Advocates and lawyers representing students with disabilities say the city has only intensified its recent battle against parents who want their children's private school tuition reimbursed.
The adversarial showdown, which stems in large part from the city's efforts to cut special education costs, means that children with special needs are taking longer to receive services that their parents believe they need.
"They're basically just fighting everything a lot more," said Kim Madden, director of legal services at Advocates for Children of New York, about the city's lawyers. AFC represents low-income families in many cases against the Department of Education.
As the new school year is set to begin, Madden said she expects the help line that her organization runs to start ringing off the hook. The complaints often come from parents who want schools to provide the services mandated by their child’s special education plan, such as occupational and speech therapy. Other requests are for transportation for medically fragile students and extra tutoring for learning disabilities.
But it’s the expensive reimbursement requests to cover private school tuition, which account for many of the cases, that have the city on the defensive. The city is projected to spend $256 million in 2014, or about 9 percent more than this year, on private school tuition for students whose parents successfully petition for reimbursements. All together, the city's bill for nonpublic school payments, excluding charter school spending, is on pace to increase 35 percent since 2010.
Parents attended a rally at Tweed Hall, where they demanded the DOE provide more translation and interpretation services to those whose children require special education.
Advocates filed a federal complaint today against the city Department of Education that they said represents years of troubling reports from parents who don't speak English.
Hundreds of those parents have come to the advocacy groups with concerns that the department doesn't provide sufficient language services for navigating special education. And with extensive special education reforms in progress, the need for language services is more pressing than ever, said Kim Sweet, executive director of Advocates for Children.
AFC, which represents low-income students and students with disabilities, joined with New York Lawyers for the Public Interest to file the complaint with the U.S. Office of Civil Rights on behalf of 19 city families. The complaint charges the city with violating federal, state, and city laws by failing to provide translation services for the parents of children with special needs.
The complaint profiles one of the parents in detail. Nyuk Siem Looi, who speaks only Cantonese, has two sons who are autistic and cannot speak. According to the complaint, Looi has been told to bring her own interpreter to meetings and pressured to sign documents about her sons' educational programs that she could not understand.
Parents named in the complaint were joined by dozens of others at a rally on the steps of City Hall today after the complaint was filed, many holding umbrellas to relieve themselves from more than 90-degree heat.
For months, advocates for students with special needs have been pushing the state to reconsider a safety net meant to help those students graduate.
But when the state’s top education policy-makers sat down in Albany Monday to discuss the issue, they instead floated the idea of making graduation requirements even easier for students who have disabilities.
This year, for the first time, all students in New York State will have to pass five Regents exams with a 65 or higher in order to graduate. In the past, students have had the option of getting a less rigorous “local diploma” with some scores of 55 or higher, with the number of 65's required inching upward each year.
But the elimination of the local diploma doesn’t extend to students who require special education services: They will still be able to graduate with 55's on their transcripts, even on all five required Regents exams.
Advocates say that leniency runs the risk of creating a second-class diploma for students with disabilities, similar to the IEP diploma that is being eliminated. Students had to pass exams known as Regents Competency Tests to get the diploma, but earning one did not qualify graduates for college, work, or the military.
New York public school students have fewer options for recourse against discrimination today than they did a week ago.
The state's highest court ruled last week that public school students cannot use New York's human rights law to seek recognition of discrimination — or get financial compensation when discrimination has taken place.
Never before have courts ruled that such a large group of constituents is not protected by the law, said Rebecca Shore, the director of litigation for Advocates for Children, which aims to protect low-income students from discrimination.
New York's human rights law, the first of its kind when it was passed in 1945, prohibits discrimination based on "age, race, creed, color, national origin, sexual orientation, military status, sex or marital status" in a variety of settings, including "non-sectarian educational institutions," according to the State Division of Human Rights. Individuals can file complaints with the state's Division of Human Rights and seek restitution, all without paying for a lawyer.
But after two school districts contested the human rights division's jurisdiction to investigate and fine them, the New York State Court of Appeals ruled in a 4-3 decision that the division cannot probe discrimination claims in public schools.
Tougher graduation requirements almost two decades in coming are putting thousands of city students at risk of not earning a diploma this year.
Advocates are asking the state to give more students more time before fully implementing more stringent graduation requirements, but city officials say educators and students have had plenty of time to prepare.
For the first time, students in New York State will only be able to graduate with a Regents diploma, requiring they receive a 65 or above on at least five Regents exams. In the past, students could graduate with a local diploma, allowing them to receive a 55 on at least five exams. In the 1990s, state officials initiated a change to make requirements for the local diploma increasingly stringent, until it could be phased out. Last year, students were able to receive a local diploma by passing four Regents exams with a 65, and one with a 55.
