Waiting for the Plan

Few details yet from Fariña on special education's major issues

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
About 350 families and advocates for students with disabilities attended a conference about special education held at the High School of Art and Design on Saturday.

When Chancellor Carmen Fariña took the podium at a conference Saturday for families of children with disabilities, many parents were eager to learn how she planned to steer the city’s special education overhaul, which is dramatically changing how students with special needs are assigned to schools.

But Fariña didn’t talk about the reforms, or the concerns that not all schools can meet students’ needs. She also didn’t mention a glitchy data system for tracking students with special needs or describe how she will try to narrow the nearly 30-point graduation rate gap between students with disabilities and those without. And she barely addressed the experience of students with special needs as the city continues its transition to the Common Core standards.

Instead, Fariña briefly shared her own experience working with students with disabilities and repeated some general messages she has made before, leaving parents and advocates wondering when they will hear a more detailed vision for special education from the Department of Education’s new administration.

“I haven’t heard them say anything, I really haven’t,” said Ronique Anderson, whose high school-aged son, Khaleel, sits on a citywide special education council. The citywide conference was a good first step, Anderson said, “but for the most part, [students with disabilities] have been forgotten.”

During her first 100 days as chancellor, Fariña’s most vocal statements about special education have been tangled up in the city’s charter school co-location debate, when she emphasized that space-sharing should not adversely affect schools for students with disabilities. In her frequent public statements about her broader vision, she has rarely focused on special education.

The most significant clue about her plans is that she held on to Corinne Rello-Anselmi, the deputy chancellor who was steering the special education reforms under the Bloomberg administration. The continuity suggests that Fariña plans to stay the course on the reforms, which are aimed at integrating students with disabilities into all city schools.

When Fariña became chancellor, she immediately expressed support for the reforms, Rello-Anselmi said in an interview Saturday. “That was the first thing she said to me: ‘I’m here to make this really happen.'”

The chancellor signaled her support for that goal during the conference Saturday at the High School of Art and Design in Manhattan, when she described a program that she helped develop as superintendent to support students with autism who are in general education classrooms.

Fariña also emphasized that she believes that students with disabilities can rise to the Common Core standards, which are proving a challenge for all students. She said that when she worked as an education consultant before becoming chancellor, she modeled instruction at a Brooklyn school by teaching social studies lessons to students with disabilities.

“That program showed me how much kids can learn content, Common Core-based, as long as you’re willing to go the extra mile and do your teaching in a different way,” Fariña told the 350 attendees at the conference.

Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña spoke at the conference, but did not announced any new policies or lay out her vision for special education.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña spoke at the conference, but did not announced any new policies or lay out her vision for special education.

But some families and advocates are concerned that the city’s special education changes have left some students in general education classrooms where their individual needs are not being met.

Christine Engler, the mother of a student with special needs at Art and Design, said Fariña’s remarks did not convince her that the chancellor is aware of challenges with the overhaul.

“I’m taking her with a grain of salt,” Engler said. “Her actions [so far] haven’t proven a lot to me.”

The new administration’s steep challenge is to ensure that neighborhood schools and general education teachers have the resources and training to serve students with disabilities, said Kim Sweet, executive director of the group Advocates for Children of New York.

“It’s one thing to change where kids go to school,” she said. “But it’s an entirely different thing to make sure those schools are prepared to educate all students effectively.”

Several people said Fariña had set a favorable tone with parents, but that her administration could still improve the way it communicates with families of students with disabilities. Stacye Zausner, whose child attends Art and Design, said the conference was the first noteworthy example of the new administration reaching out to parents like her.

“This is sort of the first concrete thing that’s happened,” she said.

Lori Podvesker, a policy analyst for the advocacy group Resources for Children with Special Needs, said the education department must do a better job informing parents about special education policies.

“The communication piece is glaring and missing,” said Podvesker, who was appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio to the city’s Panel for Educational Policy.

Fariña left the conference without speaking to reporters. But Rello-Anselmi said the parent conference is just one example of the education department’s special education outreach, which also includes monthly meetings with advocates for students with special needs. As part of its overall push for fuller inclusion of students with disabilities into the larger school system, special education issues are also integrated into most events for families and trainings for educators, Rello-Anselmi added.

As the special education reforms continue, Rello-Anselmi said, the department’s focus is making sure that schools have the resources and teachers have the training to serve students with special needs. She said with more time the changes will result in better outcomes for students with disabilities.

“This is going to take time,” Rello-Anselmi said. “But I think we are on the right trajectory.”

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 cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

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.”