June is graduation month, and across New York State, about half of all disabled high school students will receive a real, academic diploma. But in New York City, not even one out of four disabled children is likely to get such a diploma. Most special education students who graduate actually earn a certificate that is not recognized by most colleges or the military. And as Beth Fertig reports in the first of a series of investigative reports this week, some of these graduates can't even read.
Graphics: Inequities of NYC’s Special Education System
Part 2 of Disabling Diplomas   Part 3 of Disabling Diplomas
YAHAIRA: Some vegetables, broccoli, carrots
REPORTER: Every week, twenty-two year old Yamilka and her older sister Yahaira make a shopping trip to their local supermarket in the South Bronx. They start in the produce section – arguing, like sisters do – about how many apples they need.
YAHAIRA: Why not, what’s wrong with them?
REPORTER: And which tomatoes are too mushy.
YAMILKA: They’re all mushy.
YAHAIRA: Doesn’t matter, you’re going to eat them anyway.
REPORTER: Yamilka often has a difficult time shopping without her sister, and it’s not because she needs advice on vegetables. It’s because Yamilka can barely read. She knows the produce section by sight. But she only knows a few of the vegetable names on the signs.
YAMILKA: Look, carrot?
REPORTER: Most of the time, she sounds out letters – knowing one word perhaps but not two in a row when they form a name.
YAMILKA: Bean, bean, beans? REPORTER: What is that word? YAMILKA: I don’t know.
REPORTER: The word is green, as in Green Beans.
Yamilka has a learning disability and is only now starting to read, despite spending more than a decade in the city’s public schools. When we sit down to talk about it in her family’s Bronx apartment she’s upfront about what she learned in all those years.
YAMILKA: Nothing. Like you put me to read I book I couldn’t read nothing, you give me a paper to do math I couldn’t be able to do it. You come to me and ask me a question about history I wouldn’t be able to do it.
REPORTER: And yet, Yamilka graduated from the Bronx High School for Career Development. There, she earned a special education diploma – a certificate which is given to kids who can’t earn enough credits and take the tests for a regular diploma.
Yamilka doesn’t want us to reveal her full name out of privacy concerns for her family. She moved to New York from the Dominican Republic when she was ten and she attended special ed classes the whole time she went to school. All along, she knew she was having trouble.
YAMILKA: Like when the teacher she want me to participate in class I used to say no because I didn’t want other kids to notice I was having problems with reading and math so I used to stay quiet. But I used to come to my sister every time and she used to help me do the homework.
REPORTER: Yamilka never knew exactly why she was struggling. She wasn’t reading in either English or her native Spanish. Her records show she was evaluated as learning disabled. But her 25 year old sister, Yahaira, recalls a meeting where she was given a different diagnosis.
YAHAIRA: We went to a meeting for the evaluation, they was like ‘oh she’s mentally retarded.’ You cannot say that, that’s a horrible feeling.
YAMILKA: That said exactly that. That I was mentally retarded. REPORTER: Did you agree? YAMILKA: No. I’m capable to do a lot of things.
REPORTER: That’s why Yamilka was frustrated at the Bronx Career school. Yahaira saw that herself, first hand.
YAHAIRA: I went to visit the school that she was going to and I realized they’re not doing absolutely anything here. I mean, they’re supposed to be giving her reading lessons instead of sending her to cooking class.
YAMILKA: I needed more time. I needed somebody to sit next to me, to explain the class, to help me with math. Not to be treating me like I was nothing. But that’s what they were doing to me, they were treating me like I was nothing. Like they would put me to the side. I used to cry. And it was really horrible going to that school.
REPORTER: Yamilka kept on going, though, and finished the program in 2004. But she was too ashamed to attend her graduation ceremony.
YAMILKA: It was not meaningful for me. One cannot pretend to be around other kids, to be laughing and having a good time, see I knew in my heart that it had no meaning. For what was I going to waste my time? For why was I going to waste twenty bucks on cap and gown?
REPORTER: There’s no way to know if Yamilka could have accomplished more in school. But education advocates believe she’s among thousands of special education students who leave the system without achieving anything near their potential. Almost 58 percent of all disabled students who graduated from the city’s public schools last year earned alternate diplomas like the one Yamilka got. In other districts, most disabled students do get real diplomas. Elisa Hyman is executive director of Advocates for Children. She wrote a report criticizing the city for relying too heavily on this alternate graduation certificate.
HYMAN: It doesn’t count as a high school diploma for purposes of going to college for most colleges. You can’t use it to get into CUNY or SUNY. It doesn’t count as a high school diploma for an employer. And it doesn’t count as a diploma to go into the armed forces. So it’s really a certificate with very little meaning for most children.
REPORTER: The certificate is called the IEP diploma. IEP stands for Individualized Education Program, something that’s legally required for each and every disabled student so they can receive the services they’re entitled to under federal law. The IEP diploma was created to provide an individually tailored goal for students who can’t take standardized tests. For some severely disabled kids, it can be getting dressed on their own or learning to brush their teeth. For others, it can be learning to read at a fourth or fifth grade level. But only 4 percent of the city’s disabled students are mentally retarded. And just 3 percent have autism.
