‘We didn’t have options’: A new Staten Island charter school aims to fill a gap for students with dyslexia

BY SAVANNAH ROBINSON – JULY 3, 2018

Laura Timoney knew that New York City’s first charter school designed for students with dyslexia would become a reality when she and its other founders were able to envision a full day in the life of a student. 

“We named her Juanita Henderson, and still just smile whenever we think of her,” said Timoney, who works on education issues in the Staten Island borough president’s office. “She’s so excited and looking forward to coming to school, learning, looking in microscopes.”

If all goes according to plan, Bridge Preparatory Charter School will begin serving its real students on Staten Island in fall 2019. The elementary school was approved by the Board of Regents in June, and it’s set to be the first charter school in the state — and among only a few public schools nationwide — devoted to educating children with dyslexia and other language-based learning disabilities.

The goal is to provide another option for families who have long fought for more choices closer to home. Staten Island is the borough with the highest share of students with disabilities, and while district schools have been steadily addingresources to help students with literacy issues, many parents of children with dyslexia send them to private schools in Brooklyn or New Jersey. 

To succeed, though, Bridge Prep will have to navigate a few considerable challenges. 

A few, like finding space, are familiar to charter schools in New York City. Others, like convincing parents that their educational model will work best for their children — who may have sizable academic and emotional needs thanks to their frustrations with reading — may be more specific to Bridge Prep.   

“We’ve gotten branded as the dyslexia school,” founder Timothy Castanza said. His hope, though, is that the school will be able to attract a mix of students. “Struggling with literacy in general, something that so many students do struggle with, means that you should come to this school.” 

While designing the school, Castanza traveled to Jacksonville, Florida, to visit a magnet school that almost exclusively serves students with language-based learning disabilities and to Pittsburgh to visit the Provident Charter School for Children with Dyslexia. 

Bridge Prep plans to use the Orton-Gillingham instructional approach, a popular method of teaching students who have trouble with reading, spelling, and writing. Each class will be 12 to 13 students so instructors can cater to children’s individual needs, Castanza said.

Timothy Castanza, Rose Kerr and Laura Timoney celebrate the approval of Bridge Prep.

The school also plans to use the “triad method,” designed by Rose Kerr, a former Staten Island principal. Instead of students leaving their classrooms to receive extra help, additional teaching assistants and literacy coaches will rotate through the classrooms (called triads) to help students, joining the assigned general education or special education teacher and any paraprofessionals mandated for students. 

The model is costly, and the five founders of Bridge Prep are continuing to search for additional outside funding — part of why the school’s planning process has taken several years. (GRASP Academy, the dyslexia-focused school in Jacksonville, spent about double what a typical elementary school in that district did in 2015, according to the Florida Times-Union, though per-student spending in Florida is generally far below that of New York.) 

The overarching goal, they say, is to help students at the start of their academic careers, putting them on the right track for later success.   

Opportunity Charter School, another charter school designed to serve mostly students with disabilities in Harlem, came under fire last year for not being able to meet its academic benchmarks. But Opportunity has operated as a middle school and high school, and its students enter having to catch up. Maggie Moroff, the special education policy coordinator at Advocates for Children of New York, said Bridge Prep’s decision to open an elementary school means it might avoid some of those issues. 

“It’s never too late to help a struggling reader learn to read, but it does get more difficult the longer the student is left without appropriate evidence-based interventions,” said Moroff.

It’s hard to know exactly how many students in Staten Island or New York City have dyslexia. The city’s annual special education report in 2016-17 said about 77,000 students have a learning disability. Of all students with disabilities enrolled in the city’s district schools, nearly 130,000 were receiving all of their recommended services, while almost 50,000 were denied some of the services that they were legally entitled to. 

In 2016, the city announced it would increasing the number of reading coaches in each school through a new Universal Literacy Program. That may be helping, Moroff said, but some students still find themselves without needed support.

“If kids didn’t have private attorneys, then what they ended up doing was just struggling in school and not getting the support they needed, falling farther and farther behind and getting a hodgepodge of services,” said Moroff. 

Ayelet Schwartz, a Staten Island mother whose daughter has dyslexia, saw that firsthand.

Despite having a diagnosis of her daughter’s condition, Schwartz said the teachers at her local district school didn’t take her seriously. So Schwartz sued the Department of Education to reimburse her for the cost of sending her daughter to a private school for students with language-based learning difficulties, two hours away. 

“I’ve heard kids say, ‘I’m so stupid, why can’t I read? I’m so mad at my brain!’” said Schwartz, whose daughter is now middle-school aged. “My daughter didn’t want to go to dance anymore, didn’t want to go to school. She would cry, throw her books, say ‘I’m an idiot,’ things like that. So it took a lot of work to undo all of that.”

Having a local school with experience helping students like her daughter like Bridge Prep would have saved her family from years of struggling, she said. “We didn’t have options,” said Schwartz. “If this school works, I’m all for it, because we need options here on Staten Island.”

How School Culture and Support Systems Can Improve Disciplinary Outcomes for Students with Disabilities: Mott Haven Academy Charter School Case Study

By Lauren Morando Rhim, Stephanie Lancet | March, 2018

CRPE contracted with the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools (NCSECS) to conduct case studies on school models and practices that effectively serve students with special needs. This brief highlights how a New York City charter school is using a positive, inclusive environment and restorative discipline practices to improve outcomes for students with disabilities.

About Mott Haven Academy and Its students

Mott Haven Academy is an independent charter public school in New York City serving pre-K through 6th grade. It is the first school in the nation designed explicitly to focus on the specific needs of children in the child welfare system; 49 percent of its students are in the foster care system or considered at risk of placement in foster care. Haven Academy provides wraparound services to its families through partnerships with several child welfare agencies and community-based organizations that provide housing, medical, and mental health supports.

What makes Haven Academy’s school culture and behavior supports work well for students with special needs?

