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On Special Education, Spurned Teacher Is Vindicated

An online review of principal Grismaldy Laboy-Wilson, who was appointed at age 24, refers to her as "the principal from hell." Mr. Lirtzman served as a deputy New York State comptroller before turning at age 53 to public-school teaching.

Ed Notes Online posted a letter Grismaldy Laboy-Wilson sent to the faculty.

What are the chances education will improve for the students in special ed?

By Michael Powell

Perhaps it pays to heed Harris Lirtzman.

A passionate fellow, this teacher warned his principal last fall that their Bronx public high school was routinely violating the rights of the most vulnerable children, those in need of special education.

For speaking up, Mr. Lirtzman --who served as a deputy New York State comptroller before turning at age 53 to public-school teaching --saw his career ground to dust. He was denied tenure, and the principal, Grismaldy Laboy-Wilson, asked him to leave immediately. When he took his worries to the investigative arm of New York Cityâs Education Department, the investigators opened a file on him instead.

I wrote of Mr. Lirtzman's struggle in May. His vindication arrived in the mail in June.

The State Education Department investigated his charges and sent him a copy of its report. It sustained Mr. Lirtzmanâs allegations, one violation of state regulations after another.

High school administrators at the Felisa Rincón de Gautier Institute for Law and Public Policy in the Bronx had put unqualified teachers in charge of special education classes. They pushed these students into classes crowded with general education students.

And most egregiously, when faced with teaching vacancies, the administrators brought in a conga line of substitute teachers on ârotatingâ one-week stints to teach special education classes. That treads perilously close to educational malpractice.

Itâs hard to scrape a usable quote from the state report, which is written in Haute Bureaucratese. Perhaps better to leave the talking to Mr. Lirtzman.

âThere are a lot of gray areas in teaching special education in a big city,â he says. âBut a fair amount is black and white: A kid is either getting the services required by federal law or not.â

This is not quite the end of the story. The cityâs Education Department evinced little interest in Mr. Lirtzmanâs allegations in May. Now a spokeswoman says it has commenced its own investigation.

The Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, which represents principals, argues that the fault lies with the cityâs Education Department, which imposes budget cuts and ever more demands on principals. Higher-ups, they say, approved Ms. Laboy-Wilsonâs decisions, including placing substitute teachers in special education classrooms on a rotating basis.

The principal, they say, is not at fault.

âYouâre going to find that the mistakes they make up above are landing on the heads of my members,â said Ernest A. Logan, the councilâs president. âThis is a case in point.â

The council added in a written statement that history shows that the city and the state often have âinconsistent special education guidelines.â

Letâs posit, as it is true, that Mr. Logan and his staff are intelligent advocates who often stand at the forefront of fighting the most unreasonable aspects of the Bloomberg Education Revolution. They offer a properly stout defense of their members. And they passed along internal department memos that indeed show education officials have turned a blind eye to special education violations, and have directed principals to make do in ways that skirt these regulations..

Itâs also true that the cityâs Education Department shoulders a heavy burden. It dedicates 18,000 teachers to special education. Each student is required by law to have an individual educational plan.

But those words â âinconsistent special education guidelinesâ â are a not-so-lovely euphemism for violating the rights of underserved children.

I asked the State Education Department if it is unfair to blame a principal for failing special education children.

âKids are supposed to get an education, and they are supposed to get it from properly qualified teachers,â said Tom Dunn, a department spokesman. âWe said there are violations. They should fix it now.â

All of which brings us back to Mr. Lirtzman. He went to that high school in the Bronx for a job interview just before school began in 2009. The principal hired him on the spot, and a few days later, he was teaching a special education math class.

He had a wild toboggan ride of a time and came to love his students. Several parents said he was one of the best teachers their children ever had.

But when the department denied him tenure and the principal forced him out, he had enough. He retired.

His coda arrived a few days ago, again in the mail. The principal, Ms. Laboy-Wilson, filled out his final evaluation, in accordance with regulations. She rated him satisfactory over all.

On a long list, she listed him as unsatisfactory in just two areas: He did not keep a professional attitude and maintain good relations with supervisors.

If thatâs the price of dissent, suffice it to say Mr. Lirtzman can live with that.

E-mail: powellm@nytimes.com

— Michael Powell
New York Times





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