Families Struggle With New Special Education Rules

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Advocacy groups working with students who require special education services in school say many families are facing mixed messages and open questions about the services local schools can provide them, with just days to go before the start of school.

Advocates for Children of New York said it has handled at least 30 cases recently involving incoming special education kindergarten students.

"Our concern is that given the time frame and the way this has rolled out that plans are being changed without the parents' participation, informed consent and understanding," said Rachel Howard, executive director of Resources for Children with Special Needs.

The Department of Education said it has been training educators and spreading the word to affected families for months. The department is rolling out its special education reforms this year citywide. Among other things, the new policy requires local schools to meet the individual needs of every child who lives in the school zone. But, Shael Polakow-Suransky, the DOE’s chief academic officer, concedes parents and schools are sometimes getting mixed messages as schools adapt to the new rules.

"We look really closely with the school at the teachers that they've got and the space that they have and the needs of this child and the needs of other kids who have similar disabilities," he said. "And in the instance where the school doesn't have the resources, and we've had dozens of those come up over the course of the summer, we allocated additional funds so that they can add a teacher."

Suransky said the city has budgeted at least $30 million for the 2012-13 academic year to help schools manage the new reform. Only in rare cases will children will be sent to schools outside their local zones.

Students with the most serious disabilities will continue to be educated in District 75 schools and programs.

But days before the start of the new school year, some parents were still waiting to hear whether their children with disabilities would attend their local schools. Wafa Algutaini almost was one of them

Her son Amir, who is entering kindergarten, has trouble with motor skills and coordination. A Department of Education psychologist wrote an Individualized Education Program, or IEP, that requires Amir to be placed in a special education class with no more than 12 students for every teacher.

But when his mother went to their local school in East Harlem, Public School 50 Vito Marcantonio, she said the principal told her she didn’t have enough money or teachers to create a small class. The principal declined to comment.

Algutaini said she then consulted with someone at an enrollment center in Manhattan.

"He told me that the principal has to take my child because it’s our home school, P.S. 50. He has to go here," she explained. "And then I told them they don’t have enough teachers even in the school to open a small class for my child. He said well, don’t worry, we will send the funds, we will speak to the principal, we will send her an email."

And, indeed, Algutaini learned last week that the school can give Amir the class he needs. He’ll also get counseling, as well as occupational, physical and speech therapy.

Cheryl Tyler, principal of Public School 277 in the Bronx, said she enrolled a child whose IEP also required him to be in a small class of no more than 12 students per teacher. Rather than create a new class, she said she convinced the mother that her child would get enough attention in a kindergarten class co-taught by a special education teacher and a general education teacher.

"She's going to spend the first few weeks of kindergarten in the classroom to make sure this is the right thing for him," Tyler said.

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