by Barbara Glassman, Executive Director, INCLUDEnyc

The just-released 2017 New York City High School directory has a whole new look. It features more pleasing graphics, and information that is clearer and easier to understand.  While we at INCLUDEnyc support the DOE's efforts to bring more clarity to a notoriously intimidating process, applying to high school is still challenging for students with disabilities (SWD) who have Individualized Education Programs (IEPs).

INCLUDEnyc staff has come to know these challenges firsthand, after 30 years of advising parents and students with disabilities about the high school application process.  We tell them that the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) stipulates that all schools must be able to accommodate students with disabilities and provide them with the services and support they need in order to receive a Free and Appropriate Education (FAPE).

Unfortunately, what happens in reality does not always comply with federal law. While the directory is a good place for parents and students to begin their search for the best-fit high school, families must know that not every school can provide every SWD with the support and services they need. As we continually coach parents, it is of vital importance that they contact the school administration at the school their child is interested in attending to make sure he or she will be properly accommodated.

This year's directory has a more in-depth, clearer, parent-friendly description of the entire high school application process that contains useful, interactive activities meant to help students find the school best suited to them.  There is less text on each page, and the layout makes important information easier to find.

We are excited that the directory now includes a page that describes the admissions process specifically for students with IEPs.  Additionally, it explains that students who wish to apply to schools that require admissions tests will be provided with testing modifications if stated in their IEPs.

The DOE removed the misleading line on every school page that read: "This school will provide students with disabilities the supports and services indicated on their IEPs."  This statement was not in line with the reality we hear from parents.

Here's where parents still need to pay close attention:

The DOE has added an "SWD Seats" section next to the "Prior Year Admissions" section that gives the number of available seats for students with disabilities and the number of applicants the school had the previous year. On the face of it, this seems like a good addition because it stands to reason the higher that number, the better the chances the school will be equipped to accommodate its students with disabilities.

However, it is not that clear cut.  The DOE's stated definition of "SWD" is not, as one might assume, any student with an IEP, but a student "whose [IEP specifies] special education instructional programming for more than 20 percent of their academic program."

This could be Integrated Co-Teaching (ICT), Special Education Teacher Support Services (SETSS), or a self-contained special education classroom, or a combination.

Even as professionals in the field, we were left wondering how one might calculate that 20 percent. We feel it would be virtually impossible for parents or their child to calculate.

For instance, does occupational therapy or other related services count? What is 20 percent of a student's schedule? Who calculates that? Who informs parents about how it is calculated?

At the end of the day, we advise students and their parents not to focus on the number of seats anyway because these numbers only give a snapshot of what the school's population was like the previous year; not what it will be the next year.

Enrolling a certain percentage of SWDs does not mean the program will have what each individual student needs to learn.  This is where we fall back on our most traditional and strongest piece of advice to parents and students in the high school application process: ASK QUESTIONS.

Being proactive is the best way to ensure that a student receives the most appropriate education.

Use the directory to compile a list of programs in which you are interested. As for determining whether or not that program can accommodate specific needs, the best way to know that is to ask.

Participate in high school fairs to refine a list.  Attend an individual school's information session to learn more about the specific supports a school can provide.  By knowing a student's needs, and the supports available at each school, families will be able to compile a list of schools that will appropriately foster student success.