Key aspects of the academy’s model include the following:

  • Admissions and enrollment processes proactively include and support student populations at risk of being marginalized, including students with disabilities.
  • Teachers and school leaders address behavior with methods tailored to individual students, which preemptively deter behavioral issues and incorporate opportunities for intentional reflection and growth.
  • The school culture and behavior supports are infused with social-emotional learning and address individual needs of students as shaped by their lives beyond the classroom.
  • Students learn in a restorative environment that is safe, stable, structured, and understanding, particularly benefiting students with disabilities by fostering full inclusion.

NCSECS researchers conducted document reviews of both publicly available and privately shared resources; interviewed school administrators, teachers and staff, students, and families; and observed educators and students in action. The case study reflects school information from the 2017-2018 school year.

To help students with disabilities transition to adulthood, New York City is opening new resource hubs in every borough

Deputy Chancellor Corinne Rello-Anselmi (left) launched a new transition center embedded in DeWitt Clinton High School. PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman

By Alex Zimmerman | December 7, 2017

For typical students, planning for life after high school is daunting — a blur of guidance counselors, college applications, or maybe a search for jobs or vocational programs.

But for families with special-needs students, the process is even more complex. To help ease the burden, schools are legally required to help craft plans for students with disabilities on how they will transition into adulthood. The plans can cover anything from the type of support services students might need to be successful in college to skills they should be taught in order to live independently.

It’s a tall order, and the city has previously been dinged for falling short. “Year after year, kids either didn’t have transition plans,” said Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children, “or they had transition plans that were meaningless.”

Now, the city has come up with a new way to improve this transition: The education department is gradually opening centers in every borough staffed with experts who can directly help students with disabilities plan for life after high school, while also training school personnel on how to guide families through the process.

To date, the city has launched two of the “Transition and College Access Centers”: One embedded at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx; the other at Boys and Girls High School in Brooklyn. Staten Island’s center is expected to open its doors this spring, while Queens and Manhattan centers scheduled to open by the end of next school year.

One focus will be on helping students with disabilities determine the best way to graduate high school. Among the available options is a special diploma that emphasizes job experience and technical education, which may be a better fit for students expecting to enter the workforce rather than attend college.

Another focus will be connecting students with job-skills programs, said Denise Mendez, director of the Bronx transition center that opened this week. Officials said the bulk of each center’s $2 million annual budget will go toward expanding paid work experiences for students. (Each center is expected to have six staff members.)

“In some ways it’s like building a resume,” said Corinne Rello-Anselmi, the education department official who oversees special education, adding that the centers could help find students find paid positions in city agencies or a local supermarket, depending on their qualifications. “If we get a kid through school and there’s nothing waiting for them, then we haven’t been successful.”

The centers will also serve as resources for schools. While each school is responsible for designating a “transition coordinator,” those individuals may not know all the programs available to students with disabilities or how to connect them with job opportunities, officials said.

Advocates said they are cautiously optimistic about the new centers, with the caveat that it will be important to track whether students ultimately have more meaningful experiences after they leave the system.

“It’s a big job,” said Moroff, the disability-policy expert. “This isn’t just about getting kids to graduation — it’s about what happens after graduation.”

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos urged by civil rights, education groups to reject N.Y. education plan

Seventeen education and civil rights groups penned a letter to U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos asking for her to “reject” New York State’s public education plan. (TED S. WARREN/AP)

By Ben Chapman | November 29, 2017

Seventeen of the nation’s most powerful civil rights and education groups called on U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to reject New York State’s public education plan because it shortchanges immigrants and students with disabilities.

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and 16 other groups, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Center for Learning Disabilities, signed a Wednesday letter to DeVos that urges the rejection of the state’s request for a waiver to ease testing requirements for students with disabilities and English Language Learners.

“If granted, these waivers would undermine students’ access to the general curriculum,” the letter states. “Thus, we urge you to reject New York’s requests.”

In a plan submitted to the U.S. Department of Education on Sept. 18, state Education Department officials asked DeVos to waive parts of the act that would require students with disabilities and English Language Learners to pass the same state reading and math exams that typical students take.

State Education Department spokeswoman Emily DeSantis said the plan, including the waiver request, was based on extensive public outreach.

“The plan we submitted to the USDE reflects the feedback we received on how best to achieve school improvement and prepare all students for success,” DeSantis said.

Reps for DeVos did not respond to a request for comment.

Special education’s hidden racial gap

Kenyatta Burn works with her tutor at the Durham Literacy Center on Thursday, Nov. 20, 2017, in Durham, N.C. Photo: AP Photo/Brian Blanco

By Emmanuel Felton | November 25, 2017

WASHINGTON — At the age of 3, Tyrone Colson was diagnosed with Prader-Willi syndrome, a genetic abnormality that is often accompanied by developmental disabilities. Because of this diagnosis, an individualized education plan (IEP) — documents detailing Colson’s special needs, and a plan for how his school would help him reach his potential — was already in place when Colson arrived for his first day of school.

In theory, being diagnosed before he even started school should have given Colson a leg up. The odds he faced, as a black boy in special education, were actually stacked against him.

“The services are out there, but a lot of times, parents of color just don’t have the information and resources they need to fight for them,” said Daisy Brown, Tyrone’s mother. Brown spent years pushing schools to follow the law, after giving up her job doing administrative support work for a government relations firm.

White students with special needs are far more likely to graduate with a traditional diploma than are their black and brown peers. In ways big and small, the effects of race and racism magnify the negative consequences that often come with being placed into special education. Not only are nonwhite students more likely to be assigned to lower-resourced schools that struggle to provide them with the services they are entitled to, but navigating the special education system often presents unique challenges for parents of color, experts say.

A Hechinger Report analysis of federal data exposes the stark racial gap between different groups of special education students. Nationally, 76 percent of white students in special education who exited high school in 2014-15 earned a traditional diploma. That falls to 65 percent for Hispanic students and 62 percent for black students with special needs. But those racial gaps are much wider in some states.

