The city's Department of Education is changing the way it provides services to students with disabilities starting next school year, with the idea that these students usually will do better in school when they learn alongside classmates without disabilities.
The goals behind so-called special education reform, which is being pilot tested in more than 250 schools this year, include giving students with an individualized education plan, or I.E.P., increased access to general education classrooms and allowing them to attend their neighborhood school, as often as is possible. The expectation is that schools will add the services necessary to accommodate these students.
Education officials have been holding parent information sessions to start the conversation on special education reform and to give families a sense of what to expect as schools adjust to the changes.
At a session on Staten Island on Wednesday, members of the Division of Students with Disabilities and English Language Learners talked about the need to close the achievement gap between general and special education students. They said that only 4 percent of special education students in self-contained classrooms in kindergarten through eighth grade go on to graduate from high school.
They also told parents that students with disabilities who spend more time in a general education classroom have higher standardized test scores in math and reading, fewer absences from school, fewer referrals for disruptive behavior and better outcomes after high school in terms of employment and independent living.
For Debra Zito, whose son is in a self-contained kindergarten classroom at P.S. 55 Henry Boehm, the question is not about how students with disabilities will benefit from general education classes, but about who is supporting school administrators -- both with training and additional funding -- to make the necessary changes.
"The resources need to be there for these children, and a lot of times it's just not," she said.
Another parent, Jennifer Parsons, echoed that sentiment.
"A lot of the school psychologists and a lot of the members of the school administration team do not seem to have all of the information available to them," she said.
Ms. Parsons's son, a fourth-grader with autism and epilepsy, is in a self-contained classroom at P.S. 69 Daniel D. Tompkins. Ms. Parsons also serves as a "parent member" on I.E.P. teams throughout her district, which means she is trained by the education department to help other parents understand special education assessment and services.
"Being a parent of a special-needs child, especially if it's new to you, it's very overwhelming and parents don't know where to turn. And they look to the school as their first resource," she said.
The next parent information sessions are April 17 in Manhattan and April 18 in Queens. Parents can also find resources on the Education Department's Web site to begin navigating the city's special education services.