This week we're taking a look high school graduation rates for New York City's special education students, and how they lag behind their peers statewide. These rates are low despite the fact the city spends a lot on special education students -- threeand a half billion dollars a year, or more than 20 percent of the education budget. Today, in the second part of our series, WNYC's Beth Fertig looks at some of the ways the city is trying to educate these students.
Graphics: Inequities of NYC’s Special Education System
Part 1 of Disabling Diplomas   Part 3 of Disabling Diplomas
GENNINO: “Right” (machine starting up)
REPORTER: In the basement of the Lexington Avenue Armory, on 26th Street, Damian Gennino is teaching one of his students how to use a table saw.
Gennino is working with 19 year old Esther Idels, a student at the Manhattan Career Development School. They’re making shelves. But cutting wood is also a mini-lesson in math.
GENINO: OK, we want to cut 60 inches we’re taking a foot off what do we have to deduct?
REPORTER: Gennino slips in a math or reading problem whenever he can. It’s not about test preparation. Gennino’s kids aren’t going to get academic diplomas.
GENINO: So what do you got?
GENINO: 48, Okay.
REPORTER: Esther and the other students at Career Development have all been diagnosed with disabilities that affect their learning. Most are reading at only a fourth or fifth grade level. That’s what makes this program different from the vocational schools, which are more academic. Esther says she likes it here because she was never a good student.
ESTHER: Like if I see a word I can’t read I get mad really quick, like ‘OK forget it I’m not reading.’ I’m not into books ‘cause my reading is very – not very bad – but it’s bad to the point where I don’t read, I can’t stand reading but I try.
GENNINO: She’s been working on her anger management tremendously, strides in the last 8 months. ESTHER: it’s getting there.
REPORTER: Esther and Gennino’s other students have completely renovated the 69th Armory since the school started using this site a few years ago. Wooden floors were sanded, ceramic tiles were cut, and a tin ceiling was restored in an officers’ lounge. Because of their hands-on experience, Principal Jeff Rothschild says most graduates get full-time jobs in building maintenance, food service, and other trades.
JEFF: I see kids who have only been successful in one thing in their whole life and that’s failure. And I see that we break the mold and we make them succeed.
REPORTER: The kids also take math and reading. But their classes are geared at functional skills. They learn to open a checking account, pay their bills and live independently.
TEACHER: What did we say the word budget means? What is a budget? KID Plan for your money.
REPORTER: Those who complete their schooling - or stay until they’re 21 years old - earn what are called IEP diplomas. These are named after the Individualized Education Programs required by law for all disabled students.
But for seventeen year old Antonio Rocha, there’s a stigma attached to the IEP diploma.
ANTONIO: I want to get a high school diploma.
REPORTER: He says that’s why he dropped out of Manhattan Career Development this year.
ANTONIO: IEP, you can’t go to college, you can’t go to the armed forces. Cause I want to go to Iraq.
REPORTER: IEP diplomas are the norm for disabled students in New York City, regardless of whether they go to a career development school or a traditional high school with special ed classes. A state tracking survey found only 23 percent of all disabled students in New York City earned academic diplomas last year, after 5 years of high school. Statewide, the diploma rate for disabled kids was twice as high: 48 percent. Anyone who knows about special ed says those figures are unacceptable. While most of these kids suffer from learning or emotional disabilities, few have cognitive impairments.
ANTONIO: I want to read on my own.
REPORTER: In many ways, Antonio seems like a typical city kid. He was born in New York to Dominican parents and grew up in Washington Heights. But he had trouble in school early on and was repeatedly sent to special ed classes.
ANTONIO: Um I could probably read like maybe 2nd 3rd grade. Nobody knew that I was dyslexic. During the years I picked up a way of taking pictures of words, every time I see the word I know it but when it comes to writing I don’t know how to write.
REPORTE:R Antonio’s mother, Noelia Milanes knew her son needed more help and went to her district office.
MILANES: El no recivo ayuda…
ENGLISH TRANSLATION: He didn’t get any help. If he had gotten the help they promised him and which was needed, yes he would have done better.
ANTONIO: They always been trying to refer me to another school. It’s like they keep me there for this year and then they put me in another school, keep me there for like a certain amount of time, it’s like they – they’re just trying to hide their like, their garbage.
REPORTER: Antonio’s records show he attended 10 different schools. His mother blames herself for not speaking English and being a better advocate for her son. Antonio now has legal representation from Advocates for Children. His lawyers claim his learning disability and attention deficit disorder weren’t properly diagnosed.
Antonio may be an extreme example of what can happen when a kid falls through the cracks. But school officials see many disabled students like Antonio who are angry and frustrated by the time they enter high school. Bonnie Brown is acting superintendent for District 75, a citywide program that serves about 20-thousand severely disabled students.
BROWN: A large number of the students we get now are high school age students and they’re coming in and they’re what we consider over age and under-credited. By that I mean that we’re getting 16 and 17 yr old students who are coming from middle schools because they couldn’t pass their 8th grade tests.
REPORTER: There’s a suspicion that principals are steering more students into special education programs like the career development schools to avoid dragging down their own test scores. That’s hard to prove. The special education population is growing. But the city says more kids are being diagnosed. Principals and teachers, however, claim that process is getting harder because the Chancellor eliminated positions critical to evaluating kids when he reorganized the system.
Still, the fact that so many kids get to high school without reading raises questions. Harvard professor Thomas Hehir was hired by the Chancellor to study the system. Compared to other big cities, Hehir says New York City is unique in that 40 percent of its special ed students spend more than half of their school day outside regular classrooms, getting services in separate settings.
HEHIR: Because these kids struggle with reading and writing and spelling they don’t get access to the rest of the curriculum and then the disability has a compounding effect. So by the time the kids are in high school, they don’t have the skills and knowledge that their peers have who are in high school so when it comes time to take something like the Regents they’re not prepared for them.
REPORTER: The city is gradually changing that approach. It’s brought in a new special ed curriculum and it’s trying to integrate more disabled students into regular classes.
TEACHER: Take out your books, open up to page 48 and 49.
REPORTER: At Intermediate School 281 in Bensonhurst, Christopher Scott sits in a regular sixth grade science class learning about gravity. He’s one of two students with autism.
TEACHER: Which one required the most distance. Chris?
REPORTER: Christopher lifts his hand immediately. But he freezes when it’s time to talk. Behind him, a para-professional points to the chart of distances he’s drawn on a page.
CHRISTOPHER: Closer to the object.
REPORTER: Christopher is learning through a style called Inclusion. Joann Solano is the coordinator at IS 281. She and the para-professional tailor the assignments specifically for Christopher. She replaces essay questions with multiple choice versions, because he has trouble with complex language problems.
SOLANO: He is processing it and he is learning it, but expressively to raise your hand and answer will not happen the way the general ed students do it. But if we didn’t put him in this class to be exposed to this curriculum, we wouldn’t even know that he understands.
REPORTER: His mother, Linda Scott, hopes Christopher will graduate with a regular diploma even though that’s a long shot. She thinks the city spends enough money on special education to produce more diplomas that can lead to jobs and college.
SCOTT: They are getting about $32 thousand dollars per child a year. That’s more than a lot of people in NYC make. But they’re not really, doing, they’re not preparing the child for independence.
REPORTER: The city says it’s trying, by spending 8 million dollars training special education teachers for the intensive new curriculum. It’s also hoping other reforms will identify and treat disabilities at an earlier age. The stakes are high. At a time when states and the federal government are demanding results, the city’s 150-thousand disabled students are among those children most at risk of being left behind. For WNYC I’m Beth Fertig.