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.

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.