NYC Accused of Neglecting Students with Disabilities
LIANE HANSEN, host:
Millions of teenagers are getting their high school diplomas this year. Among them are tens of thousands of students with disabilities. Nationwide, about half of special education students earned diplomas. In New York City, the proportion is much lower. Most of the special education students there receive a certificate, one that's not recognized by most colleges or the military.
Beth Fertig of member station WNYC has the story.
BETH FERTIG reporting:
Seventeen-year-old Antonio Rocca(ph) was born in New York to Dominican parents. He grew up in Washington Heights, a working class immigrant neighborhood on the northern tip of Manhattan. But Antonio had trouble in school early on and was repeatedly sent to special education classes.
Mr. ANTONIO ROCCA (Special Education Student): They always been trying to refer to another school like - it's like they keep me there for this year and they keep me - then they put me into another school, keep me there for like a certain amount of time. It's like they just want to hide their - like, like the garbage.
FERTIG: Antonio's records show he attended 10 different schools, but he didn't learn very much.
Mr. ROCCA: I could probably read like maybe second, third grade. Like because - how you call it - nobody knew that I was dyslexic, so during the years, I just picked up a way like of taking pictures, like, of words. Like every time I see the word, I'd know it, but when it comes to me writing it, I don't know how to write it.
FERTIG: By high school, Antonio was sent to a school for disabled kids who aren't on track to earn regular diplomas. Instead, they're taught very basic math and reading while getting work experience in fields like building maintenance or cooking. And many students who complete the program get jobs. But Antonio dropped out this year.
Mr. ROCCA: I want to read on my own. I want to get a high school diploma.
FERTIG: Students who complete the school Antonio attended earn alternate diplomas called IEPs. They're named for the individualized education programs required by federal law for all disabled students.
But Antonio says that diploma isn't the real deal.
Mr. ROCCA: IEP, you can't go to college. You cannot go to the armed forces, 'cause I want to go to Iraq.
FERTIG: Antonio used a federal law for special education students to get a hearing about his case, seeking remedial schooling. As a result, the city is now paying for him to get one-on-one tutoring. City officials can't comment on his case, but they acknowledge that many disabled students are arriving in high school years behind academically.
IEP diplomas are the norm for the city's disabled kids. Last year, a state tracking survey found only 23 percent of all special ed students in New York City earned real academic diplomas after five years of high school. Statewide, the diploma rate for disabled kids was much better: 48 percent, about the national average. And almost a third of the city's disabled students drop out. Education experts say those figures are unacceptable.
Professor THOMAS HEHIR (Harvard University): There's no question in my mind that more kids could be getting diplomas and should be getting diplomas.
FERTIG: Thomas Hehir is a professor at Harvard University and former director of the federal government's Office of Special Education Programs under the Clinton Administration. Last year, New York City hired him to study its approach to special education. Hehir found serious shortcomings. He says the system isn't serving the vast majority of special ed kids, more than half of whom are diagnosed as emotionally disturbed or learning disabled and do not have serious cognitive disabilities.
Prof. HEHIR: Now these are not kids that school districts have found easy to serve, I'm not trying to give that impression. But if these kids get what they need, much greater numbers should be getting diplomas because they don't generally have intellectual deficits.
FERTIG: Hehir found that too many disabled students spend most of their school day in special education classes, meaning they have less exposure to their general education peers than kids in other districts. New York is trying to change that now. It's spending $8 million training special education teachers with an intensive new curriculum. It's also mainstreaming more disabled students into general education classes.
Linda Wernikoff is in charge of the city's special education services.
Ms. LINDA WERNIKOFF (NYC Special Education Services): We felt that the outcomes for kids, the academic outcomes for kids with disability were lagging behind their general ed peers, and that we had to really start honing in on what were the kinds of instructional opportunities that were being made available for students with disabilities, and were we using the best instructional methodologies.
FERTIG: Big cities around the country have trouble closing the achievement gap for disabled students. New York State's Deputy Education Commissioner Rebecca Cort says urban districts face the same problems educating disabled kids that they have in educating everyone else.
Ms. REBECCA CORT (Deputy Education Commissioner, New York State): These include issues of poverty, of late identification, in many cases students coming in from other countries who don't speak English. When you have a disability, it's often harder to make up that kind of lag in language development, especially if you have a speech and language disability in both languages.
FERTIG: But districts are facing more pressure to address those problems now because the federal No Child Left Behind law requires them to raise the bar for all children.
Unidentified Woman (Teacher): There was an exhibit about (unintelligible). Well, that was part of the exhibit. Very good.
FERTIG: At this Special Education Elementary School in Queens, known as P4, students are grouped by ability in small classes of 8 or 12.
Unidentified Woman: Okay, tell me what it was about.
Unidentified Student: Mexico City.
FERTIG: The No Child Left Behind Law requires special education students to take annual tests, just like all other students, to hold schools accountable for their progress. Some kids are given extra time and low performing kids are measured in other ways. Last year, P4 met its goals for math, but it fell short in English, putting it in danger of state intervention. Principal Marcy Berger(ph) says she's personally frustrated when success is overshadowed by failure.
Ms. MARCY BERGER (Principal, P4 School): There's so much that's good that's going on and there's so much that we combat by the mere nature of the children with whom we work. It's frustrating to me and I look at our kids and to watch them struggle to pass the test, to prove what? To me it's a lot more important that the child has learned how to function and the child can actually write a paragraph.
FERTIG: For some students, that may be all they can hope for. There are severely disabled kids who will never be able to read, but for thousands of students like Antonio Rocca, that's not good enough, and they say the city needs to do better.
For NPR News, I'm Beth Fertig in New York.
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