As parents of students with disabilities made their way into an event Wednesday night, the hosts asked them to answer a question: What do you hope to get out of tonight’s discussion? 

Some participating in the listening tour event, organized by Chalkbeat and Advocates for Children, an organization that works with special needs families, took a deep breath as they wrote down their answers. Others thought it over silently at their tables. This was a weighty question, said parents navigating a school system that serves roughly 227,000 students with disabilities.  

About two dozen New York City parents, children, and education policy experts gathered at the Advocates For Children office in Midtown. The event was part of Chalkbeat’s network-wide listening tour. These events are taking place in all seven of Chalkbeat’s bureaus, with the goal of hearing from those most impacted by their local school systems.

Chalkbeat New York’s team spent the evening discussing the goals of special education, what’s working in the system, and what’s not. And in true New York City fashion, these conversations took place over pizza. 

Several themes emerged. Parents said the education department and schools must improve how they communicate with parents on issues ranging from how student learning plans, or IEPs, are formed and implemented, to the rights of parents seeking services for their children. Currently, many parents take it upon themselves to teach other parents about the system, said some in attendance.

Officials must also take parents’ concerns about their children’s services more seriously, some said, describing how they don’t feel in control of the process even though they are the ones who know their children best. One mother said she feels that school officials dismissed her because she speaks with an accent. 

“This is a lonely world,” she said. “Sometimes I feel like I’m not doing enough, I should be doing more”

Good principal leadership is also key to making clear to teachers how seriously the school is about serving students with disabilities, attendees said. Parents insisted that school leaders and teachers must be better about communicating expectations — something they felt was inconsistent from school to school. Such poor communication could be a sign of a principal’s lack of understanding about student needs, or a school that doesn’t prioritize special education. 

While acknowledging that many teachers and principals are doing their best, several parents wished their teachers had more training. Some parents called for increasingly inclusive environments for children with disabilities, with additional exposure to general education students, challenging academics, and more field trips.

The Chalkbeat New York team also asked parents what’s working at their children’s schools. A few of them said they’ve been able to form supportive parent networks to help each other understand their rights. Two parents also praised early intervention services, which the city offers to young children at risk of having developmental delays before they enter school. A couple parents praised Nest, a program tailored to students on the autism spectrum. 

We got some story ideas from the event that readers will see, going forward. Our team was grateful to have families take time out of their evenings and share their stories — some good, some more concerning. As always, reach out to our team with your thoughts at ny.tips@chalkbeat.org.