Issue of the Week

Special Education

27 August 01

by B.J. Kowalski

When school begins next week, Maeve Humphries, lively, blonde and six years old, will be attending kindergarten at the Manhattan New School, a public school on the Upper East Side. Unlike the other children, Maeve has Down's syndrome. In the past, this would have meant placing her in a separate "special education" class, with other disabled children. But Maeve will be in a regular classroom.

So will thousands of other children with disabilities. Last week, the New York City Board of Education announced that the number of children referred to special education classes over the past three years has dropped by about a quarter. At the same time, the number of students who were moved out of special education into regular classes jumped by almost a third.

This is no coincidence; this has been the official policy for about three years. Instead of segregating the 150,000 public school children in New York City with "special needs," the push now is to place them in what is called "the least restrictive environment" - a regular classroom if possible -- and provide them with whatever support they need to stay there. Trained special education teachers are expected to team up with general education teachers in the same classroom.

This is what studies have shown to be the best for the children, and this is what the parents want. One day, Shane and Pauline Humphries say, their daughter Maeve will be able to hold a job and pay taxes - if she gets the kind of education that will enable her to develop to her fullest potential.

But will she get that education?

The Board of Education set a schedule for the new policy to be phased in, but it has not kept to it. There are still more than 80,000 full-time students in self-contained, segregated special ed classes throughout the city (and this is not even counting the pre-school programs, which are not full-time, nor the students receiving home instruction). The training and preparation for the transfer to regular classes has not happened in every school, even though they were all supposed to set up "Least Restrictive Environment Committees" to address this by last December. Parents are wondering whether their children will get the services they need -- or, even if the right services exist, whether they can make their way through the confusing bureaucracy to find them. Teachers may be unsure of how to handle students with disabilities.

"We have some concerns that implementation won't be monitored, and that there won't be enough support to teachers and parents," says Maggie Moroff, the coordinator of the Least Restrictive Environment Coalition, which is made up of 17 different groups that provide services and advocate on behalf of individual children with disabilities and their families.

This is just the latest glitch in the world of special education, a world that has always been the target of criticism, bitter feeling, and a special sense of failure. Some think that too much is being spent on the education of the few, and that it is to the detriment of the system as a whole. Some see "special" as a stigma rather than a first step towards support. But parents and advocates believe that not enough is being done, and that more would help both disabled and non-disabled children alike.

SEPARATE WAS NOT EQUAL

Though they were no longer routinely placed in institutions or hidden away, the lot of disabled children was not much improved as late as 1970, when only one in five received an education. Several states actually barred children with certain disabilities from attending public school.

A series of laws starting in the 1970's, especially the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 1975, established the right of children with disabilities to be educated in the public schools, with any support services that they may require in order to accomplish this.

Since then, two class action lawsuits filed in New York City have pushed the Board of Education to provide the services that the law promises.

At first, the thinking was that the children would benefit from special attention in special - separate -- classes.

But it was discovered that children in a separate special education class tend to be stigmatized and lose the motivation to learn. Advocates for Children reports that dropout rates for children in special education classes are much higher than the overall dropout rate.

In addition, as the federal Department of Education civil rights office determined, the city school system was referring a disproportionate number of African-American and Latino students to "special ed." Critics began seeing the placement as a kind of (at best) unconscious racism, which reinforced the notion that the classes simply stigmatized rather than helped.

As it turns out, all children learn best when students of varying abilities are in the classroom together. Studies show that not only does the performance of the special needs students improve when they are part of a general education classroom, but the test scores of the other children go up as well.

That is why the new policy says that children may be removed from a general education classroom only when their disabilities are so severe as to prevent the child from learning well in that class.

THE COST IS HIGH; THE PACE IS SLOW

Within a large bureaucracy, there can be resistance to change, and the New Continuum -- as the Board of Education's new policy is called -- is a major shift for everyone.

But Kevin Ortiz, a spokesman for the Board of Education, says that the implementation is going more slowly than planned because of the Board's budget negotiations. "We get shortchanged by the city and the state," says Ortiz. "We are not sure if we are going to have the money for reform."

Nobody could argue that the cost of putting kids with special needs into the regular classroom is cheap. In the 1997-1998 school year, it cost about $22,564 per student, compared to a cost of $8,056 per average high school student in New York, according to the Board of Education. But Donald Lash is not convinced that expense is the cause of the delay, or whether the real reason is not "resistance from personnel." The director of the Metropolitan Parent Center of Sinergia, which is part of the Least Restrictive Environment Coalition. Lash says he has found that some administrators were giving inaccurate information about the new policy to parents. "I have been to meetings where the New Continuum was discussed, and a principal said, 'Oh, that new thing?' It's not new. By now, they should at least know what it is."

"There is no excuse for being against a sound education for all children because it costs money. That is what our state constitution guarantees to our children, and we have to deliver it," says Jacquelyn Kamin of the Least Restrictive Environment Coalition. "Sure, it's expensive to provide the services every child with disabilities needs. But the way we are delivering special education now is expensive. Moving these students into general education with supports and services may well not cost any more. Staff will just be deployed differently."

HOPING AND LEARNING

Schooling for the 20,000 children with such severe or multiple disabilities that they would be the least likely candidates to attend a regular classroom is coordinated by the citywide special education office of District 75. District 75 consists of "specialized instructional environments" at schools in all five boroughs. But even here the district has its own Office of Inclusive Education that serves about 1,200 children, many of whom are autistic or have cognitive or emotional disabilities.

"We have been putting kids in inclusive classrooms for 10 years. Our training focuses on adaptation," says supervisor Cathy Rikhe. " Our program is working very well. We have kids who began with our program and now they are in college."

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