The new head of special education at the Department of Education thinks long-planned reforms to the way city schools educate students with special needs are likely to be “very rocky” when they roll out this fall.
But Corinne Rello-Anselmi believes that not making radical changes would be far more damaging.
That’s what she told a group of parents who sit on a special education advisory board Thursday evening. It was Rello-Anselmi’s formal introduction to the board, the Citywide Council on Special Education, since taking over this month as deputy chancellor of special education and English language learning.
She replaces Laura Rodriguez, the first person to hold that position. Under Rodriguez’s leadership, the city launched sweeping reforms designed to integrate students with disabilities into classroom settings alongside their peers.
Those reforms have been underway in some schools for two years. But for most schools, the changes are taking effect only this year, bringing a new level of scrutiny to the special education deputy position.
The parent advisory board largely supports the principle that is guiding the reforms: that more inclusive classroom settings are better for students with disabilities. Research has shown students with special needs who spend less time in so-called “self-contained” special education classrooms have higher attendance, higher test scores, fewer behavioral problems, and higher graduation rates.
But board members have also joined a growing chorus of parents and advocates who say they are concerned about whether schools are prepared to handle the changes, which will bring students with disabilities to neighborhood schools that have served few students with special needs in the past. The parents and advocates fear that schools that have served few students with special needs will not be equipped to provide the appropriate services to meet academic goals stated on new students’ individualized education plans.
Jaye Bea Smalley, CCSE’s co-president, said at Thursday’s meeting that she didn’t believe the reforms were misguided or that they were being rolled out too quickly. She said her fear lay in something more fundamental.
“It’s just that I don’t think our school system really will allow for it to happen,” Smalley said.
During the meeting, Rello-Anselmi said she “personally” believed that the rollout would be “very rocky.” But she said reducing city schools’ reliance on segregated special education settings where student achievement tends to be very low would be worth the disruption.
In an interview after the meeting, Rello-Anselmi called her new job the culmination of “my life’s work” and indicated that she did not think she had been selected simply to carry out an existing initiative. Rello-Anselmi has spent more than three decades working in special education, first as a teacher and principal at P.S. 108, where she said the school eventually integrated eight self-contained classrooms.
“The journey of those years really was about setting a fully inclusive environment for all kids,” she said.
Most recently, Rello-Anselmi oversaw a branch of the Department of Education’s school support structure. The branch included dozens of schools organized under a cluster of 12 networks, three of which participated in the pilot of the special education reforms. Working with those schools gave Rello-Anselmi a firsthand look at how schools adopted to the mandate to serve higher-need students, she said.
“I saw a lot of how schools reform their practices to be more inclusive and it worked because it was supported by the network,” Rello-Anselmi said.
While Rello-Anselmi said she intended to carry out the reforms that began before her, she already had ideas about how to change her office’s approach to providing information to the public. So far, the department has provided only scant information about how the reforms have played out at the pilot schools, and at a City Council hearing last month, Rodriguez acknowledged that her office was not keeping track of certain data points that advocates were asking for.
Rello-Anselmi said she could not explain why those data points had not been part of the department’s assessment of the reforms. But she said she would make sure that they will be in the future.
“I can’t answer to that because I wasn’t part of it,” she said. “But the DOE always looks at how we are doing, so there will be a greater emphasis on looking at what is happening in terms of meeting the needs of students and how they’re progressing socially and academically. By that I mean we’ll be looking at things like suspension data, we’ll be looking at achievement data.”