Streams

Why Should a Disability Limit High School Choices?

Friday, April 20, 2012 - 03:54 PM

Just like thousands of other students across New York City, I spent the fall of my eighth grade year preparing for the Specialized High School Admissions Test.

The test score determines whether a student is admitted to one of eight specialized high schools. Students prepare for this test in various ways; I chose to use a thick purple study guide that was filled with tips and practice tests.

When test day finally arrived, I gathered an abundance of pencils and headed downtown on the No. 4 train to Stuyvesant High School with my family. My anxiety began to build.

Knowing that this test could determine the next four years of my life made the wait seem unbearable. But I wasn’t alone -- a line of students stretched across the pedestrian bridge leading to the school. Thousands of us were in the same boat.

There was one key difference between me and almost all the other students on that day. I have cerebral palsy and a learning disability, which means I qualify as a special needs student. I received double time on the test so that I could complete my thoughts and make up for the difficulties I have when taking standardized tests, such as filling in the bubbles on the answer grid.

Instead of the typical two and half hours to complete the test, it took me close to five hours. Afterwards,I felt a sense of relief knowing that the test was done and all I had do was wait for a letter.

My middle school, NYC Lab Middle School for Collaborative Studies, had an excellent program providing support and services for special education students. I did not realize that the same might not be true for my future high school. I was in for a surprise.

In addition to applying to the specialized high schools, I also applied to NYC Lab High School. Both Lab middle and high schools have innovative Integrated Co-Teaching (I.C.T.) programs.

I.C.T. programs allow students with learning disabilities to be challenged alongside students without learning disabilities. One way this is possible is the presence of an additional teacher in the classroom trained in special education who ensures that students' needs are being met.

Besides the double time for tests, I use a special computer with assistance technology for taking notes. This helps me organize and keep up with the class.

A couple of months later, good news arrived. I was accepted into both Brooklyn Technical High School and Lab.

My mother and I went to Brooklyn Tech’s orientation to learn more and help me make a decision. The school was huge, but I was attracted to its wide range of courses and diverse student population.

Then my mother asked what supports they offer students with disabilities. A school administrator said they have one special education teacher for the entire school.

One.

I was shocked and appalled. How can New York City’s largest high school have only one teacher dedicated to supporting the special ed population?

The answer is simple and sad: fewer than 1 percent of Brooklyn Tech’s students have special needs.

As I was leaving the orientation, I spoke to one of Brooklyn Tech’s guidance counselors about the choice I had to make between Brooklyn Tech and Lab. At the end of the conversation she said: “We really admire Lab’s inclusion program.”

That comment set me on the course I am on now. Needless to say, I chose to attend Lab because I knew I needed more than Brooklyn Tech was able to provide. But I want to change things for special education students in the future. They should have all the schools they qualify for open to them.

At first I wasn’t thrilled about spending four more years in the same building as my middle school, but I soon grew to love Lab’s high school. It offers co-teaching support and various other services for its special education students who comprise 10 percent of the student population.

I consider the principal, Brooke Jackson, to be a true visionary when it comes to creating an environment where everyone is welcome. Students with disabilities and general education students build on each others’ strengths and weaknesses, and that means the achievement gap between the two groups narrows.

This year I was given the opportunity to take two Advanced Placement courses and a challenging Spanish course. As a student, I have benefited from Lab’s inclusion program tremendously, and am grateful for the opportunities it has provided me.

But during my freshman year I was accepted into an enrichment program called Legal Outreach which exposes students from underrepresented backgrounds to careers in law. It helped me realize the strength in advocacy, and inspired me to speak up for students with disabilities. My goal is help close the achievement gap between students with disabilities and non-disabled students.

Fortunately, the Department of Education seems to be on the right track. I am confident that the special education reform being launched citywide this fall will help bring this goal closer to reality.

The reform means that special education students with disabilities who now are able to apply to a limited number of schools will instead be able to try for any school they wish -- and get the support services they need to be successful.

If this had been in place when I was accepted into Brooklyn Tech, the school would have been responsible for creating a co-teaching program much like Lab’s, and my life would be very different.

I have no regrets, but I want to make sure the next eighth grader who gets in to a challenging school that excites him or her at least has the option of attending.

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