"Special needs children need not apply."
There was no sign hanging on the main office at PS 289 in Bedford-Stuyvesant last week, but there may as well have been.
Essence Louis says she was told Friday that she couldn't register her son Michael for kindergarten because next year the school won't have the kind of class he needs.
"I'm already dealing with a special needs child," said the distraught mom of two. "I love this child, but then to go to a school that's supposed to be helping you and to get there and get turned away, it makes you upset."
Michael's problem was not supposed to happen this year.
This fall for the first time, local schools are supposed to serve all but the most disabled special needs students in their zone, a change cheered by education advocates,.
But parents in some neighborhoods are being turned away by school staff, who are either unaware of the new policy or overwhelmed by its implications.
Michael's teachers at the United Cerebral Palsey school have recommended that he learn in a class that mixes general and special education children, although he has not yet had an official evaluation. Although PS 289 has these kinds of classes in the upper grades, Louis says she was told by an assistant principal that there would not be enough children to fill those classes in the fall. It is not possible, however, for a school to know that yet, since kindergarten registration doesn't end until March 2.
Faith Hosue ran into a similar problem at her zoned school in the Williamsbridge section of the Bronx, but after several weeks, and a flurry of phone calls and letters from her son's social worker, she was able to register her son AJ at PS 76. Still, like many parents, she wants to apply to several schools in her district. She still has not been able to convince officials at PS 89 or PS 41, the school closest to her, to take her registration form. She says she was told she needed an educational evaluation of her son (known as an Individualized Educational Plan, or IEP) and a letter from the Office of Enrollment.
Advocates say they have been flooded with calls from parents who have been told they need their child's IEP in order to register, which is impossible for many parents since most of those evaluations won't take place until March or April, after the kindergarten registration deadline has passed. "They told me so many different things," said Hosue. "It was very, very complicated."
But the point of the reform is, in part, to make things simpler. Less busing of children who have a hard time sitting still for an hour-long commute, direct contact with a local school instead of going through a central office, and access to the same quality education as their peers.
Advocates give the city Education Department credit for undertaking the reform, but say there is more preparation needed.
"A reform like this requires a lot of planning," said Kim Sweet, director of Advocates for Children. "We would like to see the DOE do more to assure parents that when they drop off their five-year-olds off at school in September, the school will be ready for them."
Whether or not the reform is effective will come down to what happens in each classroom, advocates say. Training is being offered, but it's not mandatory. Less busing will save money, but schools are not being offered extra funding or support to make the shift.
"We are talking about a major change," said one Brooklyn principal who asked to remain anonymous. "We're talking about teachers needing to learn things like toilet training, feeding help, behavioral issues. We're just not prepared."
There will be between 17,000 and 20,000 special needs children entering the public school system this year, and the vast majority of them are supposed to be able to attend their local schools. In some neighborhoods, like southwest Brooklyn's District 20, schools are already bursting at the seams with kindergarten classes of up to 30 children.
"I don't think anyone is prepared for this," said Laurie Windsor, president of District 20's Community Education Council. "I think these kids are going to miss out on services."
City Education Department officials say they have made schools aware of the new policy.
"We advise our schools not to turn students away," said DOE spokeswoman Deidrea Miller, "and if parents have questions about registering their child with disabilities, they should contact our central offices or visit an enrollment center."
Advocates say the DOE needs to offer more support.
"It is true that some families are being turned away," said Jean Mizutani, program director at Resources for Children with Special Needs. "I think the schools are afraid because they are being asked to do things they have never done before, and there are budget cuts. It's an expression of their fear."