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.”