new bill

How well does your school serve students with disabilities? A proposed law in New York City would make that clear.

PHOTO: Cassi Feldman
Midwood High School.

New York City schools will be forced to disclose how well they are serving students with disabilities under a bill set to be introduced in the city council on Wednesday.  The new data, advocates hope, will empower parents as they choose schools and demand that their children’s needs are met.

The bill would require every school to disclose how many students are not receiving all of their legally required services, such as speech therapy or instruction from certified special education teachers.

Citywide, more than a quarter of students with disabilities only receive some of the services they’re entitled to — or none at all, according to data the education department must report. But, for now, families have no way of knowing how well individual schools serve students with disabilities.

“We need to identify exactly where this is happening and where students are being shortchanged,” said Mark Treyger, chairman of the city council’s education committee and the bill’s author. “These are legally mandated services that they are not receiving.”

Releasing more granular data would help hold schools accountable for serving students with disabilities, Treyger said, and could result in more resources being sent to those that are struggling to provide them. It could also give parents a way of knowing which schools are better at meeting the needs of special education students instead of relying on word-of-mouth or school visits.

Schools can struggle to provide special education services because their resources are stretched thin, they have trouble finding or keeping qualified special-education teachers, or serve a disproportionate number of students with special needs. Sometimes, the city puts the onus on parents to find services for their children.

The legislation would build on a law the city council passed in 2015, which first required the education department to disclose how many students with disabilities across the city weren’t receiving services spelled out on their individual learning plans. That law forced the education department to release annual reports on special education compliance, which have shown that as many as 41 percent of students with disabilities — over 70,000 students — did not receive at least some mandated services in the 2015-16 school year.

Those numbers have fallen recently: The latest report suggests that 27 percent of special-needs students did not receive services in the 2016-17 school year. But those improvements came as the city was making fixes to its notoriously glitchy special education tracking system, making it hard to tell whether the data reflect improvements in service delivery or simply better record keeping.

Treyger acknowledged that data collection problems could hamper efforts to get a clear picture of special-education compliance at the school level. But he said it would also put more pressure on the city to fix its data-collection systems.

Advocates said the new reporting requirement would be a powerful tool for accountability.

“To get this would be a huge win,” said Maggie Moroff, a special-education policy expert at Advocates for Children. “It would allow us and other advocates to know where to drive our advocacy and allow the [education department] to know where to send support to schools.”

Education department spokeswoman Toya Holness said the city planned to review the bill.

“We are committed to providing a high-quality education to all students with disabilities,” Holness said in a statement, “and have made major investments to ensure students with disabilities receive the programs and services they need, including hiring more staff, opening new programs and expanding partnerships with providers.”

Special education reorganization

Only 33 black students with disabilities in Denver met expectations on state tests

Just 2 percent of black students with disabilities in Denver scored at grade-level or higher on state literacy and math tests last year. In raw numbers, that’s just 33 of the 1,641 black students with disabilities in the school district, according to Denver Public Schools data.

The percentage is similar for Latino students with disabilities: only 2.6 percent met expectations on the tests. Meanwhile, nearly 17 percent of white students with disabilities did.

Denver school officials recently revealed those shockingly low numbers and stark racial disparities as further justification for a previously proposed reorganization of the department that oversees special education. The reorganization would shrink the pool of central office staff who help school principals serve students with disabilities, and would increase the number of school psychologists and social workers.

The theory is that providing more robust mental health services in schools will allow the central office staff members who remain to shift their focus from managing behavior crises to improving academic instruction. Because of their expertise, those staff members were often tapped to help teachers deal with challenging behavior from all students, not just those with disabilities, said Eldridge Greer, who oversees special education for Denver Public Schools.

District officials also hope that increasing mental health support will reduce racial disparities in how students are disciplined. District data show black students are six times as likely to be suspended as white students, while Latino students are three times as likely.

“The biases that are in place in our society unfairly target African-American and Latino children to be controlled as a response to trauma, or as a response to readiness-to-learn (issues), instead of being provided more educational support,” Greer said.

Parents of students with disabilities have pushed back against the district’s plan to cut staff dedicated to special education. Advocates have, too.

Pam Bisceglia, executive director of Advocacy Denver, a civil rights organization that serves people with disabilities, said that while the district should be embarrassed by how poorly it’s serving students of color, she’s not sure the proposed reorganization will help.

