The 27,000-student Yonkers, N.Y., district has committed to placing more students with disabilities in general education classrooms, after a federal investigation showed that the district was shifting students into restrictive settings with no individualized rationale for doing so.
The U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights, in a Nov. 4 resolution letter to the Yonkers district, said that about 16 percent of the district’s students were receiving special education services in 2013-14. Of those, more than 80 percent spent some time outside the general education classroom during the school day. Their individualized education programs often contained boilerplate text: "[the student] requires special instruction in ... [an] environment with a smaller student-to-teacher ratio and minimal distractions in order to progress in achieving the learning standards.”
But not all of the students appeared to have that need. Among the department’s findings:
- A 5th-grade student was classified as speech-language impaired when a district committee met and determined that the student “made many academic improvements,” and his speech and language therapy were no longer needed. The student was functioning at grade level, enjoyed reading independently and reading historical fiction and non-fiction, and possessed a strong sight-word vocabulary and decoding skills. The district reclassified the student as having a learning disability and him in a self-contained classroom for over 60 percent of his school day.
- An 11th-grade student’s IEP noted that the student had good word recognition/decoding skills, his reading comprehension skills were good, and his writing skills were “grade level appropriate.” His grade on the Regent’s Comprehensive English exam satisfied Regent’s diploma-required English credit. That student, however, spent more than 60 percent of the school day in a self-contained setting.
- A 9th-grade student’s IEP noted that the student was responsible, took advantage of extra help sessions, and was motivated and worked hard to achieve success. The evaluations revealed that he was slightly below grade level in language arts, but on grade level in math and science. That student was in a self-contained classroom for more than 60 percent of the school day.
In the resolution agreement reached with the Education Department, Yonkers officials committed to strengthen its procedures for evaluating students, as well as to review the placement of all students in self-contained special education setting, to make sure the placement is appropriate.
“I am deeply grateful to Yonkers Public Schools for its commitment now to ensure that every student in the district will have access to educational opportunity that allows the student to thrive,” said Catherine E. Lhamon, assistant secretary for the office for civil rights, in a statement.
Jerilynne Fierstein, a spokeswoman for the district, said in an email that while the office for civil rights started its investigation in 2014, the district the year before had started an analysis and restructuring of its special education department. In addition to hiring an assistant superintendent to oversee the department, Yonker also hired of four directors, additional special education facilitators, more related service providers, and additional special education teachers.
In a statement, Yonkers Superintendent Edwin Quezada said that the district “is committed to supporting and servicing our students with disabilities in the least-restrictive environments. Our strength as a learning community will only be enhanced by providing effective services to all of our students. It is reassuring that [the office for civil rights] has confidence that our special education department is in the hands of competent administrators.”
A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.