Stories and Grievances: Special Education
In New York City, New Small Schools Do Not have Many Special Education Students
Beth Fertig of WNYC radio has exposed the dire circumstances of special education students in New York City in a series of interviews with administrators who deny, deny, deny.
New Small Schools Still Have Few Special Ed Students
by Beth Fertig
NEW YORK, NY June 30, 2006 —A key part of New York City's effort to reform its schools has been breaking up large, failing high schools into smaller and more personalized ones. Last year, an investigation by WNYC found that students with learning disabilities and other special needs were less likely to be enrolled in these promising new schools. This year, we took another look to see if things had changed. WNYC's Beth Fertig has more.
REPORTER: In the past three years, the Bloomberg Administration has opened more than 150 of these small schools. The initiative has attracted funding from big philanthropies like the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation. And the schools mark a new philosophy, as Chancellor Joel Klein explained in 2003.
KLEIN: What small allows is to create the kind of community that is much more personal, to create a shared vision.
REPORTER: That vision has paid off. Yesterday, the chancellor announced that the first wave of small schools that opened in 2002 had an average graduation rate of 73 percent – 15 points higher than the citywide average.
But last year WNYC found that students with special needs were less likely to benefit from the Chancellor’s initiative. Fewer than 8 percent of the students in small new high schools were classified as needing special education services in 2005. That figure was disproportionately low since these kids made up more than 11 percent of the overall, academic high school population.
Education department officials had a reason for the disparity. They said the new schools needed time to grow and hire more teachers before they could take more students with special needs. So this year we took another look and here’s what we found:
First, the overall proportion of special ed students in small new high schools did grow: from 7 point 7 percent in 2005 to 8 percent in 2006.
Since last year, the number of new small high schools has grown dramatically. So we did a second comparison, looking at the same 73 schools we examined in 2005. Among those schools, the special ed enrollment grew a little more - by half a percentage point. Chancellor Klein says these findings show the small schools ARE gradually taking more special education students.
KLEIN: If you look at the numbers they’ve gone up consistently and they’re starting to approach the city average. So it’s clear to me that they will be higher and they should be higher.
REPORTER: Klein and his staffers believe the proportion of special ed students in these schools was lower in 2005 than what WNYC calculated using the Department of Education’s own enrollment figures. So they now contend the special ed enrollment in small schools has grown by a wider margin - 2 percentage points instead of less than half a percentage point.
The Education Department also released new data finding special ed students are performing better in the small, new schools – with higher attendance and promotion rates. Robert Hughes is president of New Visions for Public Schools, a private non profit which has opened dozens of new schools for the city. He sees real examples of progress.
HUGHES: If you look at New Explorers High School, for example, their valedictorian is a special ed student. I think when you look at the promotion rates and credit accumulation rates across the schools they seem higher for special ed students than in traditional schools. And I guess what that means is we’re not solving the problem overnight and we have a lot to do to improve, but by the same token we’re starting to see some success with one of the most intractable problems in public education.
REPORTER: To some parents and education advocates, those findings illustrate precisely why more students with special needs SHOULD be attending small new schools. Especially since WNYC found – once again this year - that disabled students are over-represented in schools the state says are failing, and in those schools given extra police officers to combat crime. Though the figures in both cases have improved.
David Bloomfield – a member of a parent group called the citywide council for high schools – says that’s still a problem. And he’s not convinced the city is making huge progress when it comes to enrolling more special ed students into small schools.
BLOOMFIELD: It’s nice that the trend line is upward but it’s ever so slight, so it’s hard to tell whether there’s really been a commitment on the part of the administration to really correct the problem that WNYC identified in the first place.
REPORTER: Despite the proliferation of small schools, just one out of ten high schools kids attends one. Most students are in older, bigger schools desperately in need of help, says Elisa Hyman the executive director of Advocates for Children.
HYMAN: Very, very few kids with disabilities are actually graduating and I think there should be an overall focus on reform of high school special education services.
REPORTER: Services which must be provided, she says, no matter the size of the school in question. For WNYC I’m Beth Fertig.
Part 1 of "Disabling Diplomas: How NYC is Failing Its Special Education Students"
by Beth Fertig
City's New Small Schools Are Focus of a Bias Inquiry