In Wisconsin, 84 percent of white students in special education who exited high school in 2014-15 earned a traditional diploma, while just 53 percent of black students and 71 percent Latino students with disabilities did so. In Nevada, which has some of the very worst outcomes in the country for students with disabilities, just 17 percent of black students and 27 percent of Latino students exited with a regular diploma. Nearly 40 percent of Nevada’s white students with special needs received a diploma.

In essence, a special education placement exacerbates racial inequalities seen throughout the education system. Experts say black and Latino parents often feel ignored and belittled at meetings with school officials, and their special-needs children are more likely to attend schools in high-poverty districts that lack the resources to provide them with the services they need to catch up.

Paul Morgan, an education professor at Pennsylvania State University, said that the economic disadvantage often faced by black and Latino special-needs children has been exacerbated by the way Congress funds special education. The federal government has failed to pay 40 percent of the “excess cost” of educating children with disabilities, a responsibility outlined in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The burden of making up for those unfunded expenses falls on schools, and particularly hard on the poorer school districts that disproportionately serve black and brown students.

But the problem runs much deeper than differences between school districts. In Washington, D.C., where there is just one school district, 77 percent of white students with special needs who exited during the 2014-15 school year left with a diploma, while just 57 percent of their black and Latino peers did.

In addition to being more likely to live in neighborhoods with better-resourced schools, white and affluent parents are also often better positioned to take advantage of federal disability law to get what they need for their children, said Morgan. “These services are often difficult to secure, they’re expensive and schools don’t necessarily want to provide them,” he said. “So it’s parents who are better-resourced, in terms of information and social networks and time, that are able to persist and go through the legal wrangling sometimes necessary to get what they need.”

Morgan’s research demonstrates that even when children in the same schools display the same needs, white English-speaking children are more likely to receive the services that they need to excel.

Even a well-informed parent like Daisy Brown, who spent hours on the Internet researching special education services after she became her ailing mother’s full-time caretaker, hit roadblocks when she tried to advocate for her son. In middle school, administrators wanted to cut back the number of hours of speech therapy Tyrone received from one and a half hours a week to half an hour per week. Brown was certain that her son would fall behind without those extra hours, so she used Tyrone’s health insurance, a Medicaid program for children with disabilities, to get him help from outside services. Brown picked him up every Thursday afternoon to go to a local hospital to get the additional therapy. For the next five years, Therapy Thursdays became a family tradition.

The next hurdle came while Colson was still in middle school, when Brown realized that he had been placed on what is called the certificate track, which meant he would graduate with a certificate of completion, an alternate diploma that is not recognized by most colleges and employers. That began a four-year-long fight to get him onto the diploma track. “I just wasn’t going to let them put him on the certificate track, where they just give them a piece of paper so they could work at a gas station,” said Brown.

Colson, who is on the autism spectrum, initially had trouble using and comprehending complex words, but thanks to the additional therapy he received, Brown felt he had made great strides. But school administrators ignored that progress, Brown said.

“He was smarter than anyone in the class. The teacher counted on him to help her with the other students,” Brown recalled. “I would just keep going in and telling them, ‘I think my son can be on the diploma track.’ But they put up brick walls.”

Around the country, black and Latino students are far more likely to be put on the track toward these alternative diplomas. During the 2014-15 school year, the most recent year of available federal data, more than 37,000 students with special needs graduated with a certificate instead of a diploma. And while black and Latino students made up just 45 percent of students who exited the special education system that year, they made up 57 percent of those who received a certificate. White students, on the other hand, were much more likely to leave high school with a traditional diploma.

Brown eventually used Tyrone’s insurance for a second evaluation, outside of the school. “The school’s evaluations will tell you that the school is giving the child exactly what they need,” said Brown. The outside evaluation convinced school administrators to retest Colson: This time, they found he was ready for the diploma track.

While district spokesperson Kristina Saccone declined to address the specifics of Colson’s case, citing federal student privacy laws, she said that the district is aware of these achievement gaps and is committed in its new strategy plan to addressing them. Among the plan’s strategic priorities is strengthening instruction for special education students.

“It’s really important to continue to look at the achievement gap; it’s a challenge for us and it’s something that we are working on,” said Saccone. “We just got a report from the American Institutes for Research, highlighting the progress the district has made, but also specifically focusing on the achievement gaps that remain particularly for students of color and special education students.”

Coleman became one of the students to narrow that gap. He eventually graduated with a traditional diploma, and is currently enrolled at the University of the District of Columbia. Brown’s voice fills with pride when she talks about how her son excelled once he was placed on the diploma track. “His transcript looks so beautiful it’s scary. It starts out with him on the certificate track in ninth grade, and then he moves over to the diploma track, and there isn’t a single C or D on that diploma-track work,” she said.

Brown is matter-of-fact when she talks about the sacrifice she had to make to ensure her son beat the odds, however. To help him succeed, she had to quit her own career. “I realize that if I didn’t leave the workforce my son wouldn’t be as far along as he is,” said Brown.

Not all students are as lucky. Kenyatta Burns’ story highlights what happens to the many black students in special education who don’t have a parent in their corner, let alone one who is willing and able to quit their job and devote themselves full time to advocating for their child. As a child, the now 20-year-old North Carolina native was in and out of foster care and often struggled with behavior problems. Eventually, she received a diagnosis of ADHD and bipolar disorder. The diagnoses should have triggered extra supports at school, but Burns said that much-needed help never materialized.

While Burns struggled at a Durham, North Carolina, elementary school, she says she began to catch up academically after she transferred to a middle school in nearby Raleigh. But her success was short-lived. She ended up back at Durham Public Schools in eighth grade. That year, the school didn’t ask her to take any end-of-course exams. Instead, she was put in a room to watch movies while other students took their tests. She was passed up to ninth grade anyway.

“When I got to high school, I crashed. I didn’t know what was going on,” she said. “I was screaming for help with work … I would just sit in the room and let the days go by.”

