Special Education Reform Brings City More In Line With National Trend

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This is part of a SchoolBook series on the overhaul of special education practices in the New York City schools. Earlier, we reported on the process of negotiating a student's individualized education plan. Next we will look at how principals are preparing to integrate special-needs students at schools unaccustomed to absorbing this population.

After a two-year pilot phase, changes to the teaching of special education students are coming to almost all the schools in the massive New York City public school system. The theme of the reforms is inclusion, both on the individual school level and systemwide. While many of the details and mechanics are still unclear, and will differ from school to school, education officials say a successful special education program will be one that demonstrates flexibility and as much integration as an individual student can handle, based on his or her particular challenges.

Shael Polakow-Suransky, the city's chief academic officer, said he wanted to see fewer “self-contained” classes, which he termed "an academic death sentence" for many special needs students, and more mixed classes of nondisabled and disabled children.

"What we've seen is, when kids have access to the general ed curriculum -- when they're able to be included with their peers with the right supports -- they often actually rise to the challenge and are able to succeed and do much better," Mr. Polakow-Suransky said.

City education officials also cited research that shows special education students who spend more time in a general education classroom have higher scores on standardized math and reading tests, fewer absences from school and fewer referrals for disruptive behavior. This stands in stark comparison to the graduation rates of students with disabilities who spend their entire career in separate classes: their graduation rate is 5 percent, far below the city’s overall graduation rate of 65 percent.

New York City has about 165,000 students with disabilities in the public schools, and about 40 percent of them spend all or most of their day in classes separate from their nondisabled peers, according to the Education Department. This is not the national norm; inclusive school placement has been the policy for at least a decade in most parts of the country.

The city will start implementing the changes in the incoming classes of kindergarten, sixth grade and ninth grade. Principals and teachers have been undergoing training on how to meet the needs of every student who enters their school, how to work with families on the students’ individualized education plans, or I.E.P.s, and how to support teachers who will have special needs students in their classrooms. Before this year, students could be sent out of their neighborhood or even their district to attend a school already providing the appropriate services. Now, nearly every school is required to provide for students with special needs.

In a letter to principals last year, Schools Chancellor Dennis M. Walcott emphasized the need for “greater curricular, instructional and scheduling flexibility” when it comes to meeting the needs of special education students.

“I want to reiterate that you should determine the least restrictive environment appropriate for each student in each subject area, and the appropriate related services to help each student meet his or her particular educational goals,” Mr. Walcott wrote.

The students with the most severe disabilities still will be served by the highly specialized programs and District 75.

An online explainer of the imminent reforms featured a hypothetical student who needed help with reading. In this case, she might work directly with a special-education teacher on reading skills, but participate in a general education class for math. Her special education teacher might work with the math teacher to help support her reading needs in class. All of this would be detailed in the student’s education plan.

The education-plan meetings and procedures will not change under the reforms.

The reform plans are part of an effort to catch up with the national trend toward integrating special needs students, and to comply with a 1975 law, requiring as much.

New York State has fallen behind other states when it comes to inclusion, relying more on separate classes for students with disabilities.

"I think there has been a culture in New York City that kids with disabilities belong in a different place," said Thomas Hehir, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the former director of the federal government's Office of Special Education Programs.

Mr. Hehir also studied New York City's special education services, at the request of the Bloomberg administration, in 2005.

Inclusion is not an appropriate setting for every student, Mr. Hehir acknowledged recently. And where it is appropriate, many schools in New York City already do a good job of screening and integrating these students.

One example is Public School 186 Castlewood in Bellerose, Queens. Dolores Troy-Quinn, the principal, moved toward a model of inclusion at her pre-K through fifth grade school about seven years ago, long before the city unveiled its plans for special education reform.

She said she built the inclusion programs in "layers," talking often with teachers and parents to keep them on board. She sent teachers for training when she had extra money and helped one staff member become an expert on behavioral management.

Special education students now make up 29 percent of her small student population of 370 students. They have a range of disabilities, including speech-language issues and autism spectrum disorders. This coming school year, 19 of the school's 21 classrooms will be co-taught by a special education and general education teacher.

"And now, over those last several years, it’s how we do business,” Ms. Troy-Quinn said. “Nobody asks me, 'Are there children with special needs? Why is my child in that class?’"

Integration has provoked acts of kindness and trust between nondisabled students and students with disabilities in both the classroom and hallways, she said. It’s been good for both groups.

"Yes, we’re helping them academically, but also creating these compassionate and understanding citizens who hopefully when they’re adults will do a much better job of being understanding and tolerant than every generation that’s come before them," she said.

But expanding inclusion to a system of 1,700 schools clearly will be more challenging than making changes in one well-run school.

"The challenge is significant,” Mr. Hehir said. “If it was an easy thing to do people would have done it."

Advocates and parents of students with disabilities, who have long pushed for broader acceptance of special needs children at school and in their communities, say that the city may be moving too fast.

They and many educators worry that the city will not implement the reforms effectively and have not provided the necessary training or resources to make sure schools can meet students' needs. And they have concerns that some students with disabilities will be inappropriately placed in a more inclusive environment as a cost-saving measure, in cases where a more specialized setting may actually better serve the student.

SchoolBook outlined some of the concerns in May when the Panel for Education Policy voted to change the city’s financing formula to pay for the special education overhaul. And we had this on the parent information sessions.

"I think whenever there’s change, people have anxiety about the change," he said. "And our job is to explain it as clearly as we can to parents and families," Mr. Polakow-Suransky said.

He added that the gradual rollout plan was meant to help schools succeed with expanding inclusion, first with the incoming students in the early grades of their schools and growing from there.