Wednesday, 18 July 2012 10:00

Why special ed reform misses the point

Brooks is a success story: he is a smart and happy autistic kid who has conquered many of his pervasive challenges and continues to work long and hard on the ones that persist.

But according to the Department of Education, my son is a failure. Because unless he has graduated to a less restrictive environment (LRE)—from special education to integrated, or even more desirable, all the way to mainstream—he does not earn their seal of approval. In fact, by their accounting, he is a collosal failure since he went the opposite direction: to a more restrictive environment.

For Brooks, his new setting offers him the opportunity to learn, and it seems to me that this would be everyone's first and foremost concern. But it seems more important to the DOE that he require less and less support over the years. Now, if he was one of the small percentage of autistic kids who outgrow their challenges and get declassified, their formula would work because he wouldn't require services. It's only when you factor in the reality of his disability—a disability that in his case, interventions cannot inherently change—that this success measurement becomes at best, inaccurate, and at worst, a major disservice to the most special education students.

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Tuesday, 19 June 2012 14:45

Autism and Little League

Brooks loves baseball. The first and last thing he does every day is check the Mets score, and he could rival any grown-up rabid sports fan in terms of logging hours and hours of watching innings and innings (for better or worse).

Unfortunately, he has a lot of genetics to overcome to actually play the game. Aside from the obvious autism-related ones, he's small and Jewish (to quote Bill Finn: "We're watching Jewish boys/Who cannot play baseball/Play baseball.") Still, every Sunday morning this spring, he suits up as number 11 on his Blue Sky Hawks Little League team.

Since my husband and I simply couldn't picture him playing with his 9-12 year old peers in kid pitch, we decided to offset some of his challenges by holding him back for an extra year in coach pitch. That decision, along with the overall non-competitive style of the Hudson Cliff League, has afforded him the opportunity to succeed. Of course, baseball is no different from any other endeavor: although hard work, natural talent, and love of the game all play a major role, there's no escaping late throws, bad bounces, and teammates who have more natural talent.

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I'll be one of the speakers at a workshop at New York University, Tuesday, June 5, from 12 to 1:30 p.m. to help parents figure out their elementary school options. The event at the Kimmel Center, 60 Washington Square South, Room, 803, is designed for NYU staff, but others may come as well. Maggie Moroff from Advocates for Children will talk about special education and Terri Decker of Smart City Kids will talk about gifted programs.


The workshop is free, but you must register: http://www.nyu.edu/rsvp/event.php?e_id=4192. Call 212-998-9085 for more information


We'll give you information about how to register your child, how to apply to schools outside your zone, and what you should look for on school visits. There will be time for questions and answers as well.


Can't come? Look at our pages on how to apply to elementary school and our YouTube video on what to look for in an elementary school.


 



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Wednesday, 16 May 2012 16:38

Talent show trumps standardized tests

I'm happy to report that what loomed large for my son at school a few weeks ago had nothing to do with the mandatory standardized 3rd grade ELA and math tests, and everything to do with LearningSpring's annual talent show.

To our relief, the tests were given the appropriately small amount of attention they deserve. They don't drive the school curriculum, and their results will be refreshingly meaningless. We already know that my son is academically well-below grade level. He will get practice taking tests—not a bad thing—and no teacher will be fired because he didn't score high enough. But I understand that our school's common sense attitude is atypical in NYC public schools, and I support and admire Anne Stone and Jeff Nichols for taking a stance against these tests that take so much away from and contribute so little to our kids' education.

What Brooks got out of the talent show cannot be measured by a test. He shared his love of music with the whole student body, and he experienced the teamwork of the school coming together to create a performance for their friends and families. Although the teachers and therapists were guiding them, we knew from the way Brooks had talked about rehearsals that this was their show. And from the moment the two upper grade masters of ceremonies warmly welcomed the parents, my husband and I became enchanted.

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Some highly sought after high schools won't have to enroll more special education students this fall, even as others work to boost their numbers and meet city-mandated targets.

Bard, Baruch and Eleanor Roosevelt, all in Manhattan, are among 27 high schools that are exempt from enrolling a mandated number of special needs students in their 9th grade classes this fall. City officials said the schools will be asked to meet targets in the fall of 2013.

The schools given exemptions fall into three categories: the city's 14 International schools that serve new immigrants; seven schools that require auditions; and six hyper-competitive academically screened schools. (An additional nine specialized high schools, governed by state law, are also exempt.)

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Wednesday, 18 April 2012 11:22

Let special ed kids reapply to G&T school?

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.

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Tuesday, 03 April 2012 23:23

Why exclude special education students?

When I first learned that some parents at IS 187/Christa McAuliffe were gathering signatures to fight an increased percentage of special education students enrolling at their school, I was reminded of an event from my childhood.

