Small Schools in N.Y.C. Pressed on Spec. Ed.

By Christina A. Samuels — July 30, 2007 8 min read
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New York City has been at the forefront of a movement to shift students from large high schools to smaller, more personalized learning environments. But some advocates have claimed that students in special education or who are English-language learners have been left out.

This fall, the school system is stepping up its efforts to encourage small schools to serve such students.

Ten new small schools will use grants of up to $45,000 a year for two years to hire a lead special education teacher when they open next month. Another 10 new schools will receive $45,000 for one year to hire an extra teacher certified in teaching English-language learners.

Special Education Services in Small Schools

In New York City’s small high schools, some of the services available to students with learning disabilities are increasing.


Since 2003, the 1.1 million-student district has opened more than 200 small secondary schools, most enrolling about 100 students in one grade when they open and growing to about 500 students. At the same time, low-performing large high schools have been closed. The initiative has been financed by $125 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and smaller donations from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and other funders. For their first two years, small schools are not required to offer special education services for students who require classes co-taught by a special education and a regular teacher, or instruction in “self-contained” classrooms of special-needs students. From the start, however, they must serve students who can function in a classroom with additional support part of the day from a special education teacher. In the schools’ first few years, district officials say, they need to focus on core issues without worrying about providing certain additional services. As the small schools mature, they note, their student populations begin to reflect that of the district as a whole.

About 10 percent of the incoming 9th grade class in small schools is made up of students in special education, compared with 12 percent in the regular high schools, according to the district.

“We don’t want to be criticized for accepting students with special needs and putting them into schools that were not prepared to offer them a high-quality education,” said Linda Wernikoff, the city’s head of special education.

‘Very Small’ Program

Faculty members in the schools that receive the special education grants will receive monthly professional-development sessions in addition to extra staffing. In the 2005-06 school year, the city gave $10,000 planning grants to 55 small schools to begin offering higher levels of service for special education students last fall.

Small schools have been successful at teaching the special-needs students they enroll, the district says. One measure is the promotion rate from 9th to 10th grade, said Debbie Marcus, a spokeswoman for the New York Office of Portfolio Development, formerly called the Office of New Schools.

In the 2005-06 school year, 74 percent of students in special education were promoted from 9th to 10th grade in small schools, compared with 59 percent in regular high schools. For English-language learners, the promotion rate was 88 percent in small schools and 67 percent in regular schools.

But advocates for students with special needs believe small schools are proliferating with very little monitoring, said Kim Sweet, the executive director of Advocates for Children of New York, which has raised questions about equity for special education students and those learning English.

“I would like to see the [city] department of education take a look at the whole system. It’s growing very fast, and it’s very entrepreneurial, and there’s not a lot of oversight,” Ms. Sweet said.

Efforts that have been made to bring more students with special needs into small high schools have been aimed at pacifying groups such as hers, she said, rather than at addressing the larger issues that she believes exist.

The grant program, Ms. Sweet said, “is their biggest answer to this. While I’m glad to see some innovation, it’s a very small program at this point.”

The city must play an active role in ensuring that small schools offer a wide range of services for students, she said. The district “sat down, and they decided to roll out this [small schools] program that didn’t involve the large schools and impacted two populations negatively,” she said.

Though officials are now making efforts, “it would have been better for them to think about this from the beginning.”

For Taeko Onishi, the principal of the Lyons Community School, a small secondary school opening in Brooklyn next month, enrolling students with disabilities is “foundational” to the school that she and her colleagues would like to create.

Making Plans

The school is receiving a grant to hire a lead special education teacher to add to a staff of 11 full-time teachers for the 162 students in the 6th and 9th grades that the school will serve in its first year.

“We have a lot of experienced teachers,” she said. “But we would have felt much more worried about [enrolling students with disabilities] without the grant.”

Ms. Onishi and the teachers have spent the summer in consultation with their incoming students drafting “action plans” that will group classes by affinity and ability. The dream is to create a vibrant environment that blends academic learning, field work, and physical education into a cohesive whole based on student needs, Ms. Onishi said.

The school’s focus on the learning styles of individual children makes Lyons a perfect place for students with disabilities, the principal believes.

“We’re grouping the students according to needs and strengths,” Ms. Onishi said. “Obviously, we would be the school that would take on a special ed population.”

Lyons plans to enroll 18 9th graders whose individualized education programs call either for small-group instruction with a special education teacher, or classes co-taught by a special education and a general education teacher. Another eight students in 6th grade will be instructed in co-taught classrooms.

Some research suggests that it is, in fact, difficult for some small schools to smoothly incorporate students with disabilities without extra support.

In an April 2007 study, the Institute for Education and Social Policy at New York University examined student and teacher characteristics of an earlier wave of small schools that opened between 1993 and 1997. A principal of a school that experienced a large influx of students with disabilities said the school’s size and its inexperience at providing for students with special needs left it unprepared.

Such reports were common among principals in that batch of small schools, said the study’s co-author, Meryle G. Weinstein. Stability in the student body was a characteristic of the successful small schools examined, she said.

But school size is no excuse for not offering services mandated under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, said David C. Bloomfield, a professor and the head of the educational leadership program at Brooklyn College, a branch of the City University of New York. Mr. Bloomfield, the past president of New York’s Citywide Council on High Schools, has been an outspoken critic of the enrollment policy at the small schools.

The council has submitted a complaint to the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights about the district’s enrollment policy for students learning English and special education students who require a self-contained classroom.

The district’s grant program, he said, is too small to correct the problems special education students have with the small schools.

“You don’t cure a violation of civil law with small baby steps that you determine yourself,” he said.

New York officials tout the success of the small schools, which have higher graduation rates than other schools in the city, but those that enroll special-needs students accept children whose disabilities aren’t very serious, Mr. Bloomfield said.

Then the schools “wave a banner of success,” he said, “when they have a thumb on the scale in their favor.”

Parents for Inclusive Education, a New York coalition of parents, educators, and advocates, produced a report last year outlining the problems it sees in the small school movement for special education students. The city’s high school directory for the 2006-07 school year indicated that 11.5 percent of small high schools, compared with 70.4 percent of other high schools, provided self-contained classrooms, the report said.

Given the city’s system of choice for high schools, the coalition noted, parents often had trouble finding out what schools did have special services.

‘One Solution’

Representatives of the foundations that support small schools say they have been successful for students with special needs, even with the limited enrollment policy for the schools’ first two years.

Marie Groark, a spokeswoman for the Gates Foundation, said the philanthropy has had a “laser focus” on graduation rates among low-performing students, but not students with disabilities specifically.

Small schools “are not the answer for every district, or every student,” Ms. Groark said. “These schools are one solution.”

Even if a small school cannot offer every special education service available at a large school, students with special needs still can benefit from the close-knit environment, said Robert L. Hughes, the president of New Visions for Public Schools, a nonprofit organization that has spurred the creation of 83 small high schools in the city.

“At the end of the day, it’s the outcomes that matter,” Mr. Hughes said. “What I think we’re seeing is the level of personalization you provide to general education students is clearly beneficial to special education students.”

He added that the numbers of students in special education are increasing at the schools created by New Visions. For example, 15.2 percent of the students who started 9th grade last fall needed special education services, compared with 9.9 percent of the class that started 10th grade that year.

“I’m an old special education advocate. I’m not thrilled with the delay,” Mr. Hughes, a former deputy director for Advocates for Children, said of the progress in serving students with special needs. “But at the end of the day, if we end up with a system that works for these kids, it’s worth it.”

Coverage of new schooling arrangements and classroom improvement efforts is supported by a grant from the Annenberg Foundation.


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