a free appropriate public education

State, special ed advocates tussle over proposed changes to IEPs

Special ed advocates objected to the limited choices in this drop-down menu on the proposed IEP form.
Special ed advocates objected to the limited choices in this drop-down menu on the proposed IEP form.

A new push by the state to standardize the way school districts plan which services special needs students should receive is rattling parents across New York.

At the heart of the process is a document called the Individualized Education Plan, which a team of experts crafts to describe the student’s educational needs and how the school should address them.

For years, every school district has used its own IEP form. Now, state officials have created standardized forms to be used by all districts.

The officials say this is an important move because it will create consistency across the state, but special education advocates are worried that the new form could put children’s needs in jeopardy. Everyone agrees that IEP forms are crucial documents because they are the strongest form of insurance a parent can have that his child will get specific services. Advocates worry that the forms the state is pushing would weaken that insurance.

The state started developing the new IEPs in early 2007, when they showed drafts to a select group of parents, educators, and others with an interest in special education. The standardized forms were supposed to be used as early as January 2009, despite advocates’ calls for an open public feedback process first. The United Federation of Teachers applied pressure on the state, and in October, the Regents approved an emergency delay to allow for three public hearings and a final revision of the forms. At the second of these hearings, held yesterday in Manhattan, state officials said they would post the comments they receive on the state’s website in January, and the revised forms will be rolled out at the start of the next school year.

It’s unclear how willing the state will be to make changes. Although representatives of NYSED took notes on the speakers’ concerns and said they’d take what they heard into account when revising the documents, a question-and-answer session at the end suggested that the forms are unlikely to change much.

“We can’t mandate information that’s not mandated,” said Rebecca Cort, Deputy Commissioner of the Office of Vocational and Educational Services for Individuals with Disabilities. “All we can require is the things that are required.”

What she meant is that if NYSED requires every district to use the new forms, it must limit the questions to information required by state or federal regulations. The state can’t force school districts to gather other kinds of information. Many of the concerns raised at the hearing relate to information that isn’t required to be in the IEP under state regulations.

Cort’s statement didn’t sound right to some special education experts. “If you look at it really broadly, the whole statutory purpose of the IEP form is to facilitate the provision of a free appropriate public education to each child with a disability in New York State. I would think that they can put on the form whatever questions are needed to meet that purpose or goal,” Kim Sweet, executive director of Advocates For Children of New York, told me.

Cort assured the audience that many of their concerns will be addressed in the guidance document and training sessions that the state will create to accompany the new forms. And districts can add to the state’s form (but not change it) to include some of the missing information, she said.

But Maggie Moroff, also of Advocates For Children, is concerned that guidance documents tend to be long and technical; the city’s new special education Standard Operating Procedures Manual runs to almost 300 pages. “If it isn’t on the face of the IEP which actually goes into the hands of the parents and educators then it’s hard for the state to make sure the kids are getting what they need,” she said.

Details on the issues raised in the hearing:

  • A drop-down menu gives only two choices for a child’s Behavior Intervention Plan: Time Out Room and Other. “What does ‘other’ mean?” speakers wanted to know, questioning why more positive behavioral interventions hadn’t been specified as options. Since “Other” is vague, the drop-down menu will lead to people defaulting to Time Out Room rather than “the many creative and interesting ways of changing a student’s behavior,” Moroff told me.
  • The IEPs lack information about whether the child is on track to receive an IEP diploma, Regents diploma, or Advanced Regents diploma. Speakers suggested that the document should raw parents’ attention to this question, since the IEP diploma severely limits a student’s options after high school graduation. “How does a school properly plan for a child’s graduation and discuss this with a parent, if you are not sure of where you’re headed?” asked Mary Kemp, who works with learning disabled students in a private school.
  • The section of the IEP document specifying related services, such as speech therapy, does not specify the size of the group the child should be in for these services. With budget cuts looming, speakers said that schools are likely to put all children in the largest groups legally allowed. Currently, IEPs can set a group size for a child that is less than the legal maximum, but this might not happen unless the option is made clear in the new documents.
  • The new IEPs lack a cover sheet tracking attendance at IEP meets and do not include information about the parent’s home language. Several people testifying said that these holes in the new forms could result in parents being shut out of important decisions about their children’s education. They also expressed concern that the new IEP forms do not highlight medical information that alerts educators to a child’s potentially serious health issues. Officials from NYSED countered that they expect most districts will address those concerns by adding a cover sheet to the IEP.

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”

moving forward

After Confederate flag dispute at Colorado football game, schools pledge to bring students together

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Manual High students.

Acknowledging “we may never have a conclusive picture of what happened,” two Colorado school districts sought to move past a controversy over whether a Confederate flag was displayed at a football game and open a conversation between the two school communities.

The principal of Manual High, Nick Dawkins, wrote in a community letter over the weekend that the visiting Weld Central High School team “displayed a Confederate flag during the first quarter of the (Friday night) game, offending many members of the Manual community.”

Officials from Denver Public Schools and Weld County School District Re-3J released a joint letter Tuesday saying that based “on what we have learned to date, however, the Weld Central team did not display the Confederate flag.” At the same time, it said, multiple Manual eyewitnesses “reported seeing spectators who attempted to bring a Confederate flag into the game and clothing with flag images.”

Going forward, students from the two schools — one rural and one urban — will participate in a student leadership exchange that has student leaders visit each other’s schools and communities to “share ideas and perspectives,” the letter says.

“At a time in our country when so many are divided, we want our students instead to come together, share ideas and learn together,” says the letter, which is signed by the principals of both schools and the superintendents of both school districts.

The alleged incident took place at a time when issues of race, social injustice, politics and sports are colliding in the United States, making for tough conversations, including in classrooms.

Weld Central’s mascot is a Rebel. Manual, whose mascot is the Thunderbolts, is located in one of Denver’s historically African-American neighborhoods.

Dawkins in his initial community letter also said “the tension created by the flag led to conflict on and off the playing field,” and that three Manual players were injured, including one who went to the hospital with a leg injury. He also said some Manual players reported that Weld Central players “taunted them with racial slurs.”

Weld Central officials vehemently denied that their team displayed the flag. In addition, they said in their own community letter they had “no evidence at this point that any of our student athletes displayed racially motivated inappropriate behavior.”

They said district officials “do not condone any form of racism,” including the Confederate flag.

Weld Central fans told the Greeley Tribune that they didn’t see any Confederate flag.

Read the full text below.