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Put a Lawyer in Charge--Under the Thumb of a Businessman Mayor--And Here's What Happens to Kids

Ohanian Comment: New York is touted as a mayor-controlled district. Schools Chancellor Joel Klein is a lawyer. The Broad Foundation is part of the businessman-lawyer "unprecedented strategic review designed to reinvigorate and reinvent the largest urban school system in America." Whenever the Broad Foundation is involved, business rules and teachers are supposed to shut their mouths and follow orders.

LAST summer, as part of his overhaul of the New York City schools, Chancellor Joel I. Klein reorganized the special education system, which assesses and educates 150,000 children with handicaps ranging from minor learning disabilities to severe retardation. The restructuring, he promised, would remove bureaucratic deadwood and shift teachers and resources to classrooms, where they are most needed.

But nearly six months into the school year, those who rely on the system and work for the system - parents, advocates for children, teachers, principals, school psychologists, regional office supervisors - said in scores of interviews that they had never seen the city's special education system in such disarray.

There has been widespread loss or misplacement of student records as 37 special education district offices were moved and consolidated into 10 regional offices; thousands of people who make the system go, from psychologists to clerks, were given new responsibilities with inadequate or no training; there are less than half as many special education administrators and clerks, a reduction so drastic that phone calls to the 10 new regional offices by parents, psychologists and principals often go unanswered; and, worst of all, large numbers of children are failing to get badly needed services they are entitled to under federal law.

Among those who say the problems with special education are the worst in memory are: Robert Leder, principal of Herbert Lehman High in the Bronx for 25 years; Rita Silverman, principal of Public School 229 in Queens; Dr. Beth Krieger of Region 3, Queens, one of the city's senior supervisors of psychologists; Anne Marie Caminiti, a longtime Staten Island parent advocate; Rita Horvath, a legal aid social worker for 28 years; Jill Chaifetz, director of Advocates for Children; Jill Levy, the principals' union president; and Randi Weingarten, the teachers' union president.

Special education has long had to serve too many needy children with too few resources, and most interviewed agreed that the chancellor's restructuring could work out if properly executed. There is also excitement about some of the innovations, like the training of 900 teachers to use the Wilson program, considered a model for teaching reading to learning-disabled children.

But repeatedly the same metaphor came up: Changing a flat tire while the car is barreling down the highway. "They may be great ideas," said Ms. Silverman, P.S. 229's principal, "but so many kids this year lost services and you can't buy back that time. These are the most fragile kids. When they lose a year, they lose more than a year."

City officials say the new system is functioning well. "The system is not in chaos," said Linda Wernikoff, the city's top special education administrator. "We believe many positive changes have been made. During any transition you have bumps in the road."

People in the schools say the bumps are killing them. "We just found out a child we had since September was supposed to be getting" services, said Lisa Appel, a psychologist at Intermediate School 25 in Queens. "The regional office never sent us the latest records." The student will now get daily resource-room help in reading and math - six months late.

Federal law mandates that a special education child have an I.E.P. - Individual Education Plan - that's reviewed yearly and redone every three years. Ms. Appel says she has cases with November and December deadlines that she did not receive from her regional office until January.

Christopher Tan, a lawyer for Advocates for Children, says he has 10 cases where records he subpoenaed could not be found, with some finally produced last week by city officials after months of searching. "Some of these kids are sitting at home for weeks and weeks with no instruction, waiting for a placement," he said.

At an administrative hearing in mid-November about why a Bronx kindergartner had not received the speech and counseling services called for in his I.E.P., an assistant principal and Region 9 administrator argued over which of them was to blame. The assistant principal, Millie Baj of P.S. 277, testified: "We used to have, at the local district level last year, someone to inform the school that new children were coming in. That system is no longer in place. We just have people coming in from the woodwork, from many different places, and saying that their child needed services."

Nancy Funke of Region 9 countered that there was a computerized children's assistance program (CAP) to identify special education children.

Ms. Baj: "Our pupil personnel secretary does not know how to use CAP."

Ms. Funke: "Is there a way that she could be trained?"

Ms. Baj: "You know, that would be wonderful. Who's heading the training?"

Ms. Funke: "The ATS/CAP coordinator."

