Race And Class

Email a Friend

This week we've been taking a look at how disabled students in New York City are less likely to graduate than any other group of students. As in other big cities, they also are disproportionately black and Latino. But WNYC found that black students make up a dramatically high percentage -- more than half -- of the students considered "emotionally disturbed." In the final part of our investigation, WNYC’s Beth Fertig looks at who’s being diagnosed as "disabled" and how the city is feeling pressure to get more of these students to graduate.

Graphics: Inequities of NYC’s Special Education System
Part 1 of Disabling Diplomas &nbsp Part 2 of Disabling Diplomas

HALL: Trae! Come here please.

REPORTER: Charlene Hall doesn’t give her son a choice when she calls him downstairs to go over his homework.

HALL: Because I asked you to.

REPORTER: Within a few minutes, Trae shows up at the dining room table – a skinny ten-year old boy with wire rim glasses.

TRAE: Measuring angles: Three students measured the angles below.

REPORTER: Hall listens carefully and reads over his work, trying not to help him TOO much.

HALL: His teacher and I talk and she wants me not to correct his homework, so I let her go over it with him.

REPORTER: Trae goes to a special education school in Bayside. He’s in fifth grade now, and he’s doing well in class. His mother credits the small program he’s in, and the medications he’s taking to control his attention deficit disorder and hyperactivity. The symptoms first surfaced when he was in kindergarten.

HALL: He started biting children and we couldn’t figure out what it was.

REPORTER: Hall and her husband had their son tested. Once he was diagnosed, Trae’s school recommended different special ed programs at public schools all over Queens.

HALL: First school I went to, one of the psychologists who actually evaluated him told me he thinks I would like that school. So I went to the school and I looked around and every classroom that I looked into they were basically African American boys. And after the tour I said to her why do I see so many children of color in the special education classes and she said that’s just how it is. And I was bothered by it.

REPORTER: The school was in a largely white neighborhood known for its good schools.

Hall had no doubt her son needed serious help. But as an African American parent, the experience fed her suspicions about how teachers view Black children.

HALL: There’s a perception that African American boys are busy and automatically – not busy but, um, harder to teach? If Johnny who might be Caucasian might be acting out they might say let’s work with Johnny, have his parents in, put forth a plan. Whereas if Trae is acting out they say he doesn’t belong here, this is not the place for him - which is some of the things they said to me - this is not the place for him. He needs to be someplace else better suited for him.

REPORTER: There are roughly 150 thousand special education students in the New York City public schools. Last year, seventy-eight percent of them were Black or Latino. That’s about five percentage points higher than their combined population in the entire school system. Blacks alone comprise about a third of all city students. But among those kids who are deemed emotionally disturbed, like Trae, 53 percent are black. And almost 43 percent of kids labeled mentally retarded are black.

Those figures are no surprise to Doctor Beth Harry, a professor of special education at the University of Miami.

HARRY: In the category of mental retardation, which really refers to mild mental retardation we generally find African American kids being represented at 2 and a half times their presence in the school systems.

REPORTER: Harry has written a new book with the blunt title, “Why Are So Many Minority Students in Special Education?” She found both blacks and Latinos can also be disproportionately diagnosed as learning disabled. She agrees with parents who suspect there could be a racial element. But she also blames a built-in bias against students in low income neighborhoods – most of whom are minorities.

HARRY: The bias shows itself in inferior schooling. Larger class sizes than you would get in better off neighborhoods. Less qualified teachers. Very often more rigid discipline rather than emotional support. Those characteristics are typical of a lot of inner city schools that serve a lot of these kids. So it’s true you can say a kid came to school with disabilities possibly, at age 5 or 6 but it’s very hard to tease out the role of the school in making those issues worse or better.

REPORTER: In New York, there’s no doubt that students with disabilities do a lot better in successful schools. A tracking survey by the state education department last year found 80 percent of disabled students in the state’s wealthy districts graduated high school with academic diplomas after five years. That’s almost four times the rate of New York City, where 23 percent of special ed kids got diplomas in the same time period.

To educators, it’s all part of the same, sad problem. Doctor Rebecca Cort is the state’s Deputy Education Commissioner in charge of Vocational and Education Services for Individuals with Disabilities. Cort says large cities face the same problems educating disabled kids that they have in educating everyone else.

CORT: These include issues of poverty, in many cases students coming in from other countries who don’t speak English. When you have a disability it’s often hard to make up that lag in language development especially if you have a speech and language disability in both languages.

REPORTER: But there’s more pressure now that the state is pushing for higher standards.

TEACHER: There was an exhibit about? TRAE: wrestlers.

TEACHERS: That’s part of it.

REPORTER: Ten-year old Trae goes to a special education school in Bayside where he’s one of only 8 students in his class.

TEACHER: Trae, tell me what it was about. TRAE: Mexico City.

REPORTER: Trae is bright and performs at grade level when he’s able to focus. The No Child Left Behind Law requires special education students to take annual tests – just like all other students - to hold schools accountable for their progress. Some kids are given extra time, and low performing kids are measured in other ways. Last year, Trae’s school – which is called P4 - met its goals for math. But it fell short in English, putting it in danger of state intervention. Principal Marci Berger says she is personally frustrated when success is overshadowed by failure.

BERGER: There’s so much that’s good that’s going on and there’s so much that we combat by the mere nature of the children with whom we work. I look at our kids, and to watch them struggle to pass a test to prove what? To me it’s more important that a child learn to function and the child can actually write a paragraph.

REPORTER: Deputy Commissioner Cort says the state is talking with federal officials about allowing more flexibility when assessing kids who function way below their grade level. She’s also taking a second look at graduation targets. New York State originally wanted an average of 80 percent of all special ed students to receive academic diplomas by 2011, but has scaled that goal back to 64 percent. In New York City, the goal is about 45 percent. Cort believes that’s still not too much to ask once schools really address the achievement gap.

CORT: When you actually point out to people and you examine very carefully this disproportionality people are shocked. And they don’t realize that it’s really going on in their school they don’t notice it. So just that first realization is a big part of it. And then you do have to look at what is driving this?

TRAE: I’m rebooting. HALL: You know why it froze, probably because it’s past your time.

REPORTER: In her basement, Charlene Hall checks in on her son Trae as he uses the family computer. He’s playing a game but the computer won’t let him continue after 8 p.m.

TRAE: Mommy I’m ten years old can you please take it off?

REPORTER: Trae may beat the odds. His parents are middle class, educated and they’ve deliberately sent him to a school that’s a half hour away by yellow bus in order to get the best program.

HALL: Trae’s getting a college degree. There’s no ifs no doubts in my mind that’s what he’s going to get.

REPORTER: Hall is now treasurer of the Citywide Council for Special Education, a parents’ advisory group. She says parents should take more responsibility. She meets many who simply do whatever they’re told when their children are diagnosed. But she says the whole city should start paying more attention to disabled students.

HALL: Anything that happens with special education it’s parallel to what happens in general education.

REPORTER: If special education isn’t doing well, she says, it’s an indication that all schools are failing. For WNYC I’m Beth Fertig.