Funding Cut Endangers Disabled Children

Before their son began attending the School for Language and Communication Development (SLCD), Robby Schwartzmans parents did not expect him ever to speak.
Robby, who suffers from autistic spectrum disorder, had attended kindergarten at one of the citys pride and joys for disabled children, PS 177. But his parents said he did not do well there and remained non-verbal.
Acknowledging they lacked a suitable public school, the city agreed to send him to SLCD, a special education school in Glen Cove, serving infants, preschoolers and school-aged children.
Robby, now a fifth grader, is talking and, to his parents amazement, reading and doing math at a second grade level.
"Basically, he wont shut up," said Caryn Schwartzman, Robbys mom, excitedly adding, "and its wonderful."
His placement at SLCD, though, is in jeopardy, and it has his parents worried that he will be sitting at home next year, not receiving the proper education and social interaction that has helped him flourish.
The uncertainty of Robbys schooling has been a continuing problem since 2001, when the State Education Department set a cap on the number of children who may attend a special education school in New York and declared a moratorium on any expansion of these schools.
Because SLCD is only certified to teach classes through third grade, the moratorium prevents the school from expanding to accommodate older children. This restriction comes despite the insistence of SLCDs principal, Dr. Ellenmorris Tiegerman, that the school has the space and teachers to provide higher grade levels.
At the end of third grade, Robby and his fellow classmates were expected to switch to a school within their district. But, SLCD and its parents fought back, filing a lawsuit that claims the State Education Departments actions were illegal and discriminated against children with disabilities. They asserted the moratorium forces many to return to unsuitable public schools.
While the case awaits a court date, year-to-year variances on the State Education Departments moratorium have allowed SLCD to extend grade levels, keeping Robby in the school.
"This is the tragedy: that they are going to disrupt the lives of children over nonsense," said Marty Schwartzman, Robbys dad, unsure if another variance will be issued for the next school year. "If there were appropriate places in the city of New York, there would be no story."
The Schwartzmans and Dr. Tiegerman believe the State Education Departments actions are a way to shirk their own accountability. Forcing disabled children to return to public schools, SLCD parents say, averts attention from the real problem: that many school districts lack appropriate special education facilities and teachers.
State Education Department spokesperson John Burman declined to comment because the case is still in litigation. The citys Department of Education did not return The Queens Couriers calls.
Robby was given the green light to attend a private school four years ago. After its annual review, his Committee on Special Education (CSE) decided no city schools could meet his needs.
Every school district has a CSE, which consists of the parent of the child under review, a school psychologist, a speech language pathologist, a person from the social service agency representing the child, and the childs teacher. The committee evaluates the child and assesses the best schooling arrangement. Because of its decision, Robbys CSE gave the family a Nickerson letter a notice saying the city will pay tuition for any non-public state-approved school.
The Schwartzmans chose SLCD because of its teaching methods.
"Children are like special locks," said Tiegerman, explaining that different teaching styles work better for each student. "They have special keys and they learn differently."
The Schwartzmans liked SLCDs language-oriented approach and that, though Robby is taught in a class with students having similar disabilities, the school makes a point of socializing him with higher-functioning children.
Robby and his classmates future at the school, though, appeared bleak, recently. Though their lawsuit goes to trial in June, a State Education Department e-mail sent to the citys Department of Education in late February brought disheartening news. The circulating e-mail informed the citys CSEs that, although variances were issued in the past, during their annual reviews this year, they cannot continue to recommend SLCD for any student who is over the age of eight as of December 12, 2004.
"Every year we have to go to our CSE hearing, and my son is always approved," said Jackie Perry, whose nine-year-old, MacArthur, has pervasive developmental delay and mild autism. "This year it is kind of iffy."
The Perrys, who lives in Hollis, have a story similar to the Schwartzmans. Before SLCD, MacArthur spoke fewer than 100 words, made little eye contact and could not dress himself. Since enrolling, his time at the school has been a success.
"He is speaking and self-sufficient," she said. "I think a lot of it is due to the teaching."
The fact that the e-mail specifically blacklists SLCD and no other, Marty Schwartzman believes, proves the State Education Department is exacting revenge on the school for its criticism and lawsuit.
"We are talking about an autistic child sitting at home,"said Marty Schwartzman. "You cant get that time back with him."

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