My son is twice-exceptional, meaning he is both gifted and has special needs. At age five, he tested into a gifted and talented program, and since second grade, he has been in an integrated co-teaching classroom, where students with and without disabilities learn together under the guidance of two teachers, one of whom is certified in special education. My son struggles with the physical act of writing, so he also receives a laptop to type his assignments. For years, these accommodations provided just the right balance of challenge and support.
My son has always been charming, hardworking, and enthusiastic about school. This past spring, he gained entrance into Brooklyn Tech, one of the eight specialized high schools and the largest public school in the city. We could not have been prouder.
More importantly, he was intensely proud of himself. “Mom, I’m smart,” he declared to me for the first time in his life. It made my heart sing to hear him say this and to know he really believed it.
In April, we attended the Brooklyn Tech open house for incoming students. After witnessing the elaborate demonstration of the many fun clubs and teams that exist on campus, my son and I still had two goals: to learn about the biology lab and the special education department.
Upon entering the lab, the first thing we saw was a box of animal hearts ready for dissection. My boy was thrilled knowing this school would push and engage him academically.
Then, battling past hordes of excited families, we made our way to the special education office. I did the necessary introductions, explaining that my son has integrated co-teaching mandated on his Individualized Education Plan.
I was appalled by their response. “Tech does not offer integrated co-teaching placement,” I was told. “We offer SETSS.”
SETSS, or Special Education Teacher Support Services, provides less support than integrated co-teaching, as it can happen as infrequently as once a week and varies in terms of location (in or out of the classroom) and group size (one student or multiple). In some cases, it simply involves a special education teacher advising a regular education teacher how to adapt curriculum for a specific child.
Integrated co-teaching, in contrast, is not an isolated support service. It is a different type of classroom — one where the student gets consistent support from a special education teacher for the subjects designated on his or her IEP.
I asked if there was any plan to offer integrated co-teaching in the fall. “Not that we know of,” came the response. I then asked how many special education teachers they had on staff. Despite everything I already knew about Tech and the competitive admissions process to get there, I was still shocked: the answer was two. There were two special education classroom teachers for nearly 6,000 students.
There is a chicken-and-egg problem here. If few students with disabilities enroll at a specialized high school, these schools don’t hire staff and set up classes to serve them. And if they don’t hire staff and set up classes to serve them, students like my son will be dissuaded from enrolling.
I knew that if my son attended Brooklyn Tech, the school would theoretically be required to meet the needs outlined in his IEP. My experience and that of other parents, though, told me that if a school isn’t providing such classes, they’re unlikely to start. Today, just over 1% of Brooklyn Tech students have disabilities, and I knew sending him there would mean him sticking out.
I also knew that he would be isolated racially as well. Only 7% of Brooklyn Tech students identify as Hispanic, something that’s been the focus of the controversy over the specialized schools’ admissions policies. I worried that my son would be stigmatized there — that if he struggled, people would attribute it to false stereotypes rather than his unmet educational needs.
I couldn’t make my son vulnerable in that way; I couldn’t take that chance.
I thanked the teachers for their time and walked back into the hallway. Immediately, my son said to me, “Mom, I can’t go here.” My heart broke because I knew he was right. He worked hard, he earned his spot, but he couldn’t go.
I told my son we’d file a grievance. We’d get a lawyer. But he didn’t want to be a guinea pig. More importantly, he said, “I don’t want to fail.” He might as well have been a child with orthopedic challenges looking up at a flight of stairs. Brooklyn Tech was not accessible to him.
Ultimately, Brooklyn Tech is missing out, not just on my son’s talent and contributions, but on the countless other students for whom specialized high schools are out of reach. If these schools were more flexible in the ways they supported children, their communities would be stronger and more diverse. Instead, they are rigid — and their own worst enemy.
This fall, my son is attending New Explorations into Science, Technology, and Math (NEST+m), a gifted and talented program in Manhattan. I’m sure he will succeed there. But it would have been wonderful if his high school choice had truly been a choice.
Maria Torres is the mother of a New York City ninth grader.
Editor’s note: We offered Brooklyn Tech and the city a chance to respond. “We are committed to serving our students with disabilities, and all families should be welcomed to their school communities with open arms,” education department spokesperson Danielle Filson said. “Schools are required to provide the services outlined in each student’s IEP, and ensure that parents are aware of all program offerings. We are working with Brooklyn Tech to ensure all students receive the services and support they need.”