For the past year and a half, a group of schools has been experimenting with ways to educate special education students more flexibly and in more inclusive classrooms. Now, Chancellor Dennis Walcott says the experiment, piloted in 265 schools, will be be rolled out to all schools in the 2012-2013 school year, according to a letter to principals last week. 

The reform in special education is aimed at educating special needs children in the least restrictive settings possible, and, preferably, in their neighborhood schools, especially in elementary school. This might mean moving children from self-contained classes for special ed kids to larger classes that include general education students and have two teachers. Or it might mean grouping smaller numbers of students with similar disabilities into the same classrooms and providing extra help according to their needs.

Early data shows that fewer students have been recommended for more restrictive settings in "Phase I" schools than in those that have not yet adopted the reform, Walcott said. There has been a 16.6 percent decrease in recommendations of students to more restrictive environments in the Phase 1 schools, compared to a 3.9 percent decrease in other schools.

"For too long, educating students with disabilities has meant separating them from their general-education peers," Walcott said. "We know that this model leads to some schools over-serving students with disabilities, while others under-serve them. Most importantly, we know that not all of our students are graduating ready for independent living, college and careers. This must change."

To help the remaining 1000-plus schools implement the reforms, every school support network will provide instructional coaches to train both all teachers and staff in how to incorporate inclusive practices in classrooms, Walcott said.

In other changes, this year the Education Department is hosting two rounds of "Turning Five" meetings for families of children with disabilities instead of one, to introduce them to the public school system. A Kindergarten orientation guide is also available. Incoming kindergartners will be evaluated by the schools they will likely be attending in the fall, said Walcott, enabling schools to make more flexible recommendations to meet their needs.

Allison Gaines-Pell, principal of Arts & Letters, a K-8 school in Brooklyn said it was "really exciting and inspiring" to be one of the first  schools implementing the program, "trying to create programs that meet their needs."

"We're small so we could do that pretty easily," said Gaines-Pell.  "Instead of being fulltime SETTS [Special Education Teacher Support Services] or CTT [Collaborative Team-Teaching], now we can do part time SETTS and CTT and be more flexible."

But, she acknowledged, being flexible is a challenge when the special ed population changes significantly from one year to the next.

'Last year we spread our kids over more classes – and we had more teachers able to serve those kids. That was really positive," she said. "This year, because we have fewer special education kids, we weren't able to put them in so many different classes because we don't have the teachers. In order to flexibly program students you need more teachers."

Inclusion is an admirable goal for many students, but how to pay for it is another challenge. Schools get more dollars for students enrolled in self-contained or ICT classes than they do for those in general education.

"A big chunk of the motivation [for reform] institutionally is cost-saving. Everyone in government is under a fiscal gun," said Patricia Connelly, the parent of a child with special needs and former member of the Citywide Council on Special Education parent group. "I don't think you can do special education on the cheap."

Reform advocates are cautiously optimistic about data showing the reduction of placements to more restrictive settings, but say that many questions remain.

"That's great if they are also providing supports and services they need to make the kid remaining in the less restrictive setting successful,"  said Maggie Moroff of the Arise Coalition and Advocates for Children.  "Are they getting assisted technology, special education teacher support when needed and other support services?"

Moroff said she'd like to know how many children have been moved to less restrictive settings and what their outcomes are. "How are they doing on tests? Are they being held over? Are they getting disciplined more or less than that were before? What's important is 'how the kids are doing'?"

Rolling out the reform to all schools "is a huge implementation challenge. I think it's a totally worthy one," said Gaines-Pell. "There are a lot of schools saying 'finally we can flexibly serve kids as they need to be served.' And there are going to be people who aren't ready to make those changes. And that's going to continue to be a challenge. And it's going to take some time and kids don't have time."