When the school year begins next September, teachers throughout Queens, and the rest of the city, could see an influx of special education students to their classrooms — which officials say is an attempt to graduate more of the pupils they argue the city has ignored for too long. Some parents and educators, however, worry it could overburden educators in already overcrowded institutions.
“Since we began working on special education reform in 2009, when we graduated 24 percent of special education students, we have made progress —but we need to do more,” Laura Rodriguez, deputy chancellor for students with disabilities, said at a Parent Advisory Board meeting at Queens Borough Hall last Thursday. “It is important for us as a system to focus on long-term outcomes for our students with disabilities.”
In the past, the city has placed students with Individualized Education Programs — federally mandated academic plans for students with disabilities —in small classes consisting solely of special education pupils. While there will continue to be such classes for students with severe disabilities, Rodriguez said the city will push for other special education students to be able to attend their zoned schools and be placed in general education classrooms.
“Special education” refers to students with a vast array of disabilities — from physical ailments, such as being in a wheelchair, to autism, and a countless number in between.
This push, Rodriguez told a group of Queens parents at the Borough Hall gathering, stems from a variety of reasons, including the fact that when studying the city’s special education program, DOE officials found that “a large number of” students who had IEPs but were testing at grade level were still placed in the special education only classes.
The city began implementing the reform in 260 schools citywide two years ago, and Rodriguez said they have begun to see an increase in the number of special education students graduating —from about 24 percent in 2009 to 31 percent last year.
Additionally, city officials said that when placed in general education classes, the majority of students with disabilities scored higher on standardized reading and math tests and had fewer referrals for disruptive behavior. City officials also said that the performance of students without disabilities is not compromised by the presence of students with IEPs.
Dmytro Fedkowskyj, the chairman of the Parents Advisory Board and the Queens borough president’s appointee to the city Panel for Educational Policy, said while parents and teachers agree the reform is “a step in the right direction,” he stressed that “not all our schools can create these classrooms you’re envisioning.”
Fedkowskyj added that he and Borough President Helen Marshall have been concerned about the reform’s implementation, saying city officials should better communicate with educators and parents about the upcoming changes.
“This reform, as it grows, will have an effect on every student, teacher and principal in every school, which can lead to good outcomes, but in order to do that, culture changes have to take place within our school communities,” Fedkowskyj said. “A plan on how to do that wasn’t defined. School resources, space and funding are limited, which will make it very difficult to change the culture in every school.
“Telling stakeholders that the DOE will deal with the bumps in the road as they develop is not comforting to anyone,” Fedkowskyj continued. “Parents have more questions than answers, which I’m afraid will only lead to greater confusion in September.”
A number of educators interviewed for this article, all of whom said they wanted to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation from the city, said they are concerned the city will not provide them with the training or resources needed to accompany an influx of special education students.
“We already have classes being conducted in hallways, and now they want to add students?” one teacher said. “They better be planning on giving our schools a lot more money, but of course they won’t. They’ll just blame us, and shut us down, when our test scores drop because we needed to focus on one student more than everyone else.”
The teachers interviewed by the Queens Chronicle agreed with Fedkowskyj that special education reform is needed, but they worry the city is doing this to save money and not for the benefit of the pupils.
“What assurances do we have that the teachers and staff will be properly trained?” Fedkowskyj asked Rodriguez, and a number of other top DOE officials at the meeting, including the DOE’s Chief Financial Officer Mike Tragale.
Rodriguez said they have added support structures within schools to assist teachers who need help with the new students, and Tragale said the city is changing what is known as its “fair student funding formula,” which will funnel money for individual special education students to their respective schools.
Michelle Noris, of Community Education Council 30, which covers schools in western Queens, said she was also worried about teachers not being prepared to educate special needs students.
“It worries me when people say we’re going to do training — it’s not the same as education,” Noris said.
Some parents said they are relieved to see changes being made to the special education system.
Coralanne Griffith-Hunte, president of CEC 27, which covers schools in South Queens, said special education students are too frequently shuffled from one school to another.
“I have seen children in my district go to four different schools between kindergarten and fourth grade,” she said.
Ray McNamara, a CEC 27 member, said he hopes the reform will result in added support for special education students.
“I have a child with a mild form of autism, and he was told he would never receive a Regents diploma,” McNamara said. “It was only because my wife and I really pushed that he graduated with a diploma from Flushing High School.”
William Kregler, of Woodside, said his 18-year-old son, who was also diagnosed with a mild form of autism, was “completely failed” by the city’s special education system.
“They were always passing the buck, and they failed my son,” Kregler said.