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A culture shift in special education urged after internal review

Special education advocates are giving early praise to recommendations released today that would transform schools’ approach to students with special needs. The recommendations, which Chancellor Joel Klein endorsed, center on integrating students with special needs into the city’s ongoing school reforms.

Garth Harries, a department official who is starting a new job in New Haven, Conn., on Monday, authored the recommendations following a months-long review of the city’s special education offerings.

Actually implementing the plans will be left to a new top-level administrator who will be responsible for nearly a quarter of the system’s students. Laura Rodriguez, a longtime Bronx educator who currently heads one of the support organizations that principals can choose to join, will become the city’s first Chief Achievement Officer for Special Education and English Language Learners.

Rodriguez will be one of only seven people reporting directly to the chancellor, making the needs of nearly 250,000 disabled students and ELLs “visible and transparent at the cabinet level” for the first time, Klein said.

Maria Santos, the current head of the ELLs office, and whoever is appointed to replace Linda Wernikoff, until this week the city’s top special education administrator, will both report to Rodriguez, whose expertise is in supporting ELLs. Rodriguez’s top deputy, Dov Rokeach, started out as a special education teacher in 1972.

A member of the city’s special education parent advisory group said the pair’s different areas of expertise is worrisome. “That means a division of the workload: Rodriguez gets ELLs, Rokeach gets special ed,” said Ellen McHugh. “She has direct access to the chancellor, he does not.”

A department spokesman, David Cantor, said that the department is also planning to replace Wernikoff, rather than letting Rokeach or others absorb her responsibilities.

Advocates roundly decried Harries’s appointment to review special education earlier this year, saying he lacked the experience to evaluate such a complex system. They were kinder today after Harries privately briefed them on his report. A spokeswoman for a special education advocacy coalition, the ARISE Coalition, said that Harries appears to have taken what he heard during his “listening tours” to heart.

“I’m encouraged by them. It’s clear to me that he listened to everybody, including the advocacy community,” Maggie Moroff said about the recommendations. “There’s not everything I would like to see in there, but there’s a ton.”

The most important elements of the report, Moroff said, are its emphasis on parent engagement and its recognition that children should be grouped according to their needs.

Currently, schools rigidly follow recommendations from students’ educational plans, which make requirements such as having a classroom with 12 students for one teacher and one paraprofessional, or giving a student a certain number of hours of extra help with a special education teacher. Under the new framework, which Moroff called “really, really forward-thinking,” a school might group students more creatively. For instance, it could offer a class for students who all need a certain kind of reading program, Moroff suggested.

The department will collect public comment on the recommendations until Aug. 14, at which point Rodriguez will sort through the responses and then begin carrying out a plan. Some of the recommendations, such as improving the department’s special education Web site, will be relatively quick and easy, Harries said. More substantive changes, such as encouraging teachers to include special education students in general education classes, will take longer to put in place.

Moroff warned that other reports about special education have been released without ever appreciably changing the system. “It doesn’t necessarily go anywhere,” she said about Harries’s report. “If it’s taken to the next level, then he did a really good job.”

Here are the complete recommendations Harries delivered to the chancellor today:

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