New York City Retools Special Education, but Pupils Slip Through Cracks
Ohanian Comment: The headline writer must not have read the article. This is a whole lot worse than "slipping through the cracks." When psychologists are ordered to "do several hundred evaluations in three days - without observing the children, consulting with teachers or talking to parents, according to two psychologists and a social worker" this is deliberate abuse, not falling through the cracks.
This is what happens when you let corporate chiefs take over the schools.
Five years ago, Chervie Mingo's older son, Jalik, was a struggling second grader at Public School 32 in Brooklyn, in danger of being held back. So his mother requested a special education evaluation. Her son was given a battery of assessment tests, a learning problem was identified and he received two extra periods a day of English and math. State special education law requires that assessment and class placement be done in 60 days, and Jalik's case went like clockwork.
The help was a turning point. "He started doing much, much better," she said. By the time he finished P.S. 32 in fifth grade, he had won a "most improved" award. In middle school, Jalik is a B student.
So last October, when Ms. Mingo saw her younger son, Jalen, a second grader at Public School 32, falling behind, she wanted the same for him and asked his teacher to request an evaluation. "Jalen is a very respectful young boy," the teacher wrote in her request, but "struggles greatly academically in reading and math."
This son got nothing - he still has not been evaluated, eight months later, a whole school year gone. His case is one of six at P.S. 32 that were referred for assessment last fall by teachers and parents, but that were never evaluated; no special education help was provided.
Moreover, Ms. Mingo's request for an evaluation in October was not recorded by regional officials until April, giving the city months of extra time to meet the 60-day deadline. In fact, all six cases referred in October were clocked in at Region 8 on April 16, 2004 - suggesting they were new when they were six months old.
In many ways, those six cases reflect what critics say has gone wrong in special education throughout New York City in the year since Chancellor Joel I. Klein announced a wholesale reorganization of the system. In hundreds of interviews over the last six months, principals, school psychologists, regional supervisors, teachers, legal advocates, as well as the administrative judges who conduct hearings on special education services, all say the same thing: they have never seen the system in such disarray. "A lost year," many call it.
Dr. Mary Sanford, the special education coordinator at Herbert H. Lehman High School in the Bronx, says of the system: "It's imploded. In September I said people making decisions don't know enough, but their hearts are in the right place. It's June - I don't believe it. Their hearts are not in the right place. They have drained so many resources from the system."
John Farago, one of the state's senior special ed hearing officers, says that Mr. Klein's reorganization and staffing cuts have contributed to a marked decline in services. "This is the first year in more than 20 years doing this job that I've felt the administrative structure has dramatically got in the way of committed professionals trying to help kids," he said.
In the first four months of the school year, referrals for assessments dropped to 5,370 this year, from 8,203 last year. Assessments that were done took longer. By February 2004, 9,956 cases were over the 60-day limit, nearly twice as many as the 5,257 late cases under the old system in 2001.
Indeed, New York's biggest special education advocacy group, Advocates for Children, was so concerned about students not getting services this year that, after lengthy negotiations, the advocates persuaded the city to offer the first special education summer makeup program, for 14,500 children.
The City's Vision
City officials see it differently. Mr. Klein says he is remaking a system that has been dysfunctional for years because a bloated bureaucracy drained off resources that should have been spent directly educating the city's 170,000 special education children, students whose disabilities range from severe retardation to mild learning problems.
In a prepared statement, Mr. Klein said that in just one year, the system had made great strides. "We now have more special education teachers in the classroom," he said, "we have more children receiving services; we are catching up on assessment backlogs." And he added that test scores of special education students were improving.
Mr. Klein's newly appointed general counsel, Michael Best, said, "I don't see how it's a lost year. It was a good year."
However, Carmen Fariņa, who rose over three decades from teacher to deputy chancellor, was more reserved: "Obviously we want to be in a better place next year." During an interview, Ms. Fariņa at times attributed the widespread criticism to psychologists, principals and teachers resistant to change. "In any kind of reform that puts children first there will be a lot of adults with feathers ruffled," she said. But Ms. Fariņa admitted that more staff members were needed and said more psychologists would soon be hired with more clerical help and an extra manager in each region.
At P.S. 32, the psychologist, Abigail Connolly, was swamped all year. Mr. Klein's reorganization cut school assessment teams in half. Evaluations used to be done by teams consisting of a psychologist and an education evaluator; this year the education evaluator was eliminated, and the psychologist handled the caseload alone. Mr. Klein also consolidated 32 district offices into 10 regional offices, cutting more than half the administrative staff that oversees special education. And he eliminated 300 special ed supervisors serving 1,000 schools, including P.S. 32.
