District 20 leaders are bracing for a flood of parents at Wednesday's Community Education Council meeting who want the city to exempt IS 187 Christa McAuliffe from next year's special education requirements, which will force the school to admit more kids with special needs.
Other parents say allowing more special ed kids into the school isn't the problem. These parents want the city to re-open the application process to special needs students at the all-gifted Brooklyn middle school, since so few knew it was an option.
Many parents of special education students – including those with kids at IS 187 - say they had no idea that their beloved school was a possibility. While a small number of special education students do attend the school, it has not enrolled students who require special classes and more intensive services.
Galina Fishman has a son at IS 187 and a child with special needs who is in 5th grade. She never listed the gifted school on her younger child's middle school application. "I would change everything," said the Bensonhurst mom. "They never told us this opportunity existed."
At a meeting before spring break, outgoing deputy chancellor Laura Rodriguez re-affirmed that she expected IS 187 to meet a target number of special education students, even while the five citywide G&T schools continue to be exempt from the requirement.
The confusion over whether IS 187 would have to serve students who are in Integrated Co-Teaching (ICT) classes (which combine special and general education students with two teachers) or smaller self-contained classrooms, seems widespread. The sought-after school currently has fewer applications from special education students than the 25-30 that the DOE targeted. It got 4,000 applications for just 300 general education seats last year.
The city's special education reforms mean that nearly all city schools--including most selective programs--must admit the same proportion of special education students, ending a practice in which some schools got huge numbers of special needs children and others got almost none.
At most of the selective high schools, seats are being held for special education students who must meet the same criteria as the general education students (such as scoring a Level 3 or Level 4 on state exams). In the case of McAuliffe, a districtwide middle school, there will be two pools of students created-–one for students with disabilities and one for general education students. The highest scorers in each pool will be admitted.
The debate over IS 187 has become a microcosm of the concerns and uncertainty surrounding the city's sweeping special education reforms -- whether students with disabilities can learn alongside their more traditionally equipped peers without taking away from either group's educational achievement.
Many parents said they don't believe it's possible for the school to teach its gifted students alongside special needs students who scored lower on the exams required for admission. Others say that there are academically gifted special needs students who could thrive at the school. They are concerned, however, that those kids were not given the opportunity to apply.
"I think this could work, given the proper budget and resources, but we need to attract the most academically qualified kids with special needs in the district," said PTA president Yolanda Cartusciello. "We need to give more of them an opportunity to apply this year, because I think the first year will be critical to the program's success."
Education Department officials said they would allow special education students who didn't apply to the IS 187 to "appeal" for a spot, but they need to have taken a required entrance exam, known as the OLSAT back in December.
That won't help moms like Galina Fishman. Her older son studied with a private tutor for three months before he aced the OLSAT. Her younger boy didn't even sit for the exam, but she says she would given it a try had she known her options.
Still, she is conflicted about what school would be best for him.
"I love that school. I would love to have him there," said the mother of four, "but I know the requirements, and the level is very high in this school. He struggles."
"They would need the very best special education teachers," she added. "It is complicated. I want to benefit both my children, but I don't know how to do this."