It's not just elite high schools that are being told to increase the number of special education students. The Education Department is also directing selective middle schools to take more students with special needs.

At a meeting on Tuesday, staffers from several top-performing middle schools in southern Brooklyn were told to prepare for a significant increase in next year's sixth grade class. The schools must enroll a similar number of special education students as other schools in their districts.

Among the schools that need to make a dramatic shift is the Christa McAuliffe School in Bensonhurst, where 3% of the students have special needs compared with an average of 13% at all middle schools in the district. Also included are Bay Academy in Sheepshead Bay and Mark Twain in Coney Island, where fewer than 4% of the students have special needs, compared with 16% at middle schools districtwide.

"It's a big change for everyone," said one educator. "We're not in full panic mode yet, but I wouldn't say that we're prepared either."

The change is part of the city's special education reform effort aimed at giving more special education students access to the mainstream curriculum. City officials and advocates hope the change will improve the education and graduation rate of special needs students, which last year was 28% compared with 61% citywide.

Parents at a Christa McAuliffe PTA meeting last week were surprised to hear the school needed to enroll 25 additional special education students for next year's sixth grade class, said a parent who attended the meeting. School leaders were notified in November of the policy change but believed the school was exempt since it houses a self-contained classroom for children with autism.

After initially notifying schools in November, Chancellor Walcott sent a follow-up letter in January detailing the special education requirements for selective schools. The elite high schools and middle schools have to admit and serve a percentage of students with disabilities equivalent to the percentage of students with disabilities in their district or borough. Specialized high schools and the five citywide Gifted and Talented schools (including NEST, Anderson and the Brooklyn School of Inquiry) are exempt.