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New report takes practical approach to reforming District 75

Parents and advocates of disabled children who attend schools in District 75, the DOE’s district for children with special needs, are breathing at least a partial sigh of relief this week after a report commissioned by the DOE recommended revamping, but not dismantling, the district. But their anxiety about the district’s future persists as the DOE contemplates which recommendations, if any, to put into action.

The report, released Friday by the Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition of 66 urban school districts, calls for integrating District 75 better into the rest of the school system and improving the quality of special education instruction in both District 75 and community schools. The report concedes that District 75 is isolated and incoherent as it is currently configured, but it concludes that the expertise contained in District 75 personnel and structures, as well as the support the district receives from its parents and teachers, make it worth retaining. (Read the whole report, hosted online by NYC Public School Parents.)

By repeatedly and explicitly rejecting any plan to eliminate the district, the report implies that the DOE’s preference is to absorb District 75 schools, students, and staff into community schools, and the DOE’s response to the report signals that it feels stymied. “They concluded it wouldn’t be a good idea right now,” a DOE press officer told the Staten Island Advance about breaking up the district. The DOE’s ambivalence about the district has been obvious in recent years. When the first set of progress reports were released last year, no reports were available for District 75 schools, and it wasn’t until the second year of the Learning Environment Surveys that District 75 parents and teachers were polled. More recently, District 75 received no allocations in the city’s proposed Contracts for Excellence; the only special education services funded under the proposal are collaborative team teaching classes and a new program that serves high-functioning autistic children.

Why did the council recommend a “third path” to District 75 reform, rather than the path the DOE clearly prefers? Because unlike the DOE, the council considered the practical, on-the-ground considerations of making a dramatic change quickly. “Taking [the district] apart would likely create bureaucratic problems, at least in the short-term, that could easily undermine the services that District 75 students do enjoy,” the report concludes. This pragmatism contrasts sharply with the DOE’s strategy of making big changes and dealing with the details later, and it is all the more remarkable given that the costs of researching and writing the report were borne by the Broad Foundation, which has long supported Chancellor Klein’s initiatives and championed their results.

Also significant is a 22-page appendix that contains a relatively comprehensive set of data about special education in the city, including information about test scores by District 75 school; the distribution of students by race, location, and disability; suspensions of children with disabilities; and special education staffing in New York and elsewhere. These numbers are hard to find elsewhere. Some data are still missing: the report pointedly notes that the DOE didn’t provide test scores for students in special education who completed alternative assessments rather than the regular state tests.

If the DOE adopted all of the council’s recommendations, would District 75 and the DOE’s community schools fully meet the needs of the city’s children with disabilities? It may not be worth entertaining the question yet, because the DOE has not decided which recommendations to adopt, nor on a timeline for making changes. It’s also important to note that the investigative team didn’t look at lots of issues that affect the day-to-day operation of District 75, such as the amount of time it takes for children to be evaluated and placed in special education or the quality of the IEPs developed for students with special needs. Revision to the district must address these concerns if it is to be effective. And no matter what happens with District 75, advocates will need to continue to be vigilant to make sure that children are receiving the services they need and are legally entitled to.

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