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Brooklyn Moms Win Fight For Special Education
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As her daughter, Juliet who has dyslexia, approached middle school, Mellen O'Keefe worried what would happen to her when she left the elementary school she loved. The girl was thriving at The Children's School in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn, where children with disabilities study alongside their peers in general education and every class has two teachers, one of whom is certified in special education. But O'Keefe saw few opportunities for her daughter in middle school, where disabled children tend to be assigned to segregated classes.


"I was just appalled by what I saw," said O'Keefe. "I thought, if we sit around and wait for people to do something we'll be here next year. By doing it by a committee, it wasn't going to get done. We had to get something written down."

This is a story of how parents can make a difference -- at least in a district that tries to be responsive to their concerns. O'Keefe and three other mothers successfully lobbied education officials to add team-teaching classes for special education in District 15 middle schools. In Fall 2005, New Voices Middle School, the Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies, Sunset Park Prep Academy, Upper Carroll Middle School, and MS 27 will add Collaborative Team Teaching (CTT) classes, which mix children with disabilities and general education students in the same class with two teachers one whom is certified in special education, regional officials have announced. (MS 88, New Horizons, and MS 51 already have CTT classes.)

Over a cup of Joe at the local coffee shop, O'Keefe and three other moms, all of whom have children with special needs at The Children's School in Brooklyn, brainstormed and gathered data like doctorate candidates writing a dissertation on special education. They interviewed education experts, read special education laws and court cases, and visited more than 20 schools in six districts, including top private special education schools.

During their school visits, the moms saw noteworthy programs in both public and private schools that they wanted to replicate in their neighborhood schools. A private school, Winston Preparatory School in Manhattan, has daily one-on-one advisories. The New York City Lab School for Collaborative Studies in Manhattan has special education teachers who are also specialists in their subject matter: math, English or social studies. In District 2 in Manhattan, children applying to special education programs are interviewed during the admissions process -- rather than just submitting forms, grades, and test scores.

Impressed by such programs, the moms requested the same for their neighborhood children in a three-page e-mail to Steve Rosen, director of special education for Region 8, with a copy to Marcia Lyles, superintendent for Region 8, and Deputy Chancellor Carmen Farina. They had 10 specific requests, including more CTT classes, recruitment of teachers with multi-sensory teaching skills, and better descriptions of special education programs in the regional middle school book.

"The [current] descriptions are not good," said Asa Archilbald, mother of four children, three of whom receive special education services. "MS 51 has inclusion, but that was not in the description. How are you supposed to know what schools to visit?"

Rosen credits the mothers with making good suggestions, but says the district planned to expand team-teaching classes anyway. On the other hand, the mothers may have pushed the district to move faster than it would have without their prodding.

Alyce Barr, principal the Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies, said she has been asking for CTT classes since the school opened four years ago. She credits this group of vocal moms with helping bring CTT classes to her school. "They published this incredibly well thought-out report," said Barr who plans to implement some of their suggestions. "I was very, very impressed."

The mothers know their battle isn't over. Opening more team-teaching classes is just a first step. Other long-established middle school team-teaching classes in the district have been unsuccessful, and parents say their children haven't received the special services to which they are entitled. Still, the mothers say they feel great.

"I'm very happy so far," said Archilbald, who thinks all moms can improve public education for their children. "It feels good, what we did." The moms recommend e-mailing your regional director of special education, and CC top education officials. "Use the power of that little CC thing," said O'Keefe.[You may also want to sent a message to your regional superintendent through the Speak Out section of] "You got to make sure there is visibility at the top." She adds: "You have to be vigilant, educate yourself, and not be intimidated."

--Vaness Witenko, March 29, 2004

© 2003 The E-Accountability Foundation