It's impossible to know how many students will be affected, but the Department of Education estimates that 10 percent of the city’s class of 2011— almost 8,000 students — received a local diploma.
Eric Degiaimo at his desk at the Smith School.
For 18 months, Eric Degiaimo could barely leave his apartment, paralyzed by fear of the outside world. Today, he’s a junior in high school who just celebrated his 19th birthday with friends in Times Square and harbors goals of becoming a musical engineer.
He’s also the recipient of a city advocacy groups’s annual award for students who have overcome great obstacles to attend schools that are right for them.
Eric’s path to isolation and back took him through rough terrain. By the time he was 15, he had incurred a lifetime of trauma while being raised by drug addicts, sexual predators, and a sister’s abusive boyfriends. Eric was kicked, spit on, and his apartment raided by drug dealers. He was forced to panhandle and fake Tourette's Syndrome so people he lived with could collect disability to pay for their next high. Time and again he was hurt and exploited by the same people who were supposed to keep him safe.
His early life, as he puts it, “belongs in a horror film.”
The experiences made him emotionally fragile, unable to complete even the most mundane social interactions. Riding the subway or going to the store frightened him. A psychiatrist diagnosed him with posttraumatic stress disorder and anxiety problems.
Then named Eric Velazquez, he had been removed from his sister’s custody and placed in a group home when he met a social worker, Angela Degiaimo. The pair felt an immediate bond and within months, Eric had moved into Angela’s Flatbush apartment. Last year, she officially adopted him.
“He just has this loveable thing about him that people are charmed by,” Angela Degiaimo said. “I tell him that we were meant to be a family.”
Chancellor Dennis Walcott discusses special education in charter schools at the kick-off conference for a new collaborative.
As the director of special education at the DREAM Charter School, Jacqueline Frey knows firsthand the difficulties charter schools face when serving students with disabilities.
One issue, she said, is convincing the city that her school's plan to serve each disabled student is sound.
And when she wants to bring her teachers up to date on the best ways to serve students with disabilities, she has to figure out how to compensate for the training that pricey consultants might be able to offer.
"If I'm a mom and pop charter school, I can't afford to do that for myself," Frey said. "It helps to find other schools in the same situation."
Connecting charter schools with similar special education needs is the chief goal of the New York City Charter School Center’s Special Education Collaborative, which builds off of local efforts to boost special education at charter schools that have been going in the Bronx, Manhattan, and Brooklyn since 2007. The $1,500-per-school entry fee pays for monthly training sessions, access to counselors and consultants, and an annual conference.
The citywide collaborative, which about 90 of the city’s 136 charter schools have already joined, comes at an opportune time. Both of the state's charter school authorizers, the State University of New York and the Board of Regents, are pushing new charter schools to build capacity for more higher-needs students, including more special education students, this year, into their school designs. And at the collaborative’s first conference last month, Chancellor Dennis Walcott said the DOE would be pressing charter schools to "up the ante" in how they serve special education students.
The pushes are in part a response to criticism that charter schools do not enroll a fair share of special needs students. In recent years, the proportion of students with disabilities at charter schools has actually risen to nearly the city average. The challenge now, advocates say, is to serve disabled students well.
The Mabel Barrett Fitzgerald Day Care Center sits within the Amsterdam Houses public housing complex, recently the site of a sweeping drug bust. A few blocks away, however, glitzy Lincoln Center is flanked by some of the most expensive apartments in Manhattan.
The location provides rich field trip opportunities for the Fitzgerald program, which this year received city funding to serve 58 low-income children. But now the center's zip code could take a toll on its budget.
The threat comes from the funding structure underlying EarlyLearn, the Administration for Children Services’ ambitious reform of the city’s public daycare system. This summer, ACS is requiring that all public centers, including Fitzgerald, submit applications showing why they deserve continued funding, and next spring, some programs will learn that they have not made the cut.
The evaluation process will focus on quality. But it will also take into account something outside centers' control: their address.
Under EarlyLearn, the number of city-funded daycare seats across the city will drop, and ACS plans to allot a larger portion of the remaining seats to neighborhoods with the highest concentrations of needy families. To assess need, ACS is looking primarily at the poverty level in the zip code where each center is located. That means that centers in high-poverty zip codes stand a greater chance of receiving continued funding, while the number of slots in more affluent neighborhoods could decrease sharply.
Childcare experts and center directors say this approach could shut out poor New Yorkers who live in relatively affluent areas. In particular, they say, residents of some housing projects are at risk of being left without the childcare on which they’ve come to rely.
When the city proposed changes to its discipline rules, its new policy towards "cyber-bullying" and "sexting" caught the public eye.
But the central changes have nothing to do with text messages. They represent a win by civil rights groups who have been calling on the city to make sure that schools use more counseling and less punishment and suspension to resolve problems.
