Concerns about the special education reform that will be rolled out citywide this fall dominated much of Community Education Council 27’s forum with Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott at MS 137 in Ozone Park on Tuesday evening, though the event was a bit of an informational free-for-all, with everything from a lack of gym to school closures being addressed.
“We have a chancellor in the house who has welcomed us to share our concerns, and we thank him for that,” Coralanne Griffith-Hunte, president of CEC 27, an advisory group that covers schools in South Queens, said when introducing the leader of the city’s public school system. “Chancellors in the past, we’ve had a tough time getting them in, but not this chancellor.”
Numerous parents asked Walcott, who lives not far from Ozone Park, in St. Albans, about the reforms being made to the city’s special education program next year, including CEC 27 member Joshua Hirschman.
“My concern is a lot of parents don’t know what’s going on,” Hirschman said.
This September, the city plans on placing additional special education students in general education classes, in the schools for which the children are zoned, as part of a push to graduate more students with Individualized Educational Programs. IEPs are federally mandated academic plans for students with special needs.
“There are some schools that have very few, or zero, students who are in special education, and that’s unacceptable to me,” Walcott said.
Shona Gibson, executive director of operations at the city Department of Education, told parents that the special education reform “is about equity and access,” and about “allowing students with IEPs the same access to schools that their brothers and sisters without IEPs have.”
A number of parents, including a large group from Scholars Academy in the Rockaways, said they were concerned that general education students would lose their seats to special needs students —which city officials said was incorrect.
“There’s a perception this reform takes away from general education and gifted and talented programs, and that’s just not true,” Gibson said.
CEC 27 member Janice Wilson urged Walcott to introduce more opportunities for students to exercise during the school day.
“Why is it that children only have gym once a week for 40 minutes?” Wilson asked. “What can we do to combat that?”
Saying he is a “big believer in fitness,” particularly becaues his father was overweight and both of his parents died at a “fairly young age” because of heart attacks, Walcott said the DOE is encouraging schools to use nontraditional gym spaces, like hallways, for gym activities.
The DOE has come under fire during the past year for not providing adequate gym time and space in schools throughout the five boroughs. A report by the city Comptroller found 40 percent of the city’s students are obese and that the city has not filed a physical education plan with the state since 1982.
“This is an area of great concern to the entire department,” Deputy Schools Chancellor Kathleen Grimm said at Tuesday’s meeting in reference to a lack of gym at city schools. “We’re encouraging all schools to meet the physical education requirements.
“We’ve come up with a program called ‘Move to Improve’ that teachers can use right in the classroom, and they don’t need special equipment or gym time.”
After Dermot Smyth, a representative from the United Federation of Teachers, criticized Walcott for the city’s plan to close 24 public schools at the end of June and reopen them with up to half the teachers replaced and new names, the chancellor said the decision to implement the plan was not an easy one.
“It’s a very difficult decision to phase out, or close, a school, especially schools that have been around for a long time,” Walcott said. “But the students stay in those schools — they’re not dispersed throughout the system.
“Sometimes, schools need to be changed, and we need to have the guts to change them,” he added.
The chancellor also addressed concerns that the schools were too heavily emphasizing standardized test preparation.
“We have to move away from the test prep mentality that takes place,” Walcott said, receiving a round of applause.