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Special education chief steers talk away from SESIS issues

On Monday, Comptroller John Liu released an audit that turned the public’s attention to the city’s special education data system, which has received significant criticism in the past.

Last week, we spoke to Corinne Rello-Anselmi, the deputy chancellor of special education. I asked her about the most important initiatives in special education and she didn’t mention the data system; rather, she talked about the bigger picture of special education in the city.

Here are some of the most interesting takeaways from our conversation.

How her personal experience led to a focus on the importance of inclusion in special education

Rello-Anselmi was appointed deputy chancellor in April 2012 after Laura Rodriguez, the first-ever deputy chancellor for special education, stepped down. It was a critical moment for special education policy in New York City, with reforms to the system just months from rolling out in full.

Rello-Anselmi joined central administration as a seasoned insider working in the field, having worked in city schools for 33 years. She began her teaching career at P.S. 108 in the Bronx as a self-contained special education teacher. Later, she served as principal of the school for ten years.

“When I got to the school I questioned why I was the self-contained special education teacher,” she said. “It was very isolated, I could not understand why. My journey through that whole time was my core belief that our students learning in a separate program was not going to get the outcomes that were intended.”

As Rello-Anselmi moved through the ranks of teacher, to assistant principal to principal, she pushed for more inclusiveness.

“I really believed the general education teacher needed to know students well and literacy well and partner with the specialists and serve kids in more inclusive environments,” she said.

Eventually, the school went from having eight self-contained class at one time to fully inclusive, which is still the case today, she said. The school saw an increase in reading and literacy and all of the teachers’ expertise grew, she added.

Laura Rodriguez– who would later become the first deputy chancellor for special education– would visit Rello-Anselmi’s school and hold it up as a model for how special education should look in the city.

“One mantra I had as a principal was given the sufficient time and support, all children can learn,” she said.

What you should answer when she asks if you have access to the “special ed curriculum” 

“I would usually go into a professional development [meeting] and I could always judge an audience by saying who has access to special ed curriculum,” she said. “If they raised their hands, then I knew I had a problem, because they thought there was a special ed curriculum.”

Rello-Anselmi said there are very specialized programs and curriculum for children on the spectrum, but generally speaking, when it comes to special education “the curriculum is the curriculum for all,” she said.

What all city schools “absolutely” don’t have

In February 2010, the city passed the first phase of the special education reform, which would be a major overhaul of the city’s services for students with special needs. As part of that reform, students would be sent to their neighborhood schools for an inclusive special education setting. This assumes that neighborhood schools have or can acquire the expertise and resources to meet the needs of all students in their zone. So I asked Rello-Anselmi if she thought at this point all schools have that expertise and resources?

“Absolutely, no,” she said. “I mean, they’re on the continuum of learning.”

She said anytime you start a new initiative, it takes years to phase it in. Right now, the department is in the process of phasing in the special education reform and the supports that go along with it.

Charter schools have thoughtful, “out of the box” ideas about special education

Charter schools are often criticized for not taking in enough special needs students, for not taking in enough students who have more extreme special needs or for counseling out those students who have special needs. Rello-Anselmi said there is a willingness from charter schools to work with the DOE.

“I am aware of the tension around this piece, but we’ve engaged, quite honestly, with the charter office, with the charter schools, talking about this and how best we can help and support them,” she said. “They have some real talent there and I’ve been able to visit many of the charter schools, I had met with the charter leadership that looks at the special ed work. They’re talented people who are trying to do some out of the box work. But again they need to build their own capacity in terms of how best to serve. I’ve never gotten a sense that they’re not willing– it’s just they want to learn and get better at it and with extra support.”

She wonders what a highly effective special education teacher looks like

With the new teacher evaluation system, Rello-Anselmi said she and her department are giving more thought on what it takes to be a highly effective special education teacher.

“We’re looking at what makes a teacher highly effective. What does it look like in an inclusive setting? What is the behavioral support system? Do we have highly effective teachers understanding how to connect with kids and know kids well?”