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A ‘gut punch’: Parents decry New York’s plan to upend special ed help centers and reduce staff

State officials are ending contracts with dozens of organizations that help connect parents to special education services as part of a broad restructuring, a move that advocates say will make it harder for families to navigate one of the most complex parts of the school system.

The decision came as a shock to providers, known as Early Childhood Direction Centers and Special Education Parent Centers, some of which have held contracts with the state for decades and which many parents view as critical to cutting through red tape.

“It was this gut punch to see the most helpful thing I’ve encountered in this entire system is being defunded,” said Tim Carvell, a Brooklyn parent whose son is autistic.

Those organizations, which operate in every borough in New York City and across the state, are designed as something of a help desk for families to find resources for children with disabilities from birth until age 21. The centers can help parents find providers of required special education evaluations, figure out which schools or programs can accommodate their child’s disability, or assist with the transition from pre-K to kindergarten.

State officials said the old centers will be replaced with new ones, albeit with fewer staff members. The new hubs will be dedicated more toward helping school districts do a better job communicating with families and offering special education services, which state officials say will help more families in the long run. (Officials also expect some of the same organizations to bid for the new contracts.)

“It’s a change in the focus,” said Chris Suriano, the state’s assistant commissioner for special education. “Nothing is going to change about that expectation of support.”

But with reduced staff and a revised mission, special education advocates are skeptical. They worry changes will actually make it harder for families to find quality advice, potentially leading to gaps in needed therapies or students’ education during crucial developmental years.

“More young children are being identified earlier in life as having developmental delays and disabilities, so this is not the time to be cutting back on staff to provide access to this information,” said Randi Levine, policy director for Advocates for Children, an organization that works with families with special needs.

Some of the providers also doubt that parents will get the same level of services from centers with fewer staff members. For the early childhood centers, which currently cost the state about $4.4 million a year, the new contracts are expected to provide for just one full time employee, state documents show — down from at least three. (Early childhood centers will also be required to only hire staff with masters degrees.)

“That phone never stops ringing,” said Laura Kennedy, who has run the Early Childhood Direction Center on Staten Island for 25 years. The center works with roughly 600 families a year. “There’s no way that one person could assume the work we’re doing now.”

The decision also shocked many parents, with news traveling quickly across online message boards and social media. Carvell, the Brooklyn parent, said he called an early childhood center after it became clear the city’s list of providers who could evaluate his son to secure a pre-K placement was out of date.

“Slots in schools fill up if your kid takes three months to get evaluated,” he said. But when he called an early childhood center, they were able to quickly help set up an evaluation.

“The idea that you can just pick up the phone and call somebody — it’s revolutionary,” he added.

Some providers said officials told them a $10 million funding shortfall was partly to blame for the changes, an assertion state officials disputed. Instead, the education department emphasized that the federal government could ratchet up oversight or revoke certain funding if special education outcomes don’t improve.

“The U.S. Education Department has identified New York as a ‘State in Need of Assistance’ for more than 10 years,” department spokeswoman Emily DeSantis wrote in a statement. “While any transition to a new system can be challenging for families, we will continue and enhance supports for students, schools and families as we move to this more collaborative, team model for supporting New York’s students with disabilities.”

Asked why the changes weren’t debated publicly, Suriano, the assistant commissioner, said the process of putting new contracts out for bids means “we are very limited in what we can share.” Officials say they plan to hold “regional meetings” to talk about the changes.

“We’re truly going to make a difference by changing the quality of what districts are offering,” he said. “We are still committed to ensuring parents have a place that they feel comfortable going to.”