Report shows growing special ed challenge

report-shows-growing-special-ed-challenge
Lockers at a New York high school. (Clemens V. Volgelsang)
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The Department of Education faces a daunting challenge in accommodating a large and growing population of special needs students, statistics in an Independent Budget Office report released Tuesday revealed.

The report found there were 183,850 special education students, constituting 18.1 percent of the total student population in D.O.E. public schools during the 2012-13 academic year, the most recent year for which data is available.

The percentage of special education students has risen every year since 2009, when the I.B.O. started collecting information on public school demographics.

In the 2009-10 academic year, special education students made up 12.7 percent of the total population; in 2010-11, 16.9 percent; and in 2011-12, 17.0 percent. (The I.B.O. noted that the data for the 2009-10 report, provided by the D.O.E., was inconsistent with subsequent years, and that they could not vouch for it, though it is still posted on their website. On Tuesday, a D.O.E. spokesman provided Capital with statistics showing special needs students accounted for 17 percent of the total student population in 2009-2010.)

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“These numbers remind us that students with special needs are not a minor sub-population,” said Kim Sweet, the executive director of Advocates For Children. “In fact, they’re a significant segment of the student body in New York City that we need to focus on educating well.”

Sweet and other special education advocates Capital spoke with say the growing population of special needs students is in line with what they’ve been seeing for years. The growth is partially accounted for by the increased number of children who are diagnosed with conditions such as autism and Asperger syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder.

According to the report, 5.9 percent of special education students in the 2012-2013 academic year were autistic and 83 percent of the autistic students were male.

The D.O.E.’s protocols for accommodating autistic students have been harshly scrutinized this year, after the death of 14-year-old autistic student Avonte Oquendo.

Advocates say the D.O.E. must find innovative ways to help special needs students who are struggling with the new Common Core standards, and new avenues to bolster training for general and special education classroom teachers while so much energy is being directed towards rolling out expanded pre-K this fall.

The department must “look how students are placed in schools, how teachers are prepared to work with them, think about how we work with their parents, how we use technology to make curricula more accessible and how we delineate specialized instruction in an inclusive setting,” Sweet said.

“All students with or without a disability deserve a high quality education, and the D.O.E. is committed to expanding services, providing support to individual schools, and increasing professional development and training opportunities for teachers, so that all our students can succeed academically,” said Marcus Liem, a D.O.E. spokesman.

The D.O.E. spent $1.6 billion on special education instruction in 2012-13, according to the I.B.O. report, more than in any of the previous three academic years: $1.26 billion in 2009-10; $1.3 billion in 2010-11; and $1.5 billion in 2011-12.

The I.B.O. report also included, for the first time, a breakdown of how many students have particular disabilities, and showed how pervasive instruction in self-contained classrooms is, despite a recent effort to integrate special needs students into general education classrooms. Federal law mandates that special needs students be educated in the “least restrictive” environment possible, which generally means that children are supposed to be placed in general education whenever possible.

But nearly half—48.2 percent—of all students classified as being emotionally disturbed were taught in so-called 12:1:1 self-contained classrooms with twelve students, one teacher and one paraprofessional in 2012-2013, meaning they are taught alongside children with a variety of special needs. And 76.5 percent of all students classified as having an intellectual disability were in 12:1:1 classrooms.