Ms. Baj: "Who's the ATS/CAP coordinator?"

Ms. Funke: "Call the regional office."

Call the regional office! And see if anyone answers. Cecilia Marchetti, a veteran psychologist at Lehman High - which is lagging far behind in assessments this year - describes what it's like trying to reach the new Region 2 for help finding lost records:

"The phone system was not set up in a way that works. There is no switchboard, only a menu. Some phones have voice mail, some do not. The people who used to have those phones no longer work there. Their voice boxes are full. The people who work there now do not have the former occupants' passwords, so they can't empty voice mail, and the menu has not been updated to include everyone."

In fairness to regional officials, they're swamped. Under the old system, each of the 37 special education districts had about 60 administrators and clerical support to oversee 30 schools. Under the new system, each of the 10 special education regions has about 100 administrators and clerks to oversee 130 schools.

Dr. Krieger, a Region 3 Queens supervisor, went from overseeing 19 psychologists to 56 - with less clerical help. "There are so few people in the regional offices," she said. "It's the weakest link. People in the region are struggling to keep up. Callers can't get through to us; mailboxes are full."

The result? According to figures released last week by Betsy Gotbaum, the public advocate, 17,209 special education assessments were done in the first four months of this school year, down from 24,711 the year before.

Ms. Wernikoff acknowledges, "We were training; we expected a dropoff." Nor does she feel the regional staffs are overworked. "I haven't heard that," she said, "and I meet with them regularly." As to lost files, she said, "We've been able to locate the majority of files and we continue to work on this." She says much of the information is also accessible by computer or soon will be.

But it appears that many in the system aren't aware of these innovations, don't have computers at work or don't know how to use these programs. So much changed so fast. Under the old system, assessment was done by a team of two professionals, the psychologist and the education evaluator. The education evaluator did the case management function, the psychologist the testing. Mr. Klein got rid of the 1,100 evaluators and returned them to teaching, cutting the assessment team in half.

That might have worked, psychologists say, if they'd been trained in case management and given support staff.

Instead, last fall, the psychologists attended several daylong seminars at the Penn Hotel and Brooklyn Marriott, presented by George McCloskey, an assessment expert. Attendees said they were college-style lectures but offered none of the nuts and bolts needed to navigate the complex city system. "I know George, I love his work," said Dr. Krieger. "But there was nothing about what forms to use, who they're sent to and who's doing what in the regions."

At the same time, the new regional people were learning. Harold Stillman, psychologist at Grace H. Dodge vocational high school in the Bronx, has three new Region 1 supervisors, none who has ever worked with high schools. Among his problems this year: he was given no clerical help until last week, he had several cases with lost records and he was sent 15 students to assess well after their I.E.P. deadlines had passed.

At Bronx School for Career Development last year, there were two psychologists and two ed evaluators. The ed evaluators are gone and this year there is one psychologist, Cathrin Dahlberg, even though the school is accepting more difficult students. In the past, emotionally disturbed ninth graders were sent elsewhere; now they stay at the school.

Ms. Dahlberg says students with emotional problems are mixed in with the learning disabled, disrupting classes. "We have more fighting, screaming, cursing - it's often impossible to teach," she said. "These kids need to be re-evaluated, they need smaller, more supervised classes, but there's no time to re-evaluate them. We need another psychologist."

"We had students recently admitted to the school, we have no idea where their records are," she said. "I went to the Gerard Avenue office myself looking for lost records. I do everything myself - even type the paperwork."

"There are fights all the time," said Ms. Dahlberg. "I get cursed out daily. Last week there was a huge food fight in the cafeteria. A dean was hit with a pizza." She said that on Friday, as she arrived to talk to an assistant principal, a student hit him with an orange.

"I called the regional office over a week ago asking for help," said Ms. Dahlberg. "I left a message saying I felt completely overwhelmed."

No one from Region 9 returned the call, she said.

Asked about problems at the Bronx school, Eileen Murphy, a city spokeswoman, said, "The school is very much in control and a conducive learning environment."

E-mail: edmike@nytimes.com

— Michael Winerip
New York Times
Students and Records Overlooked in Special Education Overhaul





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