When I was 9 or 10 -- about the same age as my son Brooks is now -- neighbors came around with a petition to stop the construction of an apartment development for people with physical disabilities. I have a distinct memory of my dad's immediate disdain for the folks at the door who were far more concerned with their property values than with anyone else's hardships. That was way before he became the grandfather of an autistic child, or for that matter, had any personal relationship with anyone who might benefit from the new housing. It was simply a human knee-jerk reaction—he knew right from wrong, and this was wrong.

I'm having the same reaction to the campaigning Christa McAuliffe parents.

And it's not just me—if you read the 46-and-counting comments on Meredith Kolodner's post, you'll find similar outrage. But you'll also find that these parents are being defended for reasons that make a lot of sense.

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Wednesday, 28 March 2012 21:37

Parents fight to keep out special ed kids

Some parents at a top middle school are fighting to stop special education students from “taking seats” from students whose test scores may be higher.

The parents at Brooklyn’s IS 187/Christa McAuliffe, where students must ace standardized exams to be admitted, fear that combining special and general education students in the same classrooms will reduce the level of education. “No parent is going to want their kid in those classes,” said IS 187 PTA co-vice president Virginia Cantone. “The truth of the matter is that the wide spectrum of challenges is too great for any of the children to learn, it’s too great of a difference.”

The parents have been petitioning, emailing elected officials and plan to leaflet elementary schools in southern Brooklyn’s District 20 to convince other parents to join their drive to get Christa McAuliffe exempted from the new special education requirements.

The city’s planned 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. The specialized high schools and the five city-wide gifted and talented schools are exempt, and some Christa McAuliffe parents think they should be too. IS 187 is the most sought-after school in District 20. Students are admitted based on their state reading and math scores and their scores on a separate test known as OLSAT.

Christa McAuliffe parents don't object to special needs children who meet the school's entrance requirements--as 19 current students have done. These children are high achieving but may have other special needs such as Attention Deficit Disorder or Asperger's syndrone. Neither do the parents object to the 30 very disabled children who attend the school but who are segregated in what are called "self-contained" classrooms. The parents say they would not mind having more of these students since they “don’t mix in the same classrooms.” Rather, the parents are objecting to setting aside seats for special needs children who may not have scored as high on the exams as the rest of the students in the school.  

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 (mostly by scoring a Level 3 or Level 4 on state exams). In McAuliffe’s case, 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 school has been told they need to admit about 25 special education students into next year’s 6th grade class.

“There will be children who will be crushed who could have gotten into Christa McAuliffe who will have to be in a regular general education class at another school instead,” said Cantone.

Advocates noted that many students with disabilities were also gifted.

“There is a broad spectrum with children with disabilities and many more of them should have access to quality programs,” said Maggie Moroff of Advocates for Children.  “With the appropriate support and services, there’s no reason those children shouldn’t be able to achieve at the same level as their more typically developing peers.” She expressed concern, however, that the DOE may not have made adequate plans to give disabled children the support they need in classes for the gifted.

A handful of schools, such at NYC Lab School for Collaborative Studies, have successfully integrated high-achieving special needs children in mainstream classes. These schools have spent years planning and refining their practice so, for example, a math whiz who is also dyslexic gets the help he needs in reading while taking advanced math classes.

The upset parents at IS 187 have gone on an email campaign, delivered petitions to local politicians and are hoping to bring like-minded parents to the next month’s Community Education Council. The District 20 CEC has not taken a position on the issue.

Education Department officials said they were working with the principal and the school community to help them understand the changes but do not plan on exempting the school.

Advocates who support the reforms said they were disturbed but not surprised by the parent response.

“This is a warning sign for us all,” said Jean Mizutani, program director at Resources for Children with Special Needs. “There will be a backlash. I think it’s going to be a challenge for everyone.”

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A change in special education enrollment will likely have some already overcrowded schools coping with a large influx of kindergarten students in the fall.

In past years, most special education students were placed in schools that had space or offered the kinds of classes that could serve them. This year, in an effort to allow more special education students to attend their local schools, most will be enrolled at their community school.

The problem is that some schools that had big kindergarten wait lists last year also had a very low percentage of special needs students, compared with nearby schools. That means the new plan for sending more special education children to their zoned schools could bring even more kindergarteners to the doors of packed schools this fall.

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Our friends and colleagues at Advocates for Children are putting out a call to action to protect early intervention programs for young children. Early Intervention provides evaluations and services to infants and toddler who have developmental delays or disabilities and their families. 

Governor Cuomo's 2012-2013 Executive budget proposal would restructure Early Intervention, linking those services to health insurance coverage. In a statement, Advocates says:"While we support the goal of requiring private health insurance comopanies to contribute to the cost of EI, we are concerned about parts of the proposal."

Among other things, the proposal calls for a representative from an insurance company to be on the team that develops a child's Individualized Family Service Plan. It would also require the child to be evaluated and served by evaluators and service providers within the child's insurance network. 

Advocates for Children is calling on concerned parents to call or e-mail their state legislators to express their concerns that these changes would would make it harder to access high-quality EI services.

See the Advocates for Children website for more information. A sample email letter is after the jump.

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