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Special ed reforms causing evaluation backlog, advocates say

Bumps in rolling out new special education rules are holding up crucial assessments of the city’s youngest students, advocates say.

Consequences could be severe if the assessments aren’t completed by the June 15 deadline. Students who don’t receive placements by that date but do need special education services are entitled to full reimbursement of private school tuition dollars, according to state law.

That’s not likely to happen: Even in a typical year there aren’t enough private school placements for all the students who are entitled to them. But the crunch does suggest the city faces difficulties in cutting its growing expenditures on private school special education placements, which Mayor Bloomberg complained last year costs the city $100 million annually.

Months into the rollout of a set of special education reforms meant in part to integrate disabled children into their neighborhood schools, advocates report that the city is scrambling to evaluate children with special needs who will be entering kindergarten this fall.

“It’s going to be really difficult to get things into place for a large number of families of students who are going to come into kindergarten next year,” said Maggie Moroff, the coordinator of the ARISE Coalition, which supports special education advocates.

School officials say they are confident they can complete evaluations for all of the students and meet with their parents to offer the students placements by the June 15 deadline.

A confluence of factors seem to have contributed to the delayed timeline, which is about two months behind where it should be, Moroff said. Advocates say they’ve heard from families who have been told they won’t learn their placement until the end of the summer or later.

One issue is that after receiving a brief spurt of attention when ex-Chancellor Cathie Black delayed some parts of the reforms, changes to special education were overshadowed this spring by turnover at the Department of Education.

Another issue is that the city’s move to shift who makes placements from a central office to individual schools has created confusion about where responsibility lies. For the first time this year, local schools are supposed to be evaluating and accommodating students with disabilities who are turning 5. But some schools have continued to turn some families away, telling them that they must seek an evaluation from a central special education office, according to Ellen McHugh of Parent to Parent of NYS, an advocacy group.

In addition, the March rollout of a new special education data system, called SESIS, is tripping school officials up as they try to enter evaluation results. Support staff in schools have registered a host of complaints with the teachers union about problems with SESIS, according to Dick Riley, a union spokesman.

The department’s internal deadline for evaluations to be entered into SESIS is May 26 — Thursday.

And even when SESIS is working the way it should, schools’ limited bandwidth cannot always sustain the high-memory task of entering data. “I’ve been in schools where they just don’t have the bandwidth to do this,” McHugh said.

The result of all of these problems is a tremendous backlog of evaluations that could drive a significant number of children with special needs into private placements. Families who are not offered a placement by June 15 will automatically receive what’s called a Nickerson letter entitling them to attend private school on the city’s tab.

With about 15,000 children turning five this year, the city could be on the hook for millions of dollars.

“I don’t think that all of those families that receive Nickerson letters as a result of this are actually going to be able to use those Nickerson letters in a meaningful way,” Moroff said. “But I don’t think it’s fair to blame the families.”

Despite the implementation problems, the reforms remain a positive step for the department because they represent a move toward inclusion, Moroff said.

Explained, Deirdrea Miller, a DOE spokeswoman, “As part of the reform, we have asked schools and the Committees on Special Education to produce individual education plans with more flexible programming recommendations that address the unique needs of the city’s incoming kindergartners,”

Still, Moroff said, “From a parent’s point of view it’s tremendously disruptive and disturbing not to know.”