NYC Chancellor David Banks promises to improve special education

New York City School Chancellor David Banks on Thursday unveiled his first comprehensive plan to improve special education in the nation’s largest school system, pledged a $215 million investment to expand several popular programs for students with disabilities and one Establish Advisory Board to drive future reforms.

Nearly 200,000 students with disabilities receive mandatory special education in city schools — and their academic results continue to lag, with only 58% of students with disabilities in the youngest cohort graduating within four years, compared to 88% of students without disabilities. according to government information.

Families of students with disabilities have for years described an opaque and complex system that makes it difficult to get adequate support for their children – prompting many to seek internships at specialized private schools that better serve their students’ needs. The Department of Education spent more than $1 billion last year to help fund private schools for about 10,000 students, officials said at a recent city council hearing.

Reforming the massive and convoluted special education system has proved a difficult challenge for past mayors and chancellors, but Education Department officials on Thursday pledged to make systemic changes.

“Our system hasn’t fully lived up to our commitment to ‘students with disabilities,’ Banks said. “We need to transform our systems and approaches to achieve the goal of a truly inclusive public school system.”

Christina Foti, director of special education at the Department of Education, acknowledged that “the work is just beginning and we need to implement the recommendations from the counseling… it’s difficult to do systemic work.”

NYC will expand programs like ASD Nest and Horizon

The banks’ plan has two main components: expanding several existing programs that have shown promise, and convening an advisory board to steer longer-term changes.

Two popular and well-established programs, ASD Nest and Horizon — both of which cater to children on the autism spectrum — grew to 118 this year from a total of 103 sites last year, officials said. Nest programs place students with autism graduating at grade level in courses integrated with their general education peers, while Horizon programs offer smaller, self-contained settings for eight students and two adults.

The Sensory Exploration, Education and Discovery (SEED) program, which emerged during the pandemic as part of the city’s plan to help students with disabilities restore lost services and provides therapeutic environments for children with sensory needs, will be run from 10 campuses growing to 80 last year by the end of this school year, which will span all of the city’s 32 geographic counties.

The SEED program was popular with families who participated last year, but struggled to attract as many students as the education department expected, in part because many families who qualified faced long travel times.

A fourth program – called Path – which aims to integrate young children with severe behavioral or emotional needs into classes with general education students is also growing from a pilot phase last year to seven classrooms in six schools by the end of this year.

Students with significant emotional disabilities — who are disproportionately black and low-income — are often funneled into separate programs in the city’s specialized District 75 schools and face dire academic and behavioral consequences. The Path program is an attempt to distract young children with behavioral problems from District 75 spots.

Officials did not immediately say where the $215 million to fund the expansion will come from and whether it will come from one-off federal grants.

Education Department officials didn’t immediately say how many students will be served in all of the programs that are being expanded, but it’s likely only a fraction of the 192,000 students citywide who received special education services last year, according to Education Department figures .

New Advisory Board tasked with finding long-term solutions

For broader recommendations on how to transform the entire special education system, Banks is leaning on a new advisory board that will be made up of parents, attorneys, educators, students, community members and academics.

The council will have around 40 members but will be divided into subcommittees to address specific aspects of the system such as curriculum and instruction, integrating students with disabilities into mainstream education courses and improving the city’s backward system for parents filing legal complaints. said Deputy Chancellor Caroline Quintana.

Banks said the council’s goal is to produce a set of “strong recommendations” by the end of the school year.

It remains to be seen how many of these will ultimately be accepted. The Department of Education has a long track record of convening advisory boards on hot issues like school diversity and funding, and a mixed record of implementing their proposals.

Still, some advocates and newly appointed council members say they look forward to having an official voice in the Department of Education’s planning for the future of special education.

Maggie Moroff, the special education coordinator at Advocates for Children and a member of the new council, said she was “really excited that parents would really get involved”.

“We’ll see how it develops,” she added. “I hope that the Council can guide the direction that the Council is taking, rather than the DOE guiding us.”

Thursday’s announcement marks the bank’s biggest public foray into special education since it took office last January. He previously announced two new special programs for students with dyslexia and expanded screenings for students with reading difficulties. Banks also angered some families with recent comments suggesting some families had figured out how to “play with this system” by claiming public reimbursement for specialized private schools.

He said Thursday the Education Department continues to pay “exorbitant numbers for people going to other places,” but he hopes the reforms could help keep more families in public schools.

One thorny challenge the advisory board will address is finding ways to get more students with disabilities into mainstream schools, officials said.

That could mean reforming District 75, the sprawling network of separate, specialized public schools that serve some 26,000 students with significant disabilities. Students in District 75 often require highly specialized support and are often completely isolated from general education students, even if their schools share buildings.

“The vision and goal has always been to have a more integrated experience,” said Foti. “The challenge has also always been to get the resources and support they need into the district schools.”

Michael Elsen-Rooney is a reporter for Chalkbeat New York covering New York public schools. Contact Michael at [email protected].