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Few options: Many NYC high schools are off limits to students with disabilities

An empty school hallway with beige walls and blue doors

Brooklyn High School for Excellence and Equity is considered only partially accessible for students with physical disabilities because the hallway doors are too narrow and the cafeteria isn’t accessible.

Gabriela Bhaskar for Chalkbeat

Going to high school in New York City is supposed to be full of choices. 

Students in the nation’s largest school district can apply to more than 700 programs, picking from schools large or small, close to home or in another borough. There are career and technical schools, schools that offer college courses, and schools dedicated to the performing arts. 

For students with disabilities, however, the options often feel limited. Picking a high school means finding not just the right fit in terms of academics and interests, but a whole host of other questions, too, about whether their needs will be met.

Students with limited mobility often find the buildings themselves are inaccessible, with bathroom stalls that are too narrow, ramps used to toss garbage, and entire floors off limits because there’s no elevator. For other students with disabilities, families feel they are turned away because school staff signal they can’t or won’t serve their child’s specific needs, which may require a dedicated aide, support from a trained special education teacher, or medical attention.

Last year, nearly 18,000 eighth graders with disabilities were poised to transition to high school. Many of them won’t end up graduating: Only 58% of students with disabilities earned a diploma in 2021, compared with 81% of citywide.

“I’m angry,” said Francine Almash, who is searching for a high school for her son, who has dyslexia. 

She also represents families who have children with disabilities as a member of the Citywide Council on High Schools, an advisory group at the education department. Despite her intimate knowledge of the school system and fierce advocacy for her son, she has felt at a loss for information about which programs would be a good fit. 

“How do I select 12 schools that might serve him? How do I select one?” Almash asked. 

Getting through the door

With the click of a mouse, it became clear just how limited the high school options would be for Alan Aja’s son. 

In the city’s online directory of high schools, Aja checked the box that would only show campuses that are fully accessible for students with physical disabilities, eliminating a chunk of the city’s high schools from contention. 

Aja’s son has mobility challenges, which means that his family is looking for a school that’s not only a good academic fit, but one where he can reach the water fountains and ride an elevator, or at least climb staircases that aren’t too steep. He needs a school that is close, and on the smaller side, because traveling too far or traversing a large campus is taxing.

While students with mobility needs do get preference for seats in schools that are accessible, they still might have few options. After months of searching, Aja’s family has managed to find two schools that they think fit the bill for their son.

“Those who believe in choice need to explain to me why that inequity exists,” Aja said. “Parents shouldn’t have to click on a box. It should be a guaranteed right.”

The accessibility of New York City school buildings, some of which date back a century, is “abysmally low,” federal investigators declared in 2015. Since then, advocates say the city has made steady progress in opening up access to more buildings.

Currently, 73% of high schools are accessible, according to the School Construction Authority. But that includes buildings that are considered “fully” or only “partially” accessible. Even those considered partially accessible may be off limits to students if they can’t use the bathrooms, for example, or a wheelchair can’t fit through a doorway to get to their classes. 

The city’s current capital plan, which runs through 2024, includes $750 million in upgrades that include widening doorways, ensuring that auditorium stages are accessible, and installing automatic door openers, ramps, and lifts. With work underway, 57 more elementary, middle, and high school buildings will be fully accessible, and three more will be partially accessible. 

On top of considering the physical access a student may have in a building, students with disabilities also may have to meet competitive admissions standards at “screened” schools — selective schools that may require essays, interviews, auditions, and weigh academic records like grades. 

Students with disabilities “not only have to meet those screening thresholds that their more typical peers have to meet, but then there needs to be the perfect overlay of physical accessibility,” said Maggie Moroff, who works on special education issues for Advocates for Children. “We know often that families make choices: ‘All right, this is the perfect school for my child except she can’t get into the library, or she’s going to eat lunch in the faculty lounge.’” 

Feeling shut out

When Jennifer Choi’s son was admitted to one of the city’s prestigious specialized high schools last year, everyone around her assumed he would enroll. 

But her son, who has autism, first needed to know whether the school offered the special education class settings that are supposed to be guaranteed on his individualized education program, or IEP. 

