New data shows obstacles for city’s special education population

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Bill de Blasio, with Chancellor Carmen Fariña, First Lady Chirlane McCray and Queens Borough President Melinda Katz. (Rob Bennett/Mayoral Photography Office)
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A first-of-its kind report on the state of New York City's special education population highlights twin obstacles for the Department of Education: a large, diverse and growing group of students with special needs, and a fundamentally flawed data system to track those students.

The DOE released its largest data set on students with special needs on Tuesday, but officials warned the data was at best incomplete and at worst unreliable because of problems with the department's much-maligned special education data tracking system, the Special Education Student Information System, also known as SESIS.  

The data was released in accordance with a new City Council law requiring annual reports on special education services.

Much of the data confirms pre-established trends about the special education population, all of which present serious obstacles to the city. But the report also offered a rare look at how many students are actually receiving the services they need. While the majority of students — 60 percent — are "fully receiving" their services, 35 percent of students — or more than 60,000 children — are only "partially" receiving their mandated services. And while only 5 percent of the population is not receiving services, that still amounts to 8,588 children without the specialized services they require. 

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And while schools chancellor Carmen Fariña has made inclusion — getting special education students into classes with their general education peers — a goal, data shows true inclusion remains a challenge. The majority, 65 percent, of students receiving services spend 80 percent or more of the day with their general education peers, but 35 percent of the special education population spends less than 40 percent of the day with their peers. 

The department has been facing a growing and increasingly complex special education population for several years. Fariña has created new specialized programs for children on the autism spectrum and has hired 300 new occupational therapy providers, but advocates say there's still an enormous amount of work to be done to ensure that all students receive the services they need. 

The new information on the special education population highlights the scope and scale of the issues facing the department. 

The number of students needing specialized services is large  — about 187,000 students, the size of some of the country's large school districts — and most significant in low-income neighborhoods and among minorities.

Of the 25,079 students referred for special services in the 2014-2015 academic year, 11,939 were Hispanic and 7,590 were black. By contrast, 3,244 children tested for specialized services were white, and 1,661 were Asian.

And the city's students with special needs are largely concentrated in some of the poorest pockets of the five boroughs.

Just two districts in the Bronx, 10 and 11, comprised nearly 3,000 of the city's 25,000 students who were tested for Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), which are the markers of special education services. As in previous years, Staten Island dominated the city's overall special education population: 2,584 children in the borough's district 31 were tested for IEPs. 

And about 75 percent of students who applied for specialized services are also eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, meaning their families live at or below the poverty line. 

The majority of city students who were tested for IEPs were boys, reflecting national trends: 15,220 of the total number of students tested were boys while 9,859 were girls. 

On average, city students wait about 10 days between their initial IEP meeting and receiving notice from their department about their services. Wait times are longest on average in Brooklyn's District 16, which includes most of Bedford-Stuyvesant. 

While the new data release is a win for the city's vocal special education community, problems with SESIS continue to plague the system. And now the DOE itself is joining the pushed for a reformed data tracking system. 

SESIS has been a particularly controversial topic in recent months. Public Advocate Letitia James recently sued the city over what she called a "failed" system that has prevented some students from getting the special education services they need. 

The system was developed under former mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Education officials said that SESIS doesn't link up with other department student data systems, and is often unreliable as is.

An official said the department could not have "complete confidence" in some of the data Tuesday's report because of "flaws" in SESIS. 

The DOE and other city agencies have convened a working group to reform SESIS. Fariña announced the overhaul of another Bloomberg-era general education tracking system, called ARIS, last year.  

"As an educator for nearly 40 years, I know firsthand how important data is for principals, teachers and most importantly our families in ensuring every student is getting the supports they need to thrive," Corinne Rello-Anselmi, the department's deputy chancellor for special education, said in a statement. "Today’s report serves to reaffirm our commitment to ensuring all students have access to a rigorous and inclusive education with appropriate services and supports.”

Read the full report here: http://on.nyc.gov/1oU1wVD