HEHIR: There’s no question in my mind that more kids could be getting diplomas and should be getting diplomas.
REPORTER: Thomas Hehir is a professor at Harvard University, and former director of the federal government’s office of Special Education programs under the Clinton Administration. Last year, Schools Chancellor Joel Klein hired him to write a critique of the city’s approach to special education. Hehir found the system isn’t serving the vast majority of special ed kids, more than half of whom are diagnosed as emotionally disturbed or learning disabled.
HEHIR: Now these are not kids that school districts have found easy to serve. I’m not trying to give that impression. But if these kids get what they need much greater numbers should be getting diplomas, because they don’t generally have intellectual deficits. Their deficits are emotional and behavioral in orientation and if they receive what they need and the schools accommodate their disabilities and give them access to challenging curriculum these kids should be able to get diplomas.
YAMILKA: Egg, red, Fred. TEACHER: Good, Fred. YAMILKA: cuts the grass.
REPORTER: Yamilka is now learning to read at a private tutoring program in Manhattan. She got a special hearing when lawyers from Advocates for Children claimed her evaluations weren’t done correctly. The city is paying 80 dollars an hour for her to receive a compensatory education by taking classes at the Huntington Learning Center. She’ll get 15-hundred hours at a total cost of 120 thousand dollars.
TEACHER: What’s happening in this picture? YAMILKA: He dropped the glass. TEACHER: Good.
REPORTER: Yamilka sounds out letters with the help of pictures and flash cards. It’s similar to the way little kids learn phonics, but it relies on sounds and images to stimulate learning and memory. Carrie Meyer, who runs this branch of the Huntington Learning Center, says Yamilka knew only 8 letters of the alphabet when she started classes last August. She’s now reading at almost a second grade level. Meyer says Yamilka is one of about ten students in her program who weren’t able to learn in the public schools.
MEYER: They’re kids that struggled repeatedly year, after year after year so most kids are coming in with extremely low academic confidence and even willingness or dedication to learn cause they don’t believe in themselves because really they don’t sense that someone has believed in them.
REPORTER: City school officials don’t deny that some students fall through the cracks. They say they’ve already begun addressing problems raised in Thomas Hehir’s report to the Chancellor by beefing up special education classes with an intensive new reading program. They’re also spending 8 million dollars to train thousands of special ed teachers. And the percentage of special education students earning real diplomas is creeping up.
BROWN: I believe all children could always do better and we’re always raising the bar.
REPORTER: But special education official Bonnie Brown say there are also limits.
BROWN: I believe there are children that will never read and that’s a sad thing to say but that’s a reality, there are children that will never read.
REPORTER: Brown is acting superintendent for District 75, a specialized department within the school system that serves about 20-thousand students with the most severe disabilities. Brown has been in the system for almost 30 years as a teacher and a principal. She can’t comment directly on Yamilka’s case. But she says a student LIKE Yamilka would have been sent to a career academy if she wasn’t reading by high school.
BROWN: Our goal was not to get her to read second grade and maybe if we’re lucky get her up to read 4th grade. It was to get her trained so that she can reach her full potential and live independently, to teach her some kind of skill so that she can be a contributing member of society and an independent member.
REPORTER: So then it’s okay for somebody to graduate without any reading? How can they be independent if they can’t read a subway sign?
BROWN: We don’t give up on reading but we teach them functional reading, we teach children how to read – exactly, subway maps, how to read that this is ladies, this is men, this is exit, this is entrance, we do functional reading with these children.
REPORTER: Brown acknowledges that might sound like the city is giving up hope. But she says it’s the best way such a vast school system can help these kids who are never going to be fully literate. To Elisa Hyman at Advocates for Children, however, that’s no solution. And the low graduation rates are proof.
HYMAN: It’s outrageous that there are so many teenagers who are classified as needing special education services that are walking around with first, second and third grade literacy levels. They’re not supposed to be that many teenagers who can’t read and have basic math skills with disabilities. It’s a total tragedy and failure of the city that this is even happening.
REPORTER: She says the city should be helping those students with more intensive instruction.
It’s not like the city isn’t spending the cash. Special education costs about 3 billion dollars a year already: more than 20 percent of the entire education budget for 13 percent of the kids. The city says it’s now making better use of its resources by introducing the new curriculum and giving teachers more training.
But that’s too late for Yamilka. Every weekday, she takes the train from the Bronx to Manhattan for her tutoring sessions.
YAMILKA: It’s so hard. I’m gonna be 23! So I feel like a little kid.
REPORTER: Heading up the stairs to the elevated train Yamilka points to the sign and reads the name of the station: Mount Eden.
YAMILKA: The M and the T, it says Mt Eden. So I try to put it together.
REPORTER: As she waits for the train, Yamilka organizes her purse. Inside she’s carrying a CD player, a book of word puzzles and a woman’s magazine. She can’t read the articles. But she looks at the pictures and thinks. She’d like to be a cook some day. But for now, all she wants is a chance.
YAMILKA: I think when you get knowledge you can do anything and you can prove to those people who tried to push you down that you better than that.
REPORTER: As the number 4 train pulls up to the platform, Yamilka heads off to class, determined to find out if she can do better. For WNYC I’m Beth Fertig.