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State directs school districts to boost special education programs

Ohanian Comment: Someone should persuade Commissar Mills to get his head out of the sand. It is at best disingenuous to make the Regents tests a necessary qualifier for obtaining a high school diploma and then complain that students with special needs are not getting diplomas. But this policy is never at its best. It is, day in and day out, obscene. By definition, children with special needs do not thrive in the regular curriculum without accommodations and alternatives. Failure to supply what they need is criminal.

By Dwight R. Worley

Improvement plans

Under federal law, the state is requiring 75 school districts, including Yonkers, Mount Vernon and Peekskill, to develop plans to boost test scores and graduation rates for special education students.

The plans for local districts

Yonkers: The district will collaborate with New York University to address disproportionate numbers of minority students pushed into special education. Middle and high school teachers will get professional development in effective teaching strategies for diverse students with disabilities and the district will strengthen literacy and written language instruction and expand the use of educational technology.

Mount Vernon: A new guidance counselor will focus on disabled high school students. The district is also training teachers on ways to instruct students with reading problems, teaching disabled students new study skills, and revamped its system to evaluate students for special education.

Peekskill: Officials couldn't be reached for comment, but a letter sent to the district by the state indicates Peekskill officials will work with the state's Special Education Training and Resource Center to identify issues facing students with disabilities.
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In Yonkers, nearly one out of every 10 black students is in special education and more than two-thirds of disabled students didn't graduate on time last year. One out of five special education students in the class of 2005 dropped out of school in Peekskill, while three-quarters of them graduated late in Mount Vernon.

Those statistics, cited yesterday by state education officials, highlight a grim reality for disabled students in some of Westchester's largest districts.

The state Education Department yesterday directed 75 school districts, including Yonkers, Mount Vernon, Peekskill and East Ramapo in Rockland County, to make improvements in their special education programs.

Education Commissioner Richard Mills said that under federal law the districts must immediately implement plans to boost test scores and graduation rates for disabled students and will receive guidance from the state on making improvements. He said the 75 districts, which account for 250,000 of the more than 400,000 special education students in the state, risk increased state oversight and the loss of federal funds if changes aren't successful.

"This is a very significant number of children that we're talking about," Mills said at a news conference. "I don't want you to think this is just a problem in the high-needs school districts. This is a problem around the state in many different places. We're talking about 250,000 children who need a better education."

Using data from the 2004-05 school year, Peekskill was cited for a 22.2 percent dropout rate among 36 disabled students in its 2005 graduating class, according to state data. Mount Vernon's graduation rate of 25.3 percent among 99 disabled students last year was too low by state standards as was Yonkers' graduation rates of 29.8 percent among 235 special education students.

East Ramapo was cited for not adequately improving the English and math test scores for 100 4th-graders in the group.

The local districts were designated as "needs assistance" instead of the more severe "needs intervention" or "needs substantial intervention" and as such, are given more latitude to develop their own improvement plans.

As part of its plan, Yonkers will work with New York University to determine why higher proportions of minority students wind up in special education and how that affects their performance. Eight percent of black students and 6 percent of Hispanics are in all-day special education programs compared to four percent of white students, said Superintendent Bernard Pierorazio.

"Obviously we want to make sure that every child that's classified is classified for the appropriate reason," he said.

Gary Orfield, a professor of Education and Social Policy at Harvard Graduate School of Education, said studies show black males are three to four times more likely than whites to be labeled "mentally retarded" or "emotionally disturbed."

"There is a chronic problem of young African-American males overplaced in certain categories of special education from which they never emerge," said Orfield, co-author of "Racial Inequity in Special Education."

Pierorazio said Yonkers' efforts to provide more professional development to middle- and high-school special education teachers and strengthen literacy and math instruction should boost the graduation rate for disabled students, though many will still need extra time to graduate.

"Many of our special education students need the extra year, the fifth year, to meet the graduation requirements," Pierorazio said.

Officials in Peekskill could not be reached for comment.

Claire Hochheiser, director of special education in Mount Vernon, said the district has taken several steps to improve instruction, including training special education teachers to teach students with reading problems and teaching new study skills to disabled students.

But a key change has been the addition of a guidance counselor for special education high school students, she said.

"The area of weakness I found was guidance," said Hochheiser, who has been with the district a year. "The special education students needed a guidance counselor to help them with credits and others supports to get them through."

— Dwight R. Worley
The Journal News


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