being heard

Ahead of special ed hearing, advocates say many concerns need airing

Last May, Gloria Corsino was enlisted by a Spanish-speaking mother who needed help finding an occupational therapist for her son. Faced with an English-only list of therapists to call after his school couldn’t provide the services for her son’s disability, the mother was stumped.

Language wasn’t the only barrier that Corsino, president of the Citywide Education Council for District 75, found when she started calling.

“There was no provider who could take the child on,” Corsino recalled, noting that she dialed up more than 20 private therapists, all of whom told her they were no longer working with the Department of Education and could not help.

Corsino is among the many advocates ready to air their concerns at a special education hearing on Tuesday, which is being convened by the City Council’s education committee and is expected to touch on issues of equity, class sizes, and how best to improve instruction for students with disabilities.

To some, the hearing will be a chance to raise issues about the inequities that were revealed in data provided to Chalkbeat by the Department of Education showing that students living in some poorer and more far-flung neighborhoods received one category of required services less often than other city students.

“It’s unacceptable,” said former high school teacher Mark Treyger, now a City Council member representing Coney Island, where those services weren’t being delivered 2.5 times more often than the citywide average. “This data validates that the ‘outer’ outer boroughs don’t always get their fair share.”

Treyger is one of 13 elected officials sponsoring a bill that will also be up for discussion at the hearing. The legislation would force the city to annually release information about how often it is not meeting the requirements of students’ personalized learning plans.

The City Council doesn’t have the power to force the city to change its policies, but officials said they crafted the bill to mimic legislation that has required the city to reveal more school-discipline data — information that advocates believe has helped reduce suspension rates as the city worked to lower those figures.

“A big part of it is shedding a light on this so we can get to the bottom of this,” said Daniel Dromm, who chairs the education committee. “They’re doing some things that we’re happy about, but I think more needs to be done.”

Corsino’s testimony will focus on a dearth of therapists who can provide “related services,” the type of special-education support that includes physical therapy, counseling, and help for sight or hearing problems. Chalkbeat found that more than 15,000 different services went unprovided at the end of the last school year — about 6 percent of all mandated services. That figure is down 15 percent since 2010, though the numbers have crept up in some neighborhoods, especially in the Bronx.

“These services are a necessary thing to make our students much more functional,” said Corsino, a parent of two high school-aged sons with autism-spectrum disorders. “When you don’t receive those services, you aren’t going to get the outcomes that you could be getting.”

Also under a microscope will be the city’s broader special education reform effort, which has incentivized schools to serve special-needs students whom they might have referred elsewhere in the past. The changes are broad in scope: Nearly one in five city students is classified as having special needs, and over the last two years, the share of those recommended to receive only part-time support has jumped 10 percentage points.

Last fall, the teachers union received 151 complaints from teachers related to special education, a 60 percent increase over the same period a year before. The complaints, first reported by Chalkbeat, reflect the new demands that have been placed on schools by the overhaul.

Karen Sprowal, a parent advocate whose special-needs son is in sixth grade, said that she plans to lobby the education committee to seek more funding in the city’s capital budget for schools to reduce class sizes and hire more staff to help schools with the new guidelines.

Others see the hearing as an opportunity to get beyond the questions of legal mandates and ask questions about what those students with disabilities are learning.

Kim Sweet, executive director of Advocates for Children of New York, is waiting to hear about how the department can help schools lift academic achievement for students with disabilities. Just 6 percent of those students hit the state’s proficiency standard on its English and math exams in the 2012-13 school year, compared to 35 percent of students without disabilities.

“It’s really time to focus on preparing these schools pedagogically to meet the needs of a wider range of students,” Sweet said.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”