At a hearing on the proposed changes Wednesday, one middle school principal described a program that she piloted and is now part of the new code. In some schools the program, which is known as PBIS and is designed to encourage good behavior in all students at a school, can include a reward system in which students collect points toward a prize for demonstrating things like good study skills.
Denise Jamison, principal of Williamsburg's M.S. 50, said that the program has helped improve the behavior of even some of her most struggling students. The "hottest ticket" for rewards, she said, is a "No Uniform Today" pass, or "NUT card." One day, she recalled, she pulled over a student well-known by school staff for his temper and asked why he wasn't in uniform.
"He pulls out [his NUT card], and we all started congratulating him," she said. "Because we knew how much he would have had to improved in order to earn that."
Hot on the heels of a DOE report saying that immigrant students are doing better than ever before, groups serving immigrant families issued a report of their own today, calling on the city Department of Education to "change the culture in schools" so that immigrant parents feel welcome participating in their children's education.
Many immigrant parents would like to be involved in their children's schools but do not feel able because of language barriers and cultural differences, according to the report, which was written by Advocates for Children of New York, where I used to work, in conjunction with a number of community groups that represent immigrants. The report calls for the DOE to develop an aggressive plan to involve immigrant families in their schools, citing research that has documented a link between parent engagement and student performance.
The premise behind the report — that parents should be involved in schools — is one that DOE officials say they support. Asked at Friday's mayoral control hearing about parent participation among immigrant families, Maria Santos, who heads the department's Office of ELLs, said there is "not enough."
The report suggests a number of reasons why immigrant parents might not feel encouraged to get involved.
Is there school choice in New York City? It depends whom you ask.
Ask in Harlem, and members of Harlem Parents United, a group organized by charter school operator Eva Moskowitz, might tell you that there is: They have all chosen charter schools for their children and are aggressively pushing the neighborhood's families to have even more options. They have allies in Mayor Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, who count increasing school choice as a cornerstone of their reforms.
But ask a high school student who wants to change schools, and you might get another answer entirely. According to an article in the New York Post, ninth grader Kimselle Castanos said she asked the Department of Education for a transfer dozens of times but didn't get one until she was assaulted by students from another school in the building. The DOE thinks the Post got some major facts wrong, such as how many times Kimselle e-mailed the chancellor, officials told me today. But even if it did, the real story remains that in a system that boasts about the choices open to students, Kimselle and her family felt stuck in a school that wasn't right for her.
I heard from countless parents, students, and advocates desperately seeking school transfers when I worked at Insideschools, through the hotline run by parent organization Advocates for Children. Callers reported that their transfer requests, particularly at the high school level, had been denied even though they had compelling reasons for seeking them. Those calls continue to pour in, my former colleague Pamela Wheaton, Insideschools' executive director, told me today.
"For whatever reason, it has become increasingly difficult, almost impossible, to get a transfer to another regular high school," Wheaton said.
Special education advocates are planning to criticize the Department of Education's choice of official to spearhead a comprehensive review of special education in the city schools.
Kim Sweet, the executive director of Advocates for Children of New York (where I used to work when I wrote for Insideschools), told me this morning that she's worried about what the review could mean for special education services, especially in light of the current economic conditions.
One major concern is that Garth Harries, who has been appointed to conduct the review, doesn't have experience in special education. "The special education system is a complex system that to address a diverse and complicated set of student needs," Sweet told me. "Garth Harries unfortunately does not have the experience to make decisions about it in an intelligent and sensitive way."
She said the ARISE Coalition, which advocates for children with special needs, will speak out against Harries' appointment.
Another issue, Sweet said, is that given the current budget shortfall, the department might be taking a hard look at special education simply to save money.
Another Wall Street Journal report on how the financial crisis is hitting foundations highlights the Harlem Children's Zone. HCZ, run by the mayoral control proponent Geoffrey Canada, was promised $25 million grant by the Starr Foundation, which is run by Maurice "Hank" Greenberg, the former chief executive officer of AIG.
Now, the Journal reports:
Anyone with a foundation whose endowment is heavily invested in AIG stock "is taking a bath," says Mr. Greenberg, adding that he intends to fulfill current commitments but that gifts would inevitably be fewer and smaller in the months ahead. "You can't give what you haven't got." ...
Among the beneficiaries feeling the pinch are Harlem Children's Zone Inc., to which Mr. Greenberg recently pledged $25 million. "I'm spending a lot of time now thinking about how we could replace the kind of support we've received from Wall Street," says Geoffrey Canada, president of the organization, which provides parenting classes and charter schools for poor families. Mr. Canada says he is cutting 10% of his staff of 1,400.
Other New York City education projects could be affected.