He sent an email to the school staff and waited for a response. When none came, he reached out to the central education department, setting off another back-and-forth with the school.

The run-around was a red flag to Choi, who runs a consulting firm for families with disabilities. 

“They’re supposed to say, ‘If it’s on your IEP, I’ll do it.’ It’s not a choice. But it took so long,” Choi said. “Do I want him to go to a school that’s not going to welcome him?” 

He enrolled at a different school, one that has an administrator dedicated to serving students with disabilities.

Families say they run into this problem frequently: School staff tell students with disabilities that they cannot be accommodated. This isn’t supposed to happen. The New York City education department assures parents that “every high school is expected to welcome and serve students with disabilities.”

In reality, city officials know that isn’t always the case. Parents on the Citywide Council on Special Education pressed one of the city’s top enrollment officials about the issue at a November meeting

“In terms of schools turning away kids… we, too, hear that,” Sarah Kleinhandler, the education department’s chief for enrollment, told the council. 

“We, of course, don’t support that. And we leverage the structures that are in place to ensure that those students are welcomed in our schools,” she said. When officials hear about those cases, she said, they refer it to superintendents at the district and executive levels. 

Part of the problem, parents and advocates say, is how the education department identifies students with disabilities in the application process. 

The education department gives an admissions preference to students with disabilities. The preference is based on how many students with disabilities are enrolled in a borough. 

When students apply to schools, they are identified as having a disability only when more than 20% of their class schedule consists of special education. A student could have an IEP that requires small group tutoring four times a week, a full-time paraprofessional, and physical and occupational therapy, and still not meet that threshold, Choi said. 

Paullette Healy, an advocate and member of the Citywide Council on Special Education, said she helped more than a dozen families with this very issue in the last admissions cycle. Often, she said, students needed their own paraprofessional that schools said they could not provide, or medically fragile children’s needs could not be met by staffers already on-site. Families also had trouble getting schools to implement safety measures to keep their child from wandering from campus.

“It’s like, ‘Surprise! Here’s a student who needs way more support than you can afford to give them,’” she said. “Some administrators will find a way, and some are just like, ‘Nope. Not my problem,’ and tell the parent to go somewhere else.” 

Education department spokesperson Sarah Casasnovas said the city is ​”exploring potential changes to the policy language to make the process clearer.”

“We will be engaging with families and advocates on this,” said Casasnovas.

Officials encouraged families to be in touch with school counselors, or to call or email the city for help navigating the high school admissions process. 

Progress at some competitive schools, stagnation at others

Students with disabilities vying for the city’s competitive schools often face particularly high barriers, and are more likely to be screened out because of the admissions criteria used. 

But there has been some steady progress toward enrolling more students with disabilities in these highly sought-after schools.  

David Rubel, an education consultant, has been tracking the numbers of students with disabilities at screened schools, finding it has doubled from the 2015-16 school year to the 2019-20 school year at the campuses with the highest English scores on state testing. 

Among those with the biggest increases is the coveted Eleanor Roosevelt on the Upper East Side, where the share of students with disabilities jumped more than seven points. Almost 17% of students were identified as having a disability this school year, according to state data. Still, the school is not yet representative: Based on the number of high school students with disabilities in Manhattan, the target should be about 19%, state data showed. 

The city, however, does not have such targets at the eight specialized schools that require a single test for admissions.

The number of students with disabilities has stayed stagnant, or even decreased, at these schools, Rubel found. At Stuyvesant — which is the most competitive of the schools, and has a fully accessible building — fewer than 1% of students are classified as having a disability, according to this year’s enrollment data. 

Opening up more opportunities at specialized high schools “would be a major change,” Rubel said. But tweaking admissions at these schools may require a change in state law, which dictates the admissions process. Attempts at reform have been extraordinarily controversial. 

“These children have great potential for great things,” he said. “Are our top public schools enrolling them?”

Christina Veiga is a reporter covering New York City schools with a focus on school diversity and preschool. Contact Christina at cveiga@chalkbeat.org.

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