She and others worry the district is siphoning money from special education to pay for services that will benefit all students – and that in the end, those with disabilities will lose out.

“If the district wants to have a full-time social worker and psychologist in every school, I don’t have a problem with that,” Bisceglia said. “What I have a problem with is the plan doesn’t suggest how instruction is going to look different (for students with disabilities) and how the curriculum is going to be different in terms of learning to read and do math.”

Greer said that in large part, the curriculum and strategies the district has in place are the right ones. What’s lacking, he said, is training for special education teachers, especially those who are new to the profession. Having a cadre of central office staff focused solely on academics will help, he said.

The reorganization, as detailed at a recent school board meeting, calls for cutting 45 districtwide experts who help principals serve students with disabilities – and who Greer said spent a lot of time managing behavior crises. In their place, the district would hire 15 academic specialists, eight more behavior specialists (the district already has seven), and four supervisors.

The overhaul would also ensure that all elementary schools have at least one full-time social worker or psychologist. Schools would also get money to put in place new discipline practices. The school board last year revised its discipline policy to limit suspensions and expulsions of students in preschool through third grade.

In addition, elementary schools with special programs for students with emotional needs would get $50,000 to spend on a mental health worker, teacher, or teacher’s aide.

School principals invited to discuss the reorganization with the school board said they welcomed being able to hire more social workers and psychologists. But they said they are unsure about the rest of the plan.

One principal said he relied heavily on the expert assigned to help his school serve students with disabilities. Another expressed concern about losing capable staff.

“How do we retain some of that talent so we don’t end up with a brain drain and lose all these people that have all this knowledge and expertise?” said Gilberto Muñoz, the principal at Swansea Elementary School in north Denver.

When district officials first presented the plan earlier this year, they framed it as a way to improve the academic performance of students with disabilities. Just 8 percent of Denver fourth-graders with disabilities met expectations on the state literacy test last year, compared with 44 percent of fourth-graders without disabilities.

But Greer said that when they dug into the data, they discovered the racial disparities.

“We knew there were disparities, but to see disparities as profound as the ones I shared with the board, it was important to elevate that,” he said.

Parent Sarah Young said it was courageous of the district to share such shocking data. But she said she thinks their plan to fix the disparities is lacking – and she disagrees with calling it a reorganization.

Young, who has a daughter with a learning disability, visual impairment, and epilepsy, said Denver Public Schools should call the plan what it is: cuts to special education.

“We understand you’re trying to handle behavior,” Young said, referring to the district. “But these are all vulnerable student populations, and we can’t pit them against each other. We can’t be robbing one to try to put a Band-Aid on another.”

Interrupted

Dump truck blamed for fiber optic line cut that disrupted TNReady testing

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

A dump truck is behind the fiber optic line cut that led to more disruptions in state testing Thursday, according to the company that provides internet access for many Tennessee school districts.

The severed cable caused slow internet connections for some districts and caused others to not connect at all. A statement from Education Networks of America said Internet connections were re-established within four hours of the “major” break on Thursday morning.

“The resiliency ENA has built into our network backbone and internet access circuits did reduce the impact of the fiber cut significantly,” according to the company’s statement provided by the Tennessee Department of Education.

State officials were quick to point out the issue was not connected to its testing platform, which has been plagued with issues since the state’s three-week testing window opened on April 16.

“This is an issue related to local connectivity, not with the testing platform,” said Sara Gast, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education. “Testing can continue, but connectivity may be slow in areas that are impacted until this is resolved.”

Many districts chose to suspend testing for the day, while others left the decision up to school principals.

In Memphis, home to the state’s largest district, a spokeswoman for Shelby County Schools said students were “not able to connect” to the state’s online platform Thursday morning and that principals would decide whether to keep trying. At least one Memphis high school was able to complete testing Thursday afternoon.

TNReady’s online test has experienced widespread interruptions on at least four days since testing began. There were log-in issues on the first day, a reported cyber attack on the second, and a problem with online rosters on Wednesday after the state’s testing company, Questar, updated its software the night before.

Concerns about the subsequent validity of the results prompted state lawmakers to pass two pieces of legislation — the latest one on Wednesday — aimed at preventing students, teachers, schools, and districts from being negatively impacted by the data.

The online issues are affecting high school students statewide. Some districts also chose to expand computerized testing this year to middle grades. For the state’s youngest students, TNReady was being given on paper.

This story has been updated.