At the end of ninth grade, Burns’ mom gave her a choice: go to school full time or work full time. She picked working at a McDonald’s. Since making that decision, Burns has changed course, and is now pursuing a high school equivalency degree, with tutoring help from the Durham Literacy Center. When she started going to the center two years ago, she said, she didn’t even know how to multiply whole numbers. She added she’s learned a lot — including how inadequately the public schools prepared her.
“Now I thank God, I didn’t let them skip me up. I would have had a high school diploma, [but] would have never known how to … use my commas, put in periods, capitalize words,” she said.

The tutors at the literacy center work with Burns one-on-one and are patient when she doesn’t understand something. “That’s what I wish I would have had in high school,” she said.

“An IEP doesn’t mean that you’re slow, it just means you have a hard time learning things,” she added, referring to an Individualized Education Program, a set of documents, services and supports given to all students in special education.
So far, Burns has passed the language arts portion of the high school equivalency exam and is hoping to go into real estate when she finishes the other sections.

Chip Sudderth, chief communications officer at Durham Public Schools, confirmed in an email that Burns had been a student in the system. Sudderth said that the majority of students receiving special education services are on track to receive a regular diploma and spend the bulk of their time in classrooms with their general education peers. The unique needs of each student are determined by a team of educators, the parents and sometimes the student.

To help students with physical disabilities navigate a maze of barriers, NYC releases new reports on high school accessibility

Midwood High School is considered inaccessible to students with physical disabilities. PHOTO: Cassi Feldman

When Michelle Noris helped her son apply to public high schools, she knew the city’s directory would not be much use.

Since her son, Abraham, uses a wheelchair and the city’s official list of over 400 high schools contains little information about physical infrastructure, Noris knew she’d have to make phone calls and set up visits to find out whether cafeterias, auditoriums, and even front entrances could accommodate a wheelchair.

“I spent hours and hours on that,” said Noris, a former member of the Citywide Council on Special Education. “It felt like I shouldn’t have to do this.”

Now, after lobbying from Noris and other advocates, the city is starting to release more detailed information about how accommodating its high schools are for students with disabilities — an effort to reduce the burden on those students and their families to figure it out for themselves. 

New online profiles indicate whether school bathrooms, gymnasiums, classrooms, libraries, hallways and other spaces are completely accessible on each floor, and if not, what barriers might be present.

They are meant to correct a major challenge for families seeking accessibility information about New York City’s high schools: 62 percent are deemed “partially accessible,” an ambiguous term that is supposed to mean students with disabilities can access “relevant programs,” but in practice gives little sense of the scope of accessibility issues. Just 13 percent of high school buildings are fully accessible, according to 2016 data.

A partially accessible school might have a ramp, but it’s connected to a service entrance designed to transport garbage rather than wheelchairs. A school could have an accessible bathroom, but it’s on the second floor. An auditorium might accommodate a wheelchair, but provide no access to the stage.

In recent months, the education department has posted on its website new “Building Accessibility Profiles” that offer such granular, crucial details — based on a 58-question survey conducted by department employees.

One Upper Manhattan school building, which houses New Design Middle School and two KIPP charter schools, earned one of the highest possible accessibility ratings. But its profile notes that the bathrooms might not be maneuverable; some stalls are missing grab bars; there is no braille signage throughout the building; and some of its hallway doors may be too heavy for students with limited upper body strength. (The reports do not differentiate between schools that share buildings, a concern among some advocates because students at each school may have different accessibility needs.)

For now, the profiles only exist for high school buildings in Manhattan, Staten Island and the Bronx, putting the city behind on its original schedule to have every high school profile available in time for this year’s application season. City officials said they plan to complete profiles for all partially accessible high schools by January, but could not offer a timeline for middle or elementary schools. (The decision to release more high school accessibility data comes almost two years after a scathing U.S. Department of Justice investigation revealed “inexcusable” accessibility problems in elementary schools.)

Experts largely praised the city for beginning to make the high school choice process less onerous for students with disabilities by offering them more information about physical accessibility.

But some also pointed out that the information is difficult to find. The city’s official high school directory only says whether schools are “accessible” or “not accessible,” a potentially misleading indicator given that most schools fall somewhere in between. And the city’s “School Finder” site, essentially a digital version of the directory, does not link to the new accessibility data, though a spokesman said that information will be included in future updates.

“This is all really, really valuable information,” said Maggie Moroff, a special education policy expert at Advocates for Children. “But if families don’t have a way of getting to it easily, it doesn’t do them a whole lot of good.”

The easiest way to get to the information is on the city’s Office of Space Planning website, which lists each school’s accessibility profile.

Still, there are significant upsides to the new data — and not just for parents.

More detailed information about building infrastructure could help the city better-allocate capital funding to schools that might only need modest improvements to become significantly more accessible, Moroff said. The city’s current five-year capital plan includes $100 million for such improvements.

“We work diligently with families and school communities to ensure every student has a seat at a school that meets their accessibility needs,” said education department spokesman Michael Aciman.

While Noris, the parent and disability advocate, said she would have loved the additional information when she was searching for a high school for her son, she’s glad her advocacy paid off. She used to carry around mock surveys to show city officials what kinds of information would have helped her, and even used the surveys to rate a few schools, partly to show that useful information about buildings could be extracted in under an hour.

So when Noris saw the data appear on the city’s website, she couldn’t help but feel like she played a role.

“My first reaction was, ‘Oh, they listened to me,’” she said. “I was very pleased.”

By Alex Zimmerman

New York City says testing waiver sought by state could lower standards for students with disabilities

New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña and State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia at Thomas A. Edison Career and Technical Education High School. PHOTO: Monica Disare

New York State wants to allow some students with disabilities to take below-grade-level exams — a plan that special-education advocates opposed and New York City officials questioned, arguing that would lower the standards for those students.

