un-timely evaluations

Evaluation delays leave some students with disabilities waiting for help

Amelia Barrett first asked the city to determine whether her daughter Amira had special needs two years ago, after the girl’s pre-kindergarten teachers said she seemed aloof and was easily distracted in class. She got no response.

The next year, she enrolled Amira in kindergarten at a charter school. She filed another evaluation request with the city, since it also is responsible for screening charter-school students. Again, nothing.

This year, the attention and behavior problems grew worse. Amira would kick the chair of the classmate seated in front of her or wander over to her teacher’s desk, and every week she had to visit the school social worker with a group of students that Barrett calls the “Dennis the Menace” crew. Barrett faxed in yet another request, and again she heard nothing.

Finally, she contacted the nonprofit Advocates for Children, which flagged her case for the education department in February. Amira finally was evaluated the next month — two years after Barrett’s first request.

“Two years in the life of a six-year-old is a third of her life,” said Maggie Moroff, Advocates for Children’s special education policy coordinator.

An education department spokesman said that while privacy laws prevent the agency from commenting on individual cases, it is committed to making sure all students get the help they need. But Moroff said the city had fumbled Barrett’s case.

“This is a parent who did everything right,” she said. “And it just wasn’t happening.”

Such delays in evaluating students are a persistent problem for New York City, where more than 170,000 students have some sort of disability and evaluators are often stretched thin.

The state requires students who are thought to have special needs to be screened within 60 days of a parent’s giving consent. The city says its expensive but glitchy student-data system cannot accurately track how often those evaluations get delayed, but a state report found that evaluations for one in five pre-K students, and one in 10 students in kindergarten through high school, missed that deadline during the 2013-14 school year. About one in six charter school students waited longer than the legal limit for a screening, according to a survey of 100 schools by the New York City Charter School Center.

Top officials at the city’s education department acknowledge the problem. Last week, Chancellor Carmen Fariña called it her “personal goal” for the city to conduct the screenings and create personal learning plans for students with disabilities within the legal timeline. The city is also planning to add three-dozen teams of school psychologists and social workers to screen school-age and pre-kindergarten students next year, and to upgrade its data system to record the percentage of evaluations that are conducted on time.

The moves come after pressure from advocates and charter schools, who say they are hopeful about the changes.

Hiring more screeners “is probably the one biggest lever we can pull as a city to drive down these numbers,” said Dixon Deutch, vice president of the Special Education Collaborative, an initiative of the Charter Center, which joined with City Council members and other groups to successfully press for the additional funding in next year’s budget.

Amelia Barrett submitted multiple requests to the city for a special-education evaluation for her daughter, who was only screened after an advocacy group intervened.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Amelia Barrett submitted multiple requests to the city for a special-education evaluation for her daughter, who was only screened after an advocacy group intervened.

The compliance challenge facing school officials every year is immense. According to a 2008 report by the state comptroller, the city education department receives more than 100,000 requests each year for initial screenings, reevaluations, and reviews of students’ learning plans.

Evaluation teams conducting first screenings gauge students’ intellectual and social skills through tests and classroom observations, while also delving into their backgrounds through parent conversations. If they conclude that a student has a disability, then they meet with the parents to craft a personal learning plan, known as an IEP. Much of that work falls on school psychologists, who often serve multiple schools and have other duties in addition to evaluations.

A psychologist who serves three schools that share a building in Manhattan said she worked on about 140 separate screenings this year. A single first-time screening requires cognitive tests that can take several hours to administer and score, classroom observations, a review of a student’s records, and writing a detailed report, she said. Scheduling and conducting the IEP meetings eats up even more time.

As a result, she estimated that up to a quarter of her evaluations exceeded the legal time limit.

“In order to meet a 60-day limit, you’d have to take work home every night and work into the evening,” said the psychologist, who requested anonymity in order to speak freely about the challenges of her job. “And that’s what a lot of people do.”

Following a 1979 class-action lawsuit, a federal court has repeatedly ordered the city to comply with laws requiring it to screen students for disabilities and provide them services in a timely manner. The city must also report on its compliance.

In 2011, schools began using an online system to track special-education student data called SESIS, which the city spent at least $67 million to develop. But the system still cannot accurately depict the percentage of students who had their initial screening within the required 60-day period, according to education department spokesman Harry Hartfield.

“I’m shocked they aren’t able to do that,” said Deutch, the charter school special-education advocate.

That data will be available next year, though. The City Council passed a bill in March that forces the education department to produce annual special-education reports that will include the number of screenings that hit or miss the legal deadline. The first report is due next February.

“As we work to expand our data systems,” Hartfield said in a statement, “we plan to release information publicly around IEP completion rates and to work to comply with the recently passed local law.”

The department is hoping to do more than just report its rates — it’s also aiming to improve them.

The city currently has 720 teams of psychologists and social workers who screen students in district schools for disabilities, according to the city, and another 34 teams to evaluate charter school students, according to the Charter Center. A $7.5 million boost in next year’s city budget will pay for 30 extra teams to serve both district and charter schools. (The City Council had pushed for funding for 50 extra teams.)

Meanwhile, the city’s pre-kindergarten expansion means an influx of students who may require special-education screenings. To keep up with the demand, another $5 million in the budget will pay for six extra teams to evaluate those students, according to the City Council.

At the same time, Chancellor Fariña is calling on schools to kickstart the initial screening process as soon as the academic year begins, holding required parent meetings in September and October. The city has gotten better at evaluating students on schedule so they can get learning plans and extra help right away, but it still “has a long way to go,” Fariña told reporters last week.

“When I write my own, personal goals,” she said, “that’s certainly one of them.”

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.