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Improve services for special needs students, report says

September 4, 2019 Meaghan McGoldrick

In its latest set of recommendations, the School Diversity Advisory Group — a task force commissioned by the mayor in 2017 to address school segregation — suggested the city could be doing more to accommodate students with disabilities.

The group found two areas where students with special needs were being adversely affected: school bus service and the enrollment practices of District 75, the citywide district dedicated to students with disabilities.

First, the report recommends expanding bus service to accommodate special needs students interested in after-school programs.

“It’s important to include students with disabilities in conversations about diversity,” Maggie Moroff, special education policy coordinator at Advocates for Children of New York, told the Brooklyn Eagle. “In New York City, students with disabilities make up about one fifth of the population, but they’re often an afterthought.”

Related: Panel recommends phasing out gifted programs in city schools

Moroff pointed to school bus service as an example.

Students with disabilities have special bussing in order to accommodate their Individualized Education Programs — a roadmap for special education that lays out the program of instruction, support and services a student needs. But that separate-bus system often means those children are unable to take part in after-school activities, Moroff said.

“If I’m a student with a disability who gets special bussing and I really want to join the drama club, I can’t do it unless someone can come get me,” she explained.

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If the advisory group gets its way, all students who receive bussing pursuant to an IEP will be provided the transportation support they need to be able to participate in after-school programs, like the drama club.

“That little extra bit of attention can go a long way,” Moroff told the Eagle.

The other recommendation focused on D75, currently a citywide, non-localized district zoned by borough. The group is asking that the city instead prioritize a student’s placement based on local school district.

D75 serves students with significant challenges such as autism spectrum disorders, significant cognitive delays, sensory impairments and multiple disabilities. Its students have smaller class sizes (there are at most 12 students in a D75 class), and are provided support from speech language pathologists, physical therapists, occupational therapists. These schools cater to students with IEPs — but there are students with IEPs who attend schools in other districts.

Under the current system, in which D75 schools are zoned by the wide parameter of the borough, students there are often placed in a school far away from their home.

“These kids are spending hours a day on a bus,” Moroff said, adding that some D75 students are zoned for schools across the borough from where they live. And their drop-off isn’t always linear. “You can have several kids on one route and maybe one of those students needs limited travel time. That means that you have buses driving out of the way to drop those students off first, meaning that other students are on that bus for even longer periods of time than they need to be.”

Abandoning borough-wide zoning would not only reduce travel time but it would also allow students with disabilities to attend school with other children from their neighborhood, she said.

The advisory group also recommended annual reports on the number of D75 students who are enrolled outside of their resident school district.

That record-keeping would also go a long way, Moroff added. “We don’t only want our schools desegregated, we want them aggregated as well. We want to know what’s going on, in D75 and beyond.”

This is SDAG’s second set of recommendations. In June, Mayor Bill de Blasio endorsed 62 of 67 suggestions made by the panel, such as training teachers in culturally responsive education and requiring schools to work to eliminate racial disparities in suspensions.

Both de Blasio and Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza have said they look forward to reviewing the group’s new recommendations. The chancellor said Tuesday that there would be no changes this school year.

“We’re going to review their recommendations and take action to ensure all students have access to a rich and rigorous education,” Carranza said in a statement. “At the same time, we’re going to keep advancing equity in our classrooms — reducing disparities in suspensions, and increasing expectations and access to curriculum that reflects the diversity of our student population.”

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