The state asked the federal education department in September for permission to give students with significant cognitive disabilities tests matched to their instructional level, rather than their age. State education department officials say this will provide schools with more useful information about what students have actually learned, while other supporters say it will spare those students from taking tests they have no chance of passing.

But New York City’s education department — which oversees half the state’s students — has raised concerns about the state’s request, while a coalition of 15 national special-education advocacy groups has urged U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to deny it. They argue that testing students below grade level would violate federal law, while city officials say that doing so would lower expectations of students with serious disabilities.

Maggie Moroff, a special-education policy expert at Advocates for Children, a New York City-based group that opposes the waiver, said she recognizes how frustrating it can be for students with disabilities to sit for exams they find extremely difficult and are unlikely to pass.

Nonetheless, “the waiver would give schools the opportunity to lower standards for students with disabilities,” she said, “instead of rising to the occasion.”

New York state submitted its testing waiver as part of a plan required under the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act. The request said that students may only be given a test written for younger students if they scored at the lowest level on the state exam or took an alternative test for students with severe disabilities in a previous year, are not qualified to take that alternative test in the current year, and have significant cognitive disabilities that affect their memory, language comprehension, or problem solving.

State officials said they expect only a small number of students would meet those criteria. Students would not be permitted to test more than two grade levels below their age, and students in grades 6-8 would have to take a test each year that is one grade above the one they took the previous year.

In their letter to DeVos, which was first reported by Education Week, the national Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities laid out several objections to New York’s waiver request. In addition to saying it violated the legal requirement that most students be tested at grade level, they said it would discriminate against students with disabilities and hide the achievement level of those students.

Meanwhile, the New York City education department also penned a letter to the state citing concerns about the proposal.

On a practical level, they said the student eligibility requirements were to left “many questions that need to be answered.” Disability advocates share this concern, saying that vague rules could allow districts to give below-grade-level tests to many students who don’t require them — reversing a yearslong effort by advocates to have students with disabilities take the same tests as their general-education peers.

The city also argued that the waiver risked lowering expectations of students with disabilities.

“It has been our experience that once we make a decision that a student is not able to take grade-level assessments, the likelihood of them being able to meet standards over time is significantly decreased,” said the city letter, which was signed by Sharon Rencher, senior advisor to the schools chancellor.

The state’s proposal has garnered some support, including from statewide associations of local school boards and superintendents. In all, 14 of 20 public comments submitted to the state were in “general support” of the waiver, according to the state education department.

Bob Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents, said he understands the importance of holding students with disabilities to high standards, but ultimately felt that forcing some students to take grade-level tests can do more harm than good.

“We just felt it was unfair to many of the kids,” he said. “They don’t have a realistic prospect of success and it’s just frustrating or discouraging for them.”

There is no guarantee that the federal education department will grant the waiver. The department rejected a similar request by New York in 2015. However, some observers think the state may stand a better chance under DeVos, who has emphasized the importance of letting states and districts make their own policy decisions.

A New York education department spokeswoman said districts would not be able to use the waiver to boost their accountability ratings because any student who takes a test below their grade level would automatically fall into the lowest score category.

“This waiver is simply designed to give a small group of students an assessment on which they may be able to demonstrate that which they do know,” said the spokeswoman, Emily DeSantis, “instead of giving them an assessment on which their result is likely to depend entirely on how well they guessed on the multiple choice questions.”

A spokeswoman for the city education department said it does not oppose the waiver request, but believes it presents challenges and questions that the city raised in a letter to the state.

“We remain committed to ensuring that all students are given every opportunity to access grade-level curriculum and assessments in order to ultimately earn their high school diploma and access all of the post-secondary options that this affords,” said the spokeswoman, Toya Holness.

By Monica Disare

A charter school models how the city can educate autistic children

The New York City Autism Charter School is, by its very existence, challenging the way both the city’s charter and district schools educate students with profound special needs.

The school — which opened its second location in the South Bronx this fall for 12 children with moderate to severe autism — belies a common critique, true or not, that charters don’t use their flexibility to serve kids who need the most help; an argument often parroted by Mayor Bill de Blasio and United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew, among many others. 

The Autism Charter also offers a broad challenge to the way autism education is funded at the local, state and federal level. The school, which has won praise from experts on all sides of the charter debate, demonstrates how children with the most severe needs can be educated in a public setting, rather than in the private schools where many affluent parents manage to send their children with disabilities. And as the rates of autism diagnoses rise dramatically, the school could have influence far beyond the 44 students it serves at its East Harlem and Bronx outposts. 

Though the school’s mission puts pressure on the rest of the charter sector, the Autism Charter is as apolitical as any charter in New York City. 

Unlike many of its peers among the city’s charter sector, the school doesn’t participate in pro-charter rallies, marches or press conferences. School leaders’ interaction with the press has been mostly limited to Paperless Post invitations the school’s annual piano recital and “baseball extravaganza.”

On a recent morning at the Bronx school, the Autism Charter’s director, Julie Fisher, said she’s content to stay out of the volatile world of education politics. 

“I came at this as an autism educator and that’s very much how I have always identified myself,” Fisher, who refers to her students as “kiddos,” said. “Incorporating ‘charter leader’ into my identity has been a gradual process, but an amazing one. I’ve learned so much from my brilliant charter colleagues, but I can’t really turn to the charter sector to learn what’s cutting edge for kids with autism.”

The school stands apart from the city’s district and charter programs for autistic children for the staff’s level of specific expertise in autism, and for the school’s practice of matching every student with their own teacher or paraprofessional. Even the most specialized public settings typically have two teachers for every six students.

A unique model 

At the Autism Charter’s Bronx outpost, a set of locked double doors on the second floor of a hulking brown school building opens to a pristine, bright hallway where children zip up and down on colorful scooters. On their scooters, kids learn to respond to “stop” and “go,” practice their balance and blow off some steam.

