Two weeks into the school year, fears about the rollout of special education reforms are turning into reality at some schools, according to parents and teachers from Upper Manhattan who met with the Department of Education’s top special education official Thursday evening.
But the official, Corinne Rello-Anselmi, said she has “been holding feet to the fire” to make sure that students are getting what they need despite the changes, which are bringing more students with disabilities to neighborhood schools that have served few students with special needs in the past.
The sweeping reforms have been underway for two years now, but most schools are only seeing the changes take effect this year. They were designed help schools integrate more students with learning disabilities into general education classrooms, and in the process bring the city up to speed with research that shows that special education students are more successful when they learn alongside students without disabilities.
Parents, educators, and advocates have warned that the department might be moving too fast and giving schools too little help to make the seismic changes. And at a meeting on Thursday of the Citywide Council on Special Education, a parent group that the city is required to support, some parents and educators said their experiences so far suggested that the warnings were well founded.
Yadira Cruz, a public school teacher and the mother of a sixth grader who has Asperger syndrome, said she sent her daughter to middle school at P.S. 187 in Washington Heights this year expecting the school to meet her daughter’s needs. Her daughter’s Individualized Education Plan calls for her to be in a small class composed exclusively of students with special needs.
But Cruz said her daughter was placed instead into a larger class that contains both students with disabilities and students without special needs. And a week into the school year, P.S. 187 started asking her to find another school, Cruz told Rello-Anselmi, even though she said the options for transferring at this stage in the year are limited.
“They told me we cannot meet her needs, you need to start looking for another school,” she said. “I mean, I asked them, I’m sorry but she has an IEP, and you saw it. This is a very hard phone call for me to receive. What am I supposed to do?”
Rello-Anselmi directed Cruz to leave her information with department officials, who Rello-Anselmi said would investigate the issue.
But Cruz said she was not confident her daughter would be able to make up for being in an inappropriate placement for the first two weeks of school.
Rello-Anselmi also told an Upper Manhattan teacher that she would look into the teacher’s report of a kindergarten class in which five students with learning disabilities were getting little assistance from a single teacher who is not trained to work with students with special needs.
“I’m curious how five students are sitting in one kindergarten class in one school, very curious, and yeah, I’d be happy to look at it,” Rello-Anselmi said. “People are trying to do the right thing, but they need help. And that’s what this reform is about — supporting the schools.”
But the teacher, who did not identify herself at the meeting and requested anonymity because she feared retaliation from her principal for speaking out, said she has watched several schools struggle to accommodate their influx of students with disabilities. She said she interacts with staff at other schools in District 6 through teachers union activity.
She said she agreed with city officials who said at the meeting that Washington Heights’ P.S. 8 is handling special education particularly well this year.
“But that’s because this school is keeping the status quo,” the teacher said in an interview. “The principal has decided not to change anything.”
The teacher said she didn’t want to see the city roll back the reforms, just create a more robust system to watch over the schools. Rello-Anselmi said each network should have a special education coach trained to help schools “look at the classes, see the needs, and decide what extra resources are needed.”
“The monitoring, it’s not happening,” said the teacher. “When you tell me the network is in charge of managing how the children are getting the services that they need, I’m sorry. … [Schools need] a person who will actually go to the school and say, let me see your program, let me see what you’re really doing.”
When Rello-Anselmi first took overt the special education portfolio at the department, she predicted a “rocky” fall as the reforms rolled out. But so far, she said on Thursday, the number of complaints her office has received so far is small. She said parents with concerns should report them through 311, the city’s public information system, because those messages are routed directly to her office.
“When advocates bring cases to us, or elected officials, or a parent, what we do is we bring it right to the network, and the Office of School Support,” she explained. “We work closely with them to resolve any issue. And we have found out that if there is anybody not responsive, we’ve been holding feet to the fire.”