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Principal, King frame tensions over school choice changes

A back-and-forth between State Education Commissioner John King and a Brooklyn high school principal today provided a window into the tensions at play when high-needs students are placed in city schools — at a moment when additional shifts in enrollment policies may be imminent.

As King toured the High School for Public Service, principal Sean Rice outlined his worries about serving 35 special education students, up from “almost none” two years ago, in a school with about 440 students. Five or six have been added to his rolls in just the past week, he said.

“It is a major concern,” Rice said. “It’s going to be challenging for us this year, because we have a teaching staff that has not had extensive experience with students with disabilities.”

But Rice’s situation is rare for how few special education students he has, since some high schools, like William E. Grady High, have more than 20 percent special education students. Figures like that have created a schism between the city and the state for years, as King has criticized the city’s school choice policies for allowing some schools to become overloaded with needy students.

“I think this is the balance, though, between our concern—which we’ve long expressed—of students being concentrated in isolated buildings, and attempts by the city, which I think is the right direction, to try and avoid those overconcentrations of students,” King said to Rice during a discussion with Chancellor Merryl Tisch and other state education officials.

King has pushed the city to more equitably distribute those students for years, starting when he prompted the city to address the issue in order to receive federal funds for school ‘turnaround’ efforts. Chancellor Walcott said he would take steps to change enrollment practices in a 2012 letter.

While those commitments were technically rendered meaningless when the city was unable to secure School Improvement Grants, the city has still taken steps to distribute students more evenly. In the last two years, the city has reduced the number of students admitted “over-the-counter,” or just before or during the regular school year, who are assigned to low-achieving schools. The city announced earlier this year that nearly 1,300 students would be placed in 71 selective high schools for the 2013-14 school year without going through those schools’ specific admissions processes.

DOE officials said that those assignments, and the other recent changes to enrollment policy, didn’t affect Public Service, and added that there have been no changes in enrollment policy for special education students in recent months.

But a $2.6 million contract being voted on next week by the Panel for Educational Policy is an indication that more changes may be on the way. The contract is with Vanguard Direct, the company that built the city’s online Student Enrollment System, for “data management system changes” to “provide fair and equitable student enrollment opportunities.” Department officials would not comment on that contract proposal.

King said Wednesday that he expects to see more movement in enrollment procedures from the city in the months ahead, especially in the high school admissions process. The issue remains on a personal priority list, he added, and that he hopes a broader look at student assignment policies will be a priority of the next mayor.

Today, Rice signaled that additional city involvement in enrollment decisions would be difficult for some principals, no matter the intentions.

“I think it’s time that schools that have been protected from special-needs populations are getting their share of students with disabilities to educate,” Rice said. His fear is “just growing too quickly in a school that’s never had the experience.”

King pushed back, though, saying he understood Rice’s concerns but the only way to more evenly distribute high-needs students is to make sure schools serving few end up with higher numbers. “You’re right, you don’t want to overwhelm any single school. But this new influx of students here is reflection of a policy change we actually have advocated for, which is to not concentrate the students,” King said.

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