In Fox Street, a classroom named for the school’s block, one boy who had spent the first few weeks of school swatting at his teacher was being cuddled and tickled by his teacher. A girl who has not demonstrated a grasp of language was at the other end of the room, playing a game called Seek-A-Boo to help her match symbols to activities, in order to develop a daily schedule. 

A sign outside the classroom reads, “Fox Street students are working on making requests to gain access to people and things in their environment and completing a number of self-care skills that are critical for their increased independence.”

In the Simpson Boulevard classroom, where students with the more moderate needs were working on math problems, one boy explained that he was going on a field trip to the Bronx Botanical Garden later that week. He said he was looking forward to seeing the Venus flytrap, his favorite plant, using his fingers to imitate the motion the carnivorous plant makes when it traps a bug. Officials said that student may make enough social and academic progress this year to be integrated into some general education classes at South Bronx Classical Charter School, which shares a building with the Autism Charter.

Throughout the day, students filter out of their classrooms for a lesson at the school’s weathered piano. Children match piano keys to letters or colors to build songs. Every student has customized piano instruction, but three-note songs like “Hot Cross Buns” are popular. 

“If they recognize a tune, they’re happy,” said Eileen Buck, the school’s piano teacher. Framed photos of the Center’s students crowd the piano’s mantle.

Fisher’s school could likely only exist as a charter, outside the bureaucratic strictures of traditional public schools where teachers are free to adapt to a child’s specific needs in real time. 

Dr. Catherine Lord, the director of the Center for Autism and the Developing Brain at Weill Cornell Medicine/NewYork-Presbyterian, offered an example. She’s worked with staff who were under strict instructions to never touch a child — so when they once saw a young child with autism walk out a front door, they were initially hesitant physically stop the child from wandering. 

“It was ridiculous,” Lord said. “You just have to have some flexibility.”

“This is an art, it’s not just a science,” said Ilene Lainer, the president of the advocacy group NEXT for Autism which creates services and programs for people with autism.

“This work really requires professionals who understand the differences between one child with autism from another,” said Lainer, also a member of the Autism Charter’s board. 

A charter evolution 

While the autism charter expands what the charter model can do for high-needs students, its growth also sheds light on what the rest of the local charter sector is — and isn’t — doing for the city’s most vulnerable children.

The charter sector’s political foes have long accused the schools of not serving students with disabilities, an accusation often contradicted by statistics. Still, there is growing concern within charter movement that charters aren’t taking advantage of their inherent freedom by serving more high-risk students.

“Charter management organizations in New York City have led the charge in improving outcomes for low-income students, but they have not yet done the same for students with [disabilities]. They should,” Noah Mackert, the literacy director at the charter network, Democracy Prep, wrote last week in an op-ed for The 74, an education news outlet. 

Some of the city’s biggest networks have recently introduced pilot programs aimed at addressing the issue. 

This fall, Achievement First, which has 20 schools in Brooklyn, opened the Bushwick Empower Program specifically to serve students with disabilities, including children on the autism spectrum. Democracy Prep recently opened Pathways, its program for low-income students with disabilities, which currently serves 32 students. KIPP NYC has added new supports for special education students, including hiring more special education certified teachers and more training for teachers to work with students with special needs. 

Success Academy, the city’s largest charter network, includes its students with autism both in integrated general education classes and in small class settings with 12 students and two certified special education teachers and has increased the number of small classes for students with disabilities. The New York City Charter School Center has also developed the Special Education Consortium to help more charters educate students with special needs. 

But much of this work is still preliminary, and the Autism Charter remains the city’s sole charter option for students who are the most profoundly affected by autism.

A growing need

The sheer scale of need for high-quality public options for autistic children has left the Department of Education scrambling to open new programs.

Last year, there were 20,450 students in New York City on the autism spectrum; 17,015 were educated in a district or charter school. The majority of those students — about 11,000 — are educated in District 75 schools, the city’s district for students with the most advanced special needs. Autism experts say there are high-quality District 75 options, but that some programs serve students with a variety of disabilities, rather than autism specifically, and that programs’ structures can be restrictive for some teachers.

City schools chancellor Carmen Fariña has embraced and expanded a popular program known as ASD Nest, which embeds about 1,000 high-functioning students with autism into general education classrooms. ASD Horizon, which serves students further along on the autism spectrum, serves about 450 students. Horizon programs typically have eight students and two teachers, and some Horizon students are eventually able to move into general education classrooms.

But the size of the Autism Charter’s waitlist makes it clear that some parents of children most impacted by autism are looking for programs outside the district. The Charter’s East Harlem school, which serves 32 students, has a waitlist of 108 families for three open spots.

The school’s popularity and model has proved popular among a wide variety of the city’s education leaders and politicians, some of whom are otherwise critical of charters. City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito has visited the Autism Charter’s East Harlem school, which is in the Council district she represents.

“All students — especially the most vulnerable — deserve access to quality education, and the New York City Autism Charter has been a welcome addition to the El Barrio/East Harlem neighborhood,” Mark-Viverito said. 

The de Blasio administration, which has sought to repair its relationship with some charter leaders after a damaging fight over charter space in 2014, has identified the Autism Charter as a prime example of the type of charter school it supports.

“The New York City Autism Charter School has done incredible work on behalf of their students and families and we look forward to finding new ways for us to collaborate and share best practices with their schools and staff,” Melissa Harris, the senior executive director for the Department of Education’s charter school office, said.

Dorothy Siegel, the creator of the Nest program and a well-regarded voice in the city’s special education community, said she “loves the school.”

“I’m a big fan of their expansion, and it says something that they went to the South Bronx and not Riverdale or Park Slope,” she said. “We need to put services where the children are most in need and least likely to get them.”

Other autism experts say they’ve been impressed with the Autism Charter’s ability to educate children with profound needs so well in a public school.

“The more of these schools that could exist in a public school setting, the more money the taxpayer would save,” said Lord, of the Center for Autism and the Developing Brain, rather than paying for students with the most serious needs to attend private schools, she said. The schools’ students will likely need fewer public services, including hospital visits, later in life.

