Monday, August 11, 2014

Response: The Special Education Overhaul and NYC’s Special District

In a thorough piece on the special education reform that has begun in recent years in New York City Public Schools, ChalkbeatNewYork’s Patrick Wall focuses on several students, families and schools and how they have adapted as a result of new policies that steered students with disabilities to their neighborhood schools in Kindergarten, 6th and 9th grades, rather than schools with specific special education programs. 

What the article fails to mention is that these schools, with special education programs and related services already in place, are not just another community school option but are most likely part of New York City’s District 75. This district is an entirely separate district composed only of children with disabilities, most of whom are bused long distances to attend these programs. When people are discussing self-contained options for students with disabilities in New York City, it is important to understand that these are isolated self-contained classrooms in self-contained special education schools and that we are not just talking about another classroom down the hall. 

There are approximately 23,000 students with various disabilities in District 75 with schools throughout the five boroughs. Interestingly, the DOE’s new website no longer lists a specific number of students, only that there are “56 school organizations,” but you can find the number on their old website here. No other school district is organized in such a segregated fashion, as far as I can tell from much conversation and research. Across the country inclusion, in various forms, is the norm and it is rare to find more than a couple of self-contained classrooms in a district or even entire counties. Yet here in New York City, we not only have 23,000 students in self-contained classrooms, but in substantially separate schools. Although many District 75 schools are physically housed in buildings with other schools, anyone in NYC knows co-located schools spend more time fighting for precious space and resources than integrating.

A big part of the problem in New York City is that there is this funnel that flows right to District 75 for any child that a school deems too difficult to educate, like Joseph in today’s Chalkbeat article. It does not specify whether the other, more appropriate school that the administration found for Joseph was not a community school, but I would bet that it was a District 75 school. District 75 seems to be the missing piece of the special education reform story that no one mentions.

As a teacher of students with multiple disabilities, I understand the benefits of a highly specialized environment for some students with significant disabilities, especially in a complex urban school system where these students might otherwise be in the corner of a basement somewhere. The problem is that in NYC we fool ourselves into thinking that these students have been brought out of the basement by having these District 75 school organizations, when in essence they only perpetuate the isolation of students with disabilities from their communities.

A red flag of a student who doesn’t belong in District 75 for me is when a student, like Joseph, is reading at a 3rd grade level, which means most likely he is not severely intellectually disabled. If he comprehends what he reads, he can most likely access middle school material presented visually or orally with some accommodations. Joseph also managed to get all the way through elementary school and only began to struggle in middle school. This is not the profile of a student with severe/ profound disabilities that District 75 was intended to serve.

Most students in District 75, because of their significant disabilities, are alternately assessed and do not take coursework that leads to a high school diploma. By high school, most schools focus on transition skills that will enable students to communicate in the community, have some independent living skills and possibly have some type of employment. When a student is sent to District 75 from a community school, their IEPs are changed to alternate assessment, which will forever limit their life options because they will obtain an IEP certificate, not a diploma.

Students with severe/ profound disabilities make up less than 1% of all students in NYC, most teachers and schools have never encountered such a student. A student with profound disabilities is non-verbal, meaning he does not use a single word and it is unclear what the child wants because they have not learned a formal communication system, who lacks all control of his muscles and is dependent on others for all their care needs, and who might also be visually impaired, deaf or both. Another student who may need the specialized environment of District 75 might have severe autism, meaning they engage in self-stimulating behaviors all day or be self-abusive and require strict behavioral programs to learn to not hurt themselves or meet their own care needs and gain independence.

No honest discussion about special education reform can take place without discussing the way that New York City isolates its most disabled students in District 75, taking the burden off of community schools who are fixated on test scores and data. I commend those who are trying to stop District 75 from becoming an easy dumping ground for challenging students and can only hope that this is the beginning of an essential change in our city. Until we think of all New York City students as “our kids,” not ours and theirs, no true special education reform will occur.

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