Ms. Connolly became a one-person team with a bigger caseload than last year (125 versus 85). In April, she got all six of those newly clocked-in cases, including Jalen's, in one day. She was worried she would not finish within the 60-day limit and told school officials there was a problem.
School officials were under fire, too. Since Mr. Klein's reorganization, the drop in referrals and compliance citywide had spurred criticism in the press and from the city's public advocate, Betsy Gotbaum. In March, Ms. Fariņa acknowledged this, saying, "It is clear from the data that the system as a whole needs to be doing a far better job," and she pledged a tough compliance campaign.
But at P.S. 32, the compliance crackdown seemed to have backfired.
One way for school and regional officials to make their numbers look better is to close cases in danger of being out of compliance, without providing evaluations or special ed services for children like Jalen.
"Several people at the regional and school level told me to close the cases," Ms. Connolly said. "The message was to make them disappear."
Ms. Connolly would not. Instead, she called the parents, who were furious. "They tell me they want to hold Jalen back," Ms. Mingo said. "It turns out they never even evaluated him.
"They just wanted to make his case go away,'' she said. "Jalen lost a whole year."
Ms. Fariņa has often praised P.S. 32 as an outstanding example of the special ed reforms, and she called the cover-up charge a distortion. However, she said, privacy laws prevented her from discussing specifics.
Lost Records, Lost People
The city's special ed system has long suffered from lack of resources, but this year problems were compounded when Mr. Klein made so many changes at once, and each change was accompanied by a major breakdown. In physically combining 32 district offices into 10 regional offices, large numbers of records were lost. When the education evaluators were eliminated, assessments plummeted. The special ed supervisors were supposed to make sure that schools met the 60-day compliance deadline, and when they were let go, compliance suffered.
Children cannot get special ed services without being assessed first, and the assessment process was near collapse. Many psychologists were told not to even bother doing assessments for the first two months, while they learned the system.
Regional managers were suddenly supervising three times as many schools as they had in the old system. People complained that they could not reach anyone in the new regions; voice mail did not work or was full. Michele Kule-Korgood, a private lawyer who represents parents at special ed hearings, said it took five months for an education department lawyer to return her numerous calls. "At the start I had 2 cases I needed to discuss," she said. "By the end it was 10."
People were literally lost. In a hearing decision written at the start of the school year, Mr. Farago described the scene when all the parties turned up at their usual hearing room: "Upon arriving at the site we found it to be deserted, filled with trash.''
Records were lost and never found. At Intermediate School 302 in Brooklyn, 100 students' I.E.P.'s - federally mandated Individualized Education Programs detailing services a special ed child is supposed to receive - disappeared. The school had an acting principal in his first year with no special ed supervisor to guide him. The regional supervisor, Leighton Dingwall, who under state law should have had copies of the I.E.P.'s, kept telling the school he could not find them. As a result, students did not get services. And more damaging, according to a complaint now being investigated by the state, 30 students did not get testing accommodations they were legally entitled to, including twice as much time to take tests. Of the 30 sixth, seventh and eighth graders with learning disabilities, 29 failed the city or state English tests, according to a complaint filed by the teachers' union.
A state investigation has confirmed several violations, including the lost I.E.P.'s. Ms. Fariņa, the deputy chancellor, denied there was a problem with children getting extra testing time; a state report on that matter is expected later this month.
This was a year when services that special ed managers had relied on for years disappeared. At a March 12 hearing, Carmen Carvajal, a Region 5 social worker, testified about a 7-year-old blind first grader at P.S. 42 in Queens who did not get assistance all year. The Hearing Handicapped and Visually Impaired Unit, Ms. Carvajal explained, was dismantled in the reorganization. "It is difficult to find appropriate professionals to conduct that evaluation," she said, adding that when she wrote the administration requesting help, nobody responded.
Thousands of children who needed academic help were not getting it because they were not being given the assessments that made educational services available.
"We did hold off on referrals," said Dr. Bradley Atlas, psychologist at P.S. 41 in Queens. "The principal said, We're so overburdened, let's hold back a few months."
Carol Gray requested an evaluation for her 9-year-old son, Martin, in October 2003; despite repeated calls to Region 7 in Brooklyn, his I.E.P. meeting was not scheduled until April 15. And although Ms. Gray had asked to attend, and by law was supposed to be included, the meeting was held without her, and forms were filled out to make it appear that she had been there.
When she complained to a regional manager, Ms. Gray said, the woman's "attitude was like she was doing me a favor because he got services."