Lainer, of NEXT for Autism, said, “we believe we can do better as a society to support people with autism, and public education is no different — we can be doing better.” The school, she said, “has helped raise the bar.”

Students on either side of the autism spectrum are better represented than they were even a few years ago, experts say, with the expansion of Nest and the Autism Charter. But students in the middle still need more high-quality seats, Lord said.

“Autism is such a heterogeneous condition,” she said. “We need something for everybody.”

Bermudez: At NY Autism Charter School, Classroom Learning Is Just the Start

The NYC Autism Charter School might be the only public school in the city to set up shop in children’s homes.

Teachers visit families to help students potty-train, eat more than one food, or take vacations — seemingly simple tasks that can be incredibly challenging for children with autism.

For Carol Santiago, putting her then-5-year-old son Ralphie to bed was a two- or three-hour ordeal every night.

First, she and her husband read a story to Ralphie, then sang a song, reread the same story, and sang a different song. Repeat. If they did not follow the routine as Ralphie prescribed, he refused to fall asleep in his bed. The late nights took a toll. Midnight passed, Ralphie was still awake, and the couple dreaded the exhaustion they would both feel at work the next morning.

The couple rang the school, located in East Harlem, where Ralphie had enrolled only months before.

“They came to our home and set up his bedroom in a way that would give him reminders of what he needed to do and the fact that this was his bedroom and he was going to sleep in it,” says Santiago. “I had the teacher’s cell phone number, where she invited me to call her whether it was 2 or 3 in the morning.”

Not long after, Ralphie started going to sleep easily in his room.

Eleven years later, Santiago, the school’s board president, credits the school with helping to raise Ralphie, now 16, who is still enrolled there.

“It’s like a second home for my son,” she says.

With 32 students and 28 full-time classroom instructional staff, the school operates year-round, save for a two-week break in August. Five of the eight classrooms have just four students, one certified special education teacher with a master’s degree, and three instructors. The school’s least restrictive classroom — four students, one certified teacher, and one instructor — is reserved for older students who are able to benefit from group instruction for most of their day.

The home visits are part of the school’s holistic, individualized approach to autism. The school collaborates with parents to figure out what is best for their children, because if a child is doing well at home, he or she is going to do better at school.

A sense of urgency is also a driving force. Students age out at 21, so there is a race against the clock to prepare students to live as independently as they can. Equipping children and parents with the skills needed to go about daily life means pushing students to break their repetitive behaviors and adjust to situations they find uncomfortable, says executive director Julie Fisher.

“Can you tolerate getting a haircut? Getting your teeth cleaned? Waiting in line at the supermarket?” she says. “These are all things that can be huge challenges for families. We work on these skills here at school and then help generalize them to the home and community.”

Once a month, the school holds clinics with parents to discuss students’ academic and social progress as well as future goals. The clinics sometimes include on-the-spot training — for example, showing parents how to get their children to stay with them while walking. The clinics inform home visits, shape what children do in class, and dispense practical advice that parents rarely get elsewhere.

“Our level of involvement and discussion and dialogue and feedback with parents means that they are aware of everything that’s going on,” says Fisher.

It was through one of the clinics that the school learned of Ralphie’s fear of all things automatic. He was 10 at the time.

“He was terrified of automatic flushing toilets, paper towels, everything,” says Santiago. “We had gone out to visit family near the King of Prussia Mall, in Pennsylvania, and that was a disaster.”

Routine excursions with Ralphie became trying. He threw tantrums, ran away and talked to strangers, or touched items that did not belong to him.

So the school stepped in.

“His teacher scouted out automatic flush toilets in the vicinity, we had his mom come, and we did a day of traveling into the community to teach him to tolerate the flushing. His teacher developed a special reinforcement system, carried it over to mom, and now it’s not an issue,” says Fisher.

The school deals even with delicate matters, such as how to use a restroom independently, brush teeth, or shave, because avoiding them, Fisher says, is not in students’ best long-term interests.

“When I hear stories of teenagers with autism coming out of high school in diapers, it makes me so sad,” she says.

Because the school is small, staff members can immerse themselves in the lives of students and their families. It does not use outside providers, such as speech or occupational therapists, because the teachers are able to address needs within these areas using intensive applied behavior analysis instruction, which is unusual among public schools in the city. All staff members are trained in this method, in which tasks are broken down into small parts and taught systematically using reinforcement to reward success.

Every year, students are formally assessed on language, communication, and social skills. The school tries to transition students into less restrictive environments if their progress shows they can succeed in larger classes — sometimes even helping them transition to schools that aren’t focused on autism.

Catherine Lord, director of the Center for Autism and the Developing Brain at New York Presbyterian Hospital, Weill Cornell Medical College, and Columbia University Medical Center, praises the school for its balance of academics and life-skills training.

“I think they work very hard not just to be empirically based, but also to remember that all of learning is not just documenting, but it’s what you do with the children,” she says. “The atmosphere in the charter school is amazing in terms of being a positive place for learning.”

According to a report from the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute, young adults with autism are more likely to be unemployed and socially isolated than people with other disabilities. Two-thirds had no job or educational prospects two years after high school.

Schools err in not having students venture out to gain real-world experiences to prepare them for adulthood, says Moira Cray, the school’s director of transition and community outreach. “School’s about learning how to do life after school — for all of us,” she says. “If we’re teaching students to shop, it makes sense to teach that at the supermarket.”

At 16, the school’s students start working in jobs or internships at places including White Castle, Shake Shack, Facebook, and the local nonprofit DREAM (formerly Harlem RBI).

Word of mouth, Cray says, has paved the path for additional job opportunities for students.

“Once when we get into a site, people are so blown away by how much our students can do that they get excited,” she says. “The employees are going home and talking to their friends and family, and it snowballs that way.”

By teaching students to be self-sufficient, and allowing them to interact with the local community, the school increases the chances that children with autism can forge lives beyond the classroom. And, because the school’s students do not age out at 18, as kids at traditional public schools do, they get three additional years of education and job experience, increasing their likelihood of success.

