By the numbers

Grim statistics show city still failing to evaluate, serve many students with disabilities

Newly released data show that New York City is still struggling to monitor and provide services to many of its students with disabilities — a swelling group that is larger than Hawaii’s entire student population.

Nearly 30 percent of students with disabilities had to wait longer than the legal limit to receive their first plans outlining the services they need, while 40 percent of students were given none or only some of the services called for by those plans, according to the data from the 2014-15 school year.

The city education department released the data in a report Monday under the terms of a 2015 City Council bill, which followed years of complaints by advocates and lawmakers that the city was withholding vital information about the nearly 188,000 city students in kindergarten through high school who have disabilities.

But the report comes with a major caveat: Because of serious flaws with the city’s $130 million special-education tracking system, officials warned that some of the information in the report may not be reliable. In fact, the system’s limitations meant that education department employees had to spend several months manually compiling information from different databases in order to comply with the reporting law.

“It’s mind-boggling that the system, at this stage after so many years, is still not efficient,” said Mark Alter, an educational psychology professor at New York University and an expert on special education.

Because much of the data has not previously been released to the public, the report sheds new light on how well the school system is meeting students’ needs.

According to the report, 60 percent of students last year received the full range of services called for in their Individualized Education Programs, or IEPs. But 35 percent, or more than 60,000 students, only received some of their mandated services. Another 5 percent, or almost 8,600 students, did not get any of the services they were entitled to.

Special-education laws give schools 60 days after receiving parental consent to hold an IEP meeting, where a student’s annual goals and required supports are determined. The report says that less than 70 percent of those required first-time meetings occurred within that time window, while about 77 percent of follow-up IEP meetings happened on time.

But that means tens of thousands are students with disabilities are waiting longer than the law permits to get IEPs, which they need to receive specialized services. That delay is a longstanding challenge for the city: Since a 1979 class-action lawsuit, a federal court has repeatedly ordered the city to provide special-education services in a timely manner. Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña has promised to reduce those delays.

“This has been going on 40 years,” said Alter, the NYU professor. “You have so many youngsters who are waiting. And what’s happening to them while they wait?”

The report also shows that in New York, in line with national trends, certain students are more frequently identified as having disabilities than others. Black and Hispanic students, boys, and students who are still learning English are targeted for special-education services at higher rates than their peers. Other than Staten Island, the school districts with the largest shares of students who are targeted for special-education services tend to be in areas where many low-income students of color attend school, such as East Harlem and the South Bronx.

Experts say that many of these students are misidentified as having disabilities when in fact they just need extra help to catch up academically or to follow classroom rules.

“This is a failure of general education; it’s a failure of classroom management,” said Ellen McHugh, a member of the the Citywide Council on Special Education, adding that the districts with the highest identification rates should get extra funding to help properly identify and serve students with disabilities.

Beginning in 2010, the city began ordering schools to include more students with disabilities in general-education classrooms. According to the report, nearly two-thirds of students with disabilities now spend 80 percent or more of each day in those classrooms.

Since it was rolled out in 2011, technical flaws have plagued the city’s expensive Special Education Student Information System, or SESIS. Last month, Public Advocate Letitia James filed a lawsuit against the city claiming that problems with the database have left some students without services and caused the city to lose federal funding.

The report acknowledges “major deficiencies” with the system, and notes that information related to students with disabilities is still stored in separate databases that are not linked. An education department spokesman said a multi-agency task force is currently looking for ways to improve SESIS.

The spokesman also listed several ways the department is working to improve services for students with disabilities. The actions include hiring more school psychologists and social workers to help create IEPs, adding more service providers, and launching more specialized programs for students with autism.

“Today’s report serves to reaffirm our commitment to ensuring all students have access to a rigorous and inclusive education with appropriate services and supports,” Deputy Chancellor for the Division of Specialized Instruction Corinne Rello-Anselmi said in a statement.

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

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.”