But not this year, not for Martin. Ms. Gray said she finally learned in late May that Martin would get an extra hour of academic help a day - starting in September. "He lost a whole year," she said.
In May 2003, Madeline Rivera requested a re-evaluation of her son Robert, a student with dyslexia at P.S. 26 in Queens. She was told, she said, that because of the upcoming reorganization, it would be done in the fall. The assessment was not completed until Nov. 24, and it recommended that Robert get a laptop for reading help.
The laptop did not arrive until April, just days before the state fourth-grade English test. And it was broken.
Ms. Rivera has been told that Robert failed the state test. And though a second laptop arrived recently, it came without software, so Robert still cannot use it.
The delays affected more than just children who needed help. For months, the staff at the Beacon School in Manhattan asked Region 9 for the missing records of a new ninth grader who kept disrupting classes. The boy's outbursts made it impossible to teach the other 30 students in his class, and he was frequently escorted from the room by security guards, according to Kerry Dowling, a teacher there. His days were spent sitting in hallways with the guards.
When his records were located, in January, the school discovered that he was supposed to be in a special ed class for the emotionally disturbed. Beacon does not have such a class.
Regional officials did not respond to numerous requests from the school to transfer the boy. Only in April, after a reporter made inquiries, was the boy moved to another school, Ms. Dowling said.
Mr. Best, the chancellor's counsel, said that for privacy reasons, the Gray and Beacon cases were "too specific to discuss." In Ms. Rivera's case, he said, the region forgot to order the laptop. That was not "emblematic of the reorganization,'' he said. "It was just a mistake."
No Time for Prevention
Linda Wernikoff, the city's special ed director, emphasizes the importance of preventive services to keep children out of special ed. For school psychologists, this used to include counseling and working with teachers on hard-to-handle students. But with their caseloads, many psychologists now say they do little if any preventive work.
"I've been turned into a testing machine," said Valerie Negron, a psychologist at P.S. 45 in Brooklyn. "All the region cares is that I make my quota of three assessments a week. I did grief counseling for six or seven kids for deaths and divorce. I had to stop. I no longer work with teachers on behavior problems."
Ms. Fariņa, the deputy chancellor, said that if psychologists were too busy, social workers and guidance counselors could help.
But that didn't work for Merin Urban's son Zander, a fourth grader at P.S. 29 in Brooklyn. Last year, he was placed in a small class for high-functioning autistic children, with the goal of mainstreaming into regular classes. The psychologist visited class to observe him, said Ms. Urban, and worked on Zander's social skills. Zander didn't like playing with other children at recess, so the psychologist set up a behavioral reward system. Zander, who loves history, was told that if he played with others for five minutes, he would get five minutes to read his favorite book, on Egyptian mummies. "By the end of the year, you didn't have to remind him," said Ms. Urban, "he'd play with other children."
But this year, she said, the psychologist spent her time testing, and Zander regressed. "I'd take him to a park but he wouldn't play anymore," she said.
Zander isolated himself, did not do his work and talked back, she said. "I had a kid who was well behaved, who'd never been off the green light in class - suddenly his behavior was red light." He had been doing grade-level work until this year. "His scores dropped," Ms. Urban said. "He almost failed math."
Under special education law, when children do not get services, parents can request a hearing. With special ed resources so limited, persevering parents have always had a good shot at winning.
But lawyers and advocates say they have never seen a year like this. As always, the city contested about a third of the cases brought. But this year, few of those contested cases were well-prepared and aggressively presented, they say.
Mr. Farago, the hearing officer, said he had conducted 80 hearings since August, and not once had the city mounted a substantial challenge. Nelson Mar, a Bronx legal services lawyer, said the city no longer had the staff to prepare for hearings. "They're so beaten down," he said.
This was apparent at a hearing in June. The disagreement between the two sides seemed miniscule and hardly worth a hearing. Siow Wei Chu and her husband, Harry Sze, Chinese immigrants, asked that their daughter Jane be given a bilingual aide in her second-grade class at P.S. 203 in Queens, along with extra daily academic support. The city agreed that Jane should have a bilingual aide, but wanted to move her to another school: one that used a teaching model with a mix of 25 special ed and general ed students, and two teachers.
Typically the city representative is not a lawyer; in this case, George Reichenbach, of Region 3, described himself as a former special ed teacher. Mr. Reichenbach did not seem familiar with his own witnesses. He repeatedly mispronounced the name of the P.S. 203 psychologist, and asked her several times to describe meetings she did not recall.
He delayed the hearing for more than an hour at the outset, saying he had to consult with the legal department. When he returned, he reported the same problem that so many have reported: "Unfortunately, I haven't been able to reach anyone," he said.
