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Kids Like Josh: Will putting special education kids in small schools make a difference?
By SHONNA CARTER


The East Harlem high school social worker knew that one of his special education students would benefit a great deal if he could attend one of the city’s more than 200 new small schools.

Josh was an emotionally troubled teen who needed to be in a place where he could nurture his strong academic skills in a more manageable environment—a place other than the self-contained special education classroom he now shared with kids who suffered from a wide range of disabilities.

Frank Ferrer also knew that perfect placement was not going to happen. A childhood deformity had made Josh the butt of jokes at school, causing the intelligent child to explode in bouts of uncontrollable rage. City officials had decided several years ago that kids like Josh should be left out of the newer small schools for at least two years, until the schools developed proper resources.

“There just wasn’t any place for someone like Josh,” said Ferrer, a social worker at the Academy of Environmental Science.

In late February, Schools Chancellor Joel Klein signaled a slight shift in that exclusive policy—one that could provide kids like Josh with more suitable classrooms. He announced that 10 new small schools opening next fall would receive $45,000 two-year grants to provide special education services to 18 students. Eight of those students must have mild enough learning and behavioral disabilities to require only resource room help. The other 10 with more serious needs would receive either a space in a team-taught class or a self-contained special ed classroom.

“This is something we wish we could give to all the schools,” said Melody Meyer, spokesperson for the Department of Education. According to the Department there is not enough money in the school budget to earmark for this program in schools across the city.

“I think the grants are a good thing, it is going to make the system move,” said Cathy Rikhye, a professor at Teachers College. Rikhye believes the Department of Education was correct to exclude special education students from the small startup schools until they got on their feet. It is difficult enough, she said, to open a new school without having to deal with students who need additional help.

But critics argue that the new policy is designed to serve only a fraction of the kids who need special help. “ It is an inadequate response to a clear discriminatory practice,” said David Bloomfield, president of the citywide parent council on high schools. “These are students that have historically been denied services and once again their needs are being relegated to an afterthought.”

In March, the council filed a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education that called for an investigation of the city’s policy of excluding special education kids from the new reformed schools.

Bloomfield suspects that the complaint influenced the decision to create the grants as well as new state legislation that passed regarding charter schools. The new legislation includes a stipulation that the schools have to admit a fixed number of special education students when they open.

The new change allows for 10 students to have a seat in a collaborative classroom, where general and special education students are mixed together and taught by two teachers, one certified in special education. Alternately, the 10 students could be placed in a self-contained classroom where students are grouped together by their level of disability. A fixed ratio of students to teachers is required. This ratio can range from 12 students to one teacher and one paraprofessional, to 12 students, one teacher and four paraprofessionals.

Schools are also required to have a special education Lead Teacher who provides instructional support. Monthly professional development sessions for teachers are also provided from the grants. Some of the money used for professional development would focus on collecting performance data. The schools are also required to have a second certified special education teacher on staff.

Meyer said the exclusion policy makes sense because most small schools are ill equipped to accommodate the needs of children in “self-contained” classrooms. Students with severe needs require disproportionately large amounts of resources, and would thus place significant strain on the little schools, she added.

Bloomfield argued that the grants prove that services can be provided as long as there is appropriate funding. He is not convinced more cannot be done to include special education grants throughout the system—a system that suffers from a wildly unequal distribution of special needs students.

Still, many critics concede the new grants are a step in the right direction. “But it is not enough,” said Kim Sweet, an attorney with New York Lawyers for the Public Interest. She believes that the city created the grants as a response to criticism, but that their efforts still could fall short of providing services for the students most in need of services.

Sweet pointed out that schools are not allowed to choose between collaborative classes or self-contained ones. Since collaborative classes are cheaper, the policy could provide incentive for schools to reject the most challenging students who would require more expensive services.

“There isn’t any indication that the schools couldn’t just focus on collaborative team teaching,” said Sweet. She added that the grants are not well known by parents. Most will have no idea that certain high schools will be accepting any special needs students next year.

It is clear that the policy of exclusion has not only kept special education students out of the small high schools, but also increased a concentration of special education students in other schools.

According to a 2006-2007 report by Parents for Inclusive Education, “ Small Schools, Few Choices,” only 11 percent of small schools currently provide self-contained classrooms, as opposed to 70 percent of all other high schools.

The report also found that special education students made up 2 percent of the small school population, compared to 6 percent in other high schools. These same students were over-represented in schools labeled as violent or failing.

South Shore High School is a case in point. The Brooklyn school has been labeled a failure, and will close after it graduates the last of its current students in 2010. Its 2004-2005 city report card showed that 9 percent of its students were in self-contained classrooms, compared to 7 percent in comparable schools, and 5 percent overall. The school will be replaced by a collection of small schools, three of which, Victory Collegiate, Brooklyn Theater Arts and Brooklyn Generational School, were awarded grants.

“The children that are leftovers are going to go to the leftover schools,” said Dorothy Siegel, senior researcher at the Institute for Education and Social Policy at New York University.

“It’s counter-intuitive to design a school around the students that are the easiest to teach,” she said. “If the school does not build into its program a space for special education students it will be very difficult to integrate them into the school.”

Without the money invested to provide services for special education students it is not likely that small schools will readily open their doors.

“It’s understandable that these small schools don’t want to take on special education students or students that are more difficult to teach,” said Siegel, “because they are blamed for the student’s failures, despite their obstacles.”