DOE must show better treatment toward special-needs pupils

By Bob Harris

Regretfully, the city Department of Education has been making sudden changes every few months for the past 10 years. In the past there was stability in city schools, but these days there is confusing change after change.

A few months ago, the DOE announced that it had to close 33 failing schools. The turnabout proposals for struggling schools follow federal guidelines, which call for removing up to 50 percent of the staff, as if the teachers are at fault for a student not learning. Confusingly, federal rules also call for removing a principal in a failing school unless you keep the principal or switch him or her to another school.

To help in the turnaround, the federal government has given millions of dollars to the states to help these failing schools. There is $58 million available for New York state to give to the city. To add to the confusion, the DOE announced that seven of the proposed 33 schools would not be closed.

It seems that these high schools were currently being turned around and had received grades of A or B. This is without firing half the teachers. Since there are separate city and state tests to be used as guides, things can get a bit confusing.

Test scores are used to rate schools. An article I read said that new schools in the Old Seward Park High School in Lower Manhattan had all earned As and Bs, but there were no self-contained classes of high-needs special education students in these new schools, while the Old Seward Park HS had 9 percent of the population in self-contained, high-needs classes.

Queens’ city, state and federal legislators are becoming concerned as the DOE makes plans to close their high schools, from which many of them have graduated. Huge rallies have taken place at these schools even prior to the public hearings needed to close them. Recently, state Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan (D-Ridgewood), chairwoman of the Assembly Education Committee, and Borough President Helen Marshall held a rally in front of Queens Borough Hall against school closings.

There are stories around which say that some principals are asking special education teachers if they can get their students to do better on high-stakes tests. Most of these children cannot do better. The parents of these students had decided that their children be tested because if found to have special needs, then they can get help.

Just a few days ago, the DOE issued new special education rules. The DOE eliminated the Special Education District Office whose function was to receive the IEP or evaluation of a student from pre-schools and nursery schools and special evaluators and then place them in an appropriate school site.

The new rules say a local school is supposed to place the high-needs child in an appropriate classroom in the local school. At the same time, principals were told not to create new special education classes even if they have enough children for a class. Why? Well, it is less expensive to have one teacher and a paraprofessional with 32 children than having 14 children in a classroom.

Principals have a hard job. They were told that to give them more flexibility and creative ability, they would operate their own budget. But fixed expenses provide little free money for new programs. Small, special-needs classes with one or more paraprofessionals are expensive. There is the need for flexibility and a separate district because of federal law.

The DOE now wants counseling of high-needs students in the lunchroom or a regular classroom, not in a guidance office, but some of these students do not focus easily and can be distracted or drift into their own little world. Yes, many of these students need socialization, but not counseling in a noisy lunchroom. Some students can eventually go into regular classrooms, but these new DOE rules contradict all the federal mandates and common sense.