principled pushback

Principals push back against midyear special ed cuts threat

Principals are pushing back against the Department of Education’s plan to seize money from schools whose special education students narrowly miss a bureaucratic cutoff.

Responding to the concerns, department officials said they would issue new guidance to principals that clarifies the department’s commitment to funding special education programs adequately and helping schools keep their budgets stable.

The confusion followed a change in the way the department allocates funds to schools this year as part of a reform effort aimed at helping students with disabilities. The change created tiers of funding levels: The more time special education students spend in classes mixed with general education students, the more money their schools get.

Many principals are finding out for the first time this week, because of a deadline to clean up special education data, that students they thought would bring in a higher rate fall into a lower tier instead — and the department could take back the difference in funds.

“The last-minute data capture has left us scrambling to account for potentially massive cuts to our budgets halfway through the school year,” 20 principals wrote in a letter to Chancellor Dennis Walcott today. “And it is because of our strong commitment to flexible programming and the other cornerstones of the Special Education reform that our cuts will be so dramatic.”

The principals, representing the Urban Assembly network of middle and high schools, urged Walcott to make several policy changes. They want the city to wait until September to implement the funding tiers, and they also want the department to figure out more flexible ways of representing students’ schedules in the department’s multiple data systems.

Department officials said on Wednesday that they would allow schools to appeal the midyear budget cuts, which in many cases principals said could exceed $100,000. Today, they said they would work with principals proactively to ease their concerns.

“We are actively reaching out to principals to try to clarify the confusion,” said Marcus Liem, a department spokesman.

In the meantime, special education teachers across the city are spending much of their time away from students, reconciling discrepancies between two complex data systems where records frequently conflict, several teachers told GothamSchools today.

People who have expressed concern in the past about the department’s urgency in rolling out special education reforms — even before releasing data from a pilot program — said the current confusion proves that a more measured approach is needed.

“This problem reveals yet again the absence of planning, info sharing and preparation by [the] DOE prior [to] rolling out the reform,” tweeted Lori Podvesker, a parent and special education advocate who sits on the Citywide Council on Special Education.

The principals’ full letter to Walcott is below:

Dear Chancellor Walcott,

We are writing to express our concern about the impending policy changes and budget cuts for Special Education services. We represent a network of schools committed to serving high needs students, including large percentages of students with disabilities, and were participants in Phase 1 of the Special Education reform. The manner in which the mid-year budget adjustment has been implemented and the proposed policy changes around grade code designation for part time students with disabilities will weaken our ability to implement the reform effort and be detrimental to the futures of our highest needs students. These proposals provide a strong incentive to maintain the status quo, as the dramatic and unanticipated funding shifts that were the result of making changes to IEPs that should be good for our students has resulted in destabilization of our school budgets almost overnight.

The DOE provided us with our register projections and budgets last summer but failed to provide any way for us to track the impact of program changes on our budgets and plan accordingly. Only since we returned from winter vacation were we provided with any report that allowed us to assess the impact on our budgets of the movement of students to less restrictive environments, giving us no chance to adjust staffing and programming.  Every budget tracking report received throughout the fall, in fact, considered part-time special education students as full time students. We designed our budgets and programming using this available data. The last-minute data capture has left us scrambling to account for potentially massive cuts to our budgets halfway through the school year. And it is because of our strong commitment to flexible programming and the other cornerstones of the Special Education reform that our cuts will be so dramatic.

We also have grave concerns about the enrollment implications of the directive to change part-time students’ ATS grade codes from special to general education and need assurance that our schools, already well above borough averages for percentages of students with disabilities, will not be overwhelmed with new IEP students requiring additional supports mid-year. Lastly, we are concerned about the as yet unclear implications for both city and state accountability of these same grade code changes. Prior to changing any of our students’ grade codes we are requesting these questions and concerns addressed.

Given this information, we ask the following:

  • Given the delay in rolling out the register tracking tools, instead of burdening schools on the forefront of the reform effort with an unexpected, midyear budget cut, we ask that you give us the remainder of the year to align our programming and staffing with the reality of the funding levels as you have now made them clear and instead to phase in cuts to funding for the next fiscal year.
  • Prior to asking schools to amend grade codes for students with disabilities from special education to general education based solely on percentages, develop and communicate written policies for enrollment and accountability that mitigate the potentially negative impact of mass grade code changes. Provide time for principals to give feedback on these policies and have their questions answered.
  • Instead of asking schools to re-designate all part-time Special Education students as general education, create a new set of grade codes in ATS to allow schools, teachers, programmers and the Offices of Enrollment and Accountability to document students who are part-time in Special Education classes. Allow us to move students from the current Special Education grade codes into these codes and hold us harmless for these moves during the current fiscal year to prevent a financial disincentive from doing so.
  • Reconsider the currently stated policy not to fund students who receive Special Education services in all four major subject areas at the full-time rate at a school with 45 minute periods.  Develop a more nuanced sliding scale funding formula for part time Special Education students so that students in three subject areas receive more funding than students in fewer subject areas, etc. This will avoid the significant financial disincentive in the current system to move a student from full time to three periods per day.
  • Create a more nuanced way to collect information on part-time programming, including a more sophisticated and transparent formula for calculating instructional minutes. Discontinue the use of the USPE screen to gather data, as this data can already been centrally gathered through the SESIS and burdening school staff members, including Special Education teachers, with this additional paperwork is unnecessary.

Before we make any changes to ATS grade codes and any budget cuts are implemented, we would like to meet with representatives from the Office of Special Education Initiatives, Management and Budget, Enrollment and Accountability so that our concerns can be heard and our questions about the impact of the requested changes on programming, funding, enrollment and accountability be addressed. We look forward to a productive dialog over the weeks ahead and hope that it will result in a resolution that will support the important work that we are doing in our schools as part of the Special Education reform.


The UA Principals

Edward Biedermann
Principal, The Urban Assembly New York Harbor School

Jeffrey Chetirko
Principal, The Urban Assembly Institute for New Technology

Shannon Curran
Principal, The Urban Assembly School for Law and Justice

Fia Davis
Principal, The Urban Assembly School for the Performing Arts

Kelly DeMonaco
Kiri Soares
Co-Principals, The Urban Assembly Institute of Math and Science for Young Women

Johanny Garcia
Principal, The Urban Assembly School for Careers in Sports

Jeffrey Garrett
Principal, The Urban Assembly Bronx Academy of Letters

David Glasner
Principal, The Urban Assembly Academy of Government and Law

Mariela Graham
Principal, The Urban Assembly School for Criminal Justice for Young Women

David Krulwich
Principal, The Urban Assembly School of Applied Math and Science

April McKoy
Principal, The Urban Assembly Gateway School for Technology

Patricia Minaya
Principal, The Urban Assembly School of Business for Young Women

Mark Ossenheimer
Principal, The Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation

Jennifer Ostrow
Principal, The Urban Assembly Unison School

Alexandra Rathmann-Noonan
Principal, The Urban Assembly School for Green Careers

Meisha Ross-Porter
Principal, The Urban Assembly Bronx School for Law, Government and Justice

Mary-Anne Sheppard
Principal, The Urban Assembly Academy for Civic Engagement

Cordelia Veve
Principal, The Urban Assembly School for Media Studies

Matthew Willoughby
Principal, The Urban Assembly School of Design and Construction

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

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.”