plan was to ease into the changes, starting with the incoming grade of a school: kindergarten, sixth grade and ninth grade.

"We are starting there on purpose so we can build capacity of both the special ed teachers and the general ed teachers to do this job well and we anticipate it's going to cost more money. Our budget projects that we are going to be spending more on special ed than we are spending now," he said.

To hear the full conversation, click on play.