There’s a new official in charge of New York City’s special education system — a post responsible for some 230,000 students classified as having special needs.
Christina Foti took over the job on Monday from Corinne Rello-Anselmi, who retired last week as the deputy chief academic officer for special education after more than four decades with the education department.
The job is an enormous one: If it were its own district, the city’s special education system would be the country’s seventh-largest, surpassing Houston’s entire school system.
Foti is a familiar face to many parents and advocates; for the past five years, she served under Rello-Anselmi and has often attended parent forums and other public-facing events.
“I’m glad to see that continuity and see someone who I was already working with move up,” said Maggie Moroff, a special education policy expert at Advocates for Children who has worked with Foti. “What I know she brings is passion and commitment.”
A 17-year veteran of the education department, Foti has worked as a special education teacher, literacy coach, and the principal of a school in District 75, which serves students with the most complex disabilities.
In 2014, Foti jumped into higher-level management, replacing the then-director of the special education office, Johannah Chase, who stepped down just months after taking the post. Chase had drawn scrutiny for having relatively little teaching experience, none of which was in classrooms specifically for students with special needs.
In the years that followed, one of Foti’s key tasks was helping Rello-Anselmi implement sweeping special education reforms that allowed students with disabilities to enroll at the same schools as typically developing students in their neighborhoods, learning alongside them whenever possible. Many schools have struggled with that mandate, though advocates have largely supported the effort.
Foti indicated that inclusion will continue to be a priority. “I am passionate about promoting a culture where schools are welcoming communities that are rich in diversity, provide meaningful opportunities for every learner, and improve outcomes for all students,” she said in a statement.
Since Chancellor Richard Carranza eliminated a cabinet-level position for special education, Foti will be the highest-ranking special education official within the department, which has seen some modest improvements in recent years but still faces substantial challenges. The state’s education department blasted the city last year for its 13th straight year of noncompliance with federal laws governing special education.
Among the challenges: A shortage of seats for preschool students with disabilities; a special education complaint system that is overwhelmed and that leaves families without services for months at a time; lack of full accessibility at most schools for students with physical disabilities; and challenges offering rigorous instruction for students who struggle to read.
Foti will also help oversee the replacement of the city’s beleaguered special education data system, known as SESIS, which is notoriously glitchy and has frustrated educators who must spend additional time inputting student data. She will also supervise the District 75 superintendent.
Education department officials emphasized that Foti has spearheaded the special education offices’ efforts to improve data tracking and ensure that students are getting the services listed on their individual learning plans, such as classrooms with a mix of general- and special education students, occupational therapy, and other support.
Department officials said Foti will meet with parents and advocates in the coming weeks. Her salary is $216,000.
In a statement, Linda Chen, the department’s chief academic officer, said: “Christina played a crucial role in the citywide special education reform led by Corinne Rello-Anselmi, and is more than ready to build on the foundation Corinne set in creating inclusive environments with high expectations for every student.”