There are approximately 224,000 students with disabilities enrolled in the NYC school system, and some City Council members say the Department of Education isn’t doing enough to provide these children with necessary services. At an emotional hearing on Monday, the City Council grilled DOE officials, and heard tearful testimony from parents of children with disabilities who described challenges navigating New York City’s public schools—from the bureaucracy to the buildings themselves.
Nieves Ojendiz spoke about her 10-year-old daughter,Anna, who has cerebral palsy and seizures, is nonverbal, and uses a wheelchair. She said her daughter was injured while under the Department of Education’s supervision and, she said, although Anna’s doctors and teachers say she needs a nurse to accompany her at school, the DOE hasn’t yet provided one.
Yuvania Espino said her 9-year-old daughter Mia can’t take classes with her peers because there’s no elevator to take her to their classroom on the third floor. “Her current teacher observed that Mia asks about her former classmates and is emotionally affected by the separation,” Espino said.
Another mother said she took a year off to teach her dyslexic son to read because his public school couldn’t. A father said fighting for the city to reimburse for special education services is “costly and stressful.”
Department of Education chief academic officer Linda Chen thanked the families for their stories and said the DOE is working hard to expand and improve special education. “The Department’s goal is to ensure that every student has the support and services they need to thrive in the classroom, and we are committed to doing everything necessary to achieve that goal,” she said.
Since 2014, Chen said, the department has hired more than 4,300 special education teachers, occupational therapists, physical therapists, and speech therapists. It has also added bilingual programs, programs for preschoolers, and programs for children on the autism spectrum. A new policy gives students with physical disabilities priority in admissions to schools with accessible buildings. And the de Blasio administration wants to invest $750 million in capital improvements to increase accessibility. She said these steps are already making a difference: graduation rates for students with disabilities are up, dropout rates are down.
But parents and advocates at the hearing were dismayed when Chen recommended calling 311 for help accessing services. The city hotline receives millions of calls a year, often to register the more quotidian elements of city life like noise complaints and to potholes.
And City Council education committee chair Mark Treyger noted that the graduation rate for students with disabilities is still only 50 percent. The department’s own data show only 78 percent of students with disabilities are receiving all the services to which they’re entitled.
“I acknowledge that DOE has made a number of substantial improvements,” Treyger said. “But the numbers I just shared show there’s so much more work to serve our city’s most vulnerable students.”
Council Members introduced a series of bills to increase reporting and oversight. One bill would require the department to provide school-level data on compliance with students’ individualized education plans (IEPs). Another would require more reporting from the city on whether parents’ claims for special education services and tuition are being met. The council also proposed a resolution calling on the education department to create a new position—or “czar”—dedicated to ensuring compliance with students’ IEPs and other special education requirements.
Lori Podvesker with the disability and education advocacy group INCLUDEnyc called the legislation a step in the right direction. “The absence of school-based data on special education services has long been problematic for families when making decisions on what schools and programs their child may be appropriate for their child to attend,” she said. “Hoping the DOE uses this information to make changes in their funding and policies so more students with disabilities receive all their mandated special education supports and services in a timely manner.”