He held up the meeting for an additional half-hour when he mistakenly tried to enter a document with confidential information into evidence.
He argued that the parents were asking for a more restrictive setting for Jane, then had to admit that he was wrong; it was the city that was asking for a more restrictive setting.
It was clear that his witnesses sympathized more with the parents than with the city.
At one point, the parents' lawyer, Ms. Kule-Korgood, asked a teacher if the family's request to keep Jane in P.S. 203, where she had been since kindergarten, was a better plan than the city proposal to move her.
"Of course," said the teacher, Tony Shen.
So why wasn't that an option?
Both teacher and psychologist said they were not allowed to disagree with their regional supervisor, Louise Kapner. "I was not in a position to question it," said Brenda Fahie, the psychologist.
Mr. Reichenbach delayed the hearing so often (the hearing officer kept asking, "Where is he now?") that a second day of testimony was scheduled for two weeks later.
Then, immediately before that hearing, the city agreed to give the parents exactly what they had requested.
Their victory was bittersweet. Instead of getting the bilingual aide at the I.E.P. meeting on Oct. 7, 2003, Jane would get one in September - one school year late.
Even when a hearing officer orders services, it does not mean that the city provides them. Advocates for Children sued the department in federal court earlier this year, on behalf of 21 children who had won hearing decisions that the city never carried out. Elisa Hyman, the lawyer for the parents, said in court papers that these 21 were the tip of the iceberg, and that the case should be certified for class action.
The city's legal defense has been unusual. It has not denied that it failed to provide services; instead, in response to the lawsuit, it resolved all 21 cases. Then city officials argued that since all the cases had been settled, the parents had no standing for a class action.
The reorganization was supposed to shift resources into the classroom, and the innovation many parents, teachers and advocates seemed most excited about was the training of 1,000 teachers in a phonics decoding program known as Wilson. The only problem, said Jill Chaifetz, director of Advocates for Children, is that it has been hard to find children who actually got the instruction.
The reason? In October, when teachers finished their three-day training, many principals did not understand the scheduling changes needed to implement it. A teacher is supposed to use Wilson with up to six children at a time, but the students need comparable skills. This would have meant rescheduling children and teachers two months into the school year, and often that did not happen, teachers said.
At I.S. 61 on Staten Island, three teachers were trained in Wilson; none used it. At P.S. 40 in Brooklyn, Sharlene Berry, a teacher, said that Wilson materials sat unopened in the back of a classroom all year. At P.S. 273 in Brooklyn, three were trained, but just one teacher used it, occasionally. Kristin Palmer, who has a class of 12 special ed students there, said she found herself being pressed to use four different curriculums at the same time by four supervisors. "It was insane," she said.
Despite the new Wilson curriculum, reading scores were stagnant this year, with only 9 percent of the special ed students in the third to the eighth grades passing the city and state tests. (Math scores did go up slightly, to 11.2 percent passing, up from 8.5 last year.)
The deputy chancellor, Ms. Fariņa, agreed that principals needed to be trained to know how to accommodate Wilson. "We're absolutely working on this," she said, adding that a summer workshop would be held for principals.
As children in preschool who get special ed services start to turn 5, they are evaluated to determine what kind of help they will need in kindergarten in the fall. This early intervention is meant to ensure that the children are prepared from Day 1 of school.
In the past, lists of these children, called turning-5 cases, were distributed in January. Assessment teams visited preschools during the second half of the school year, observing children, talking to preschool directors and interviewing parents.
This year, amid all the turmoil, many turning 5 cases were not assigned until late March. Still, the city demanded that all be completed by June 1.
So the last week of May, when Brooklyn officials still had hundreds to do, they summoned a half dozen psychologists to the Region 7 office, and ordered them to do several hundred evaluations in three days - without observing the children, consulting with teachers or talking to parents, according to two psychologists and a social worker.
"It was unethical," said Florence Manglani, the P.S. 95 psychologist, who said she had never been ordered to do anything like that in her 16-year career. "Children needed to be seen, teachers need to be talked to, parents should have been informed."
Though city officials deny that these orders were ever given, Ms. Manglani said she was told to give the children the same kinds of services they were already receiving, but less of them. "If the child was getting speech three times a week, we were to lower it to once or twice," she said. "Occupational therapy three times - make it once."
"These children were treated like paperwork," said Ms. Manglani, who said she did 20 evaluations in three days.
She said she feared that cutting corners in this way would haunt the schools come fall. "Children may get the wrong program," she said. "Some may need smaller classes or more services, but we wouldn't know. How could we know if we never looked at these children?"
New York Times