2011-07-01 / Columnists

East End Matters...

DOE Fails Incoming Special Needs Kindergarteners
Commentary By Miriam Rosenberg

Those children who need extra help in their lives are some of our most vulnerable citizens. They’re special education children. And for whatever reason, be it delayed speech, autism or some other disability, they look to adults to guide and help them. One of their first major hurdles is beginning school.

A new report from Public Advocate Bill de Blasio explains how the Department of Education failed these children. The document “Rocky Start: Problems With ‘Turning Five’ ” details the DOE’s mismanagement of the ‘turning five process for children with disabilities.’ Youngsters who have been receiving special education pre-school, or were referred before March 1 should have been placed in a school by June 15. The DOE has found seats for 9,000 of 11,500 students. That means 2,500 special ed youngsters are waiting to be placed in a kindergarten class. This number could be even higher since more children could have entered the system after March 1.

One mother, whose child has still not been placed, was told by a DOE representative that she was “jumping the gun” when she called last week to find out where her child would be going to school in September. What makes it worse, is that the DOE is recommending a setting for the child that is not what those who have been working with the almost five-year-old believe is right. So now the mother has to fight for what she feels is right. Finding an appropriate public school setting that would be most beneficial to a special needs child is a difficult task. It requires parents to visit schools to be sure the facility meets the requirements of the child. What may be perfect for one special ed student may not be for another.

What most of these parents do not know is that they have rights. By missing that June 15 deadline, the DOE is required by law to send those parents, what is called, a Nickerson Letter. This enables, but does not guarantee, placement for these children in a stateapproved non-public school (NPS) paid for by the DOE.

But here’s the problem; according to de Blasio’s report the NPS programs can only serve a maximum of 2,484 students across all grade levels and the seats are already filled. So NPS cannot accommodate the incoming special needs kindergartners, and the DOE has no date when these children will be placed in a public school class.

So, how did these parents and students get caught between a rock and a hard place?

Well, those at the DOE began implementing some major changes without, it seems, a plan B. A new and more detailed Individualized Education Program (IEP), which lays out the special needs of these students, was introduced by the Start Department of Education. In addition, the city DOE is also implementing a new Special Education Student Information System (SESIS), which aims to track data and IEP development.

“As one can expect when implementing a new system, we are experiencing some delays as our employees work to familiarize themselves with SESIS,” said Chancellor Dennis Walcott in a letter to de Blasio.

The Chancellor added that the more “intensive and time-consuming” work associated with the changes systemwide this year was anticipated. While these changes affected the timeline for this year’s T-5 process, we are confident that this transition will better serve our students with disabilities,” said Walcott.

Walcott also said that there has been an increase in incoming kindergarten students, including those referred for special education evaluation this year.

What comes next? The DOE should, said de Blasio, commit to a firm date to place these children. He suggests that the department, by July 15, publicly release a plan with specific achievable deadlines to provide public placement options for these students.

He also wants the DOE to work with him to hold an “objective external review of this year’s Turning Five process and hold any sections in the DOE responsible for mistakes.”

The Chancellor said the DOE “will continue to ensure that these children are evaluated and served properly, and that their families have the information they need to make the best decisions for their children this fall and beyond.” Mr. Walcott, if you mean that, then the time to get it done is now.

Parents with a special needs child have enough to worry about without having to spend the entire summer making phone calls to the DOE and wondering where their youngster will be going to school in the fall.

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