Ralphie arrived at the school lacking functional language skills, unable to use words to express his needs and wants. Today, he speaks well and is easily understood by others. He uses public transit by himself and has held four jobs and internships. His facility with technology got him internships doing office work and data entry at El Museo del Barrio and DREAM.

“When it comes to autism, I know what the school gets right is that they understand that it’s not just about what happens at school,” Santiago says. “It’s about what happens at home and in the community.”

By Caroline Bermudez

Special Ed Kids Deserve a First-Class Education. Top Charter Networks Must Give It to Them

Charter management organizations have revolutionized education in New York City. Will they do the same for special education?

In New York City, charter management organizations like KIPP, Uncommon Schools, Achievement First, Democracy Prep, and Success Academy have raised the bar for public schools in low-income communities. Each of these organizations was founded to address the gap in college access between students of privilege and students without, and although the job is not finished, I am convinced that they have done more to narrow it than any other policy intervention.

Whatever one believes about their overall mission — or the flavor of their instructional methods — it is undeniable that, by attending one of these schools, the average child from a working-class family in Harlem has a significantly better chance of finishing college and entering the middle class than he or she would at a non-charter alternative.

But what about the child who is not “average”? There is some evidence that students who have been assigned Individualized Education Plans in response to being diagnosed with a disability learn more and are more likely to be declassified as special-needs at the most effective charters. Yet it is no secret that students with special needs do not graduate from these schools in representative numbers.

While many schools in these networks take in roughly the same number of students with IEPs as traditional public schools, their attrition rates can be high. Critics of charters assert that this is by design; students with IEPs, they say, lower the school’s test scores, so they are expelled, repeatedly suspended, or “counseled out.” The truth, in my experience, is that even the best schools, charter or not, struggle to build the right support systems for students with special needs, and parents transfer them often in search of a good fit.

Here’s how it happens. A few years ago, a student I’ll call Del won a spot at Democracy Prep, the Harlem-based charter management organization where I work. I taught seventh-grade writing at the time, and I remember him in class: quiet, kind, insightful. But rarely there. I didn’t see him for the first two weeks of school, and when he did start coming, he was usually late.

Del lived in the Bronx, at the end of a subway line, and the trip to Harlem was long. But many other students had similar commutes, and they arrived on time. In talking with his mother, we sensed that the problem for Del was not logistic; it was emotional. “Sometimes I can’t get him out of bed,” his mother told us. “He just doesn’t want to go to school.”

Experienced teachers won’t be surprised by the reason. One day I asked him to stay after school for a quick diagnostic test, and I learned that it wasn’t just that he had trouble understanding what he read; he couldn’t sound out the words. Most children learn how to do this naturally, just by reading, but some don’t. Some are dyslexic. These children need more explicit instruction in phonological awareness, or phonics, and if it is done early, in first and second grade, and followed up with accommodations like books on tape and extra time to finish assignments, they can thrive.

Del, unfortunately, had already spent more than seven years in school, learning little and hiding his reading difficulties as best he could. This caused two problems. The first was that middle school teachers in city schools, even special education teachers, often do not know how to teach such basic reading skills, so it was not clear who would be able to teach Del phonics. The second problem was that, after seven years of failure, Del’s confidence was badly damaged, he loathed coming to school, and he was rightly skeptical that we could help him.

After our meeting, I told Del that I would teach him how to read if he could just stay after school for 30 minutes each day. This would be in addition to my full load of teaching writing to 120 seventh-graders, but I didn’t know how else to solve the problem. He agreed, but he didn’t come to school the next day. Or the day after. For the rest of the month, he showed up so infrequently that it was difficult to get a program going.

Phonics instruction, especially for older students, requires a lot of practice and repetition for it to work, and Del was receiving it so infrequently that I kept having to review the first lessons. By the end of the semester, he was failing every class, and by December his mother had transferred him back to his neighborhood public school.

We had not counseled him out, but we knew we had failed him. It was not a failure of will or energy; it was a systems failure. I believe that if we had diagnosed him earlier, and taught him what he needed earlier, while more directly addressing the trauma caused by seven years of failure, taking deliberate steps to make sure he felt part of the community, he would not have transferred.

Dyslexia is the most common form of learning disability; by some measures, it affects 1 in 5 children. Yet few NYC schools, charter or not, even screen for it, and even fewer intervene effectively. The same can be said about less common disabilities such as expressive and receptive language disorders, dysgraphia, autism, and intellectual disability.

Fortunately, some charters are beginning to innovate. Both Achievement First and KIPP have begun pilot programs for students with disabilities. In 2015, Duncan Scherer, whose brother was born with profound disabilities, founded a program at Democracy Prep called Pathways. He designed it with students like Del in mind, students who he knew could succeed at our schools, rigorous as they are, with the right academic and emotional supports.

I joined in this effort as director of the literacy program. One of our initiatives was very simple: screen our students for dyslexia — a term that, until recent legislation, did not even appear on IEPs in New York City, having been struck from the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the DSM-5 — and teach phonics to those who needed it. Last year, our students improved an average of two grade levels on the widely used Measures of Academic Progress assessment, an adaptive test that can show growth happening even if it’s far below grade level. This year, we are scaling up the practice to all Democracy Prep’s NYC-based schools — elementary, middle, and high.

Improving our instruction for dyslexic students is just a first step. Parents of all students with special needs should be able to see their children graduate from high school — and a postsecondary institution of their choice — without having to win a voucher or file a lawsuit. Charter management organizations in New York City have led the charge in improving outcomes for low-income students, but they have not yet done the same for students with IEPs. They should. Not because it will raise their test scores, or improve their graduation rates, or lower their suspension rates, or improve their public image — though it will do all those things — but for a simpler reason, one that predates charter schools and transcends politics.

It’s the right thing to do.

By Noah Mackert