2012-05-11 / Top Stories

Scholar's Academy Parents Wary Of DOE Plan

By Howard Schwach

The Scholars’ Academy on Beach 102 Street in Rockaway Park has become the destination of choice for parents throughout District 27 whose children are reading and doing math on a high level.

The school was founded a few years ago as the district’s gifted magnet school, admitting only those students who can do rigorous academic work.

That may change, however, parents fear, because of a new program announced last week that mandates every school in the city admit neighborhood students who need special education services, many of whom, they contend, will not be able to keep up with the more academically-oriented and brighter students in their school.

Under the new plan, admittedly designed to save millions of dollars for the cash-strapped public school system, special-education kids who would have been segregated in the past will be shifted into classrooms with generaleducation students in virtually every school in the city.

Department of Education officials say that the move is intended to boost the special education students’ performance by giving them more exposure to their peers — while keeping them closer to home by requiring for the first time that all schools accept them.

But many educators say the push is financial rather than educationally driven — and will likely deprive students of services and cause havoc in the classrooms.

“We believe in moving children toward a less restrictive environment when it’s appropriate and possible,” said United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew. “When it’s not appropriate for the child, what you’re going to end up with is a child in crisis and a classroom where the educational process is completely disrupted.”

A number of Scholars’ Academy parents echoed Mulgrew’s statements.

A former public school teacher, who asked not to be identified, told The Wave that placing slow learners and emotionally-handicapped students in Scholars’ Academy classrooms would lead to the disruption of classes and to the content area curriculum moving at a slower pace so the less able students can keep up.

“That is not what we want from the Scholars’ Academy,” she said.

Special-ed kids who are affected by the initiative would likely spend only a portion of their day in classes with general education students that are taught by two teachers.

A number of principals complained that the way the program is funded encourages increased placement of students into general-ed classes — whether or not the kids are ready.

For example, classrooms serving small groups of students with more significant challenges — known as “self-contained” classes — will no longer be guaranteed full funding.

“I think what they’re trying to do is save money, period,” said one elementaryschool principal. “It’s disgusting. There should never be a financial incentive [to change supports] — it should be a moral imperative to do it.”

A DOE spokesperson, however, defended the program.

She said that records from 2010 show that fewer than 31 percent of special-ed students graduated from high school in four years — compared with the 65 percent August graduation rate citywide. The rates for kids in self-contained classrooms were even worse.

“In the long run, if a student stays their whole career in a self-contained classroom, they’vegota5percentshotatadiploma.Andthatisimmoral,”saidthe DOE’s chief academic officer, Shael Polakow-Suransky. “We cannot allow thousands of kids to be confined to failure.”

He also stressed that the changes were being introduced gradually, so that only students enrolling in kindergarten, sixth and ninth grades would be affected in 2012-13.

“The old practice of shipping out your students with disabilities because you don’t want to deal with them — that’s going to end and that’s making some people uncomfortable,” he said.

When asked specifically about the Scholars’ Academy on Tuesday, Department of Education spokesperson Deidre Miller said that the only schools exempt from the program would be those “fully-screened” high schools that have mandated admission policy set by the state legislature.

“No other schools will be exempt from the special education policies,” she said.

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