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A litany of troubles in special education

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

It was an evening of troubling data, frustrated parents, and hopeful promises from District officials who know they have a long way to go.

This month’s School Reform Commission strategy meeting focused on the challenges posed by special education, and judging from the evening’s proceedings, they are significant. Monday’s session included a look at a selection of data showing that Philadelphia ranks among the worst urban districts in the nation in terms of the academic performance of students with learning disabilities – Philadelphia’s scores fell below those of Chicago, Los Angeles, Cleveland, and Detroit on national assessments. Special education students are suspended at significantly higher rates than their classmates, and they graduate at significantly lower rates.

“Those numbers are disheartening. …. We have to get better at it, and this is the beginning of the process to get better,” said Superintendent William Hite.

But after a series of presentations in which advocates and District officials explained the complex historical, legal, and procedural underpinnings of the current special education system, the conversation quickly turned to the day-to-day struggles of parents and principals for whom navigating and managing the system is a major challenge.

“I’m highly frustrated,” said one parent. “When my son comes home, I feel like I have to teach him all over again.”

“It’s heart-wrenching to see that only 46 percent of students with disabilities graduate,” said another. “It’s devastating.”

“I have a 4th-grade student, and she’s being taught at a kindergarten level,” said a third. “It’s understandable that only 46 percent graduate.”

Parents shared tales of confusion about the District’s many special-ed-related procedures, frustration with the quality of classroom instruction, and anger at a lack of timely responses to questions from the district’s Office of Special Education.

Spanish-speaking parents decried the lack of translation services. “My daughter is 5 years old. If there is a problem, she would not be able to express it,” one said. “I am truly worried as a mother, and I’m asking you for help.”

Meanwhile, school staff and advocates spoke of the shortfall of resources for students, including the lack of qualified nurses, dozens of whom were laid off last year.

One principal, Cheryl Glaser of Fitzpatrick Elementary, provided a painfully detailed account of the impact that a twice-a-day, two-hour bus ride full of disturbances and disruptions can have on her “emotionally fragile” special education students.

Of the 27 students in Fitzpatrick’s emotional support class, Glaser said, only one is from that school’s catchment; others come from all over the city, and the first is picked up by the bus at 6:30 a.m.

“The long bus ride causes one of my students to wet his pants three or four times a week,” she said. “How do we justify subjecting them to the daily debacle?”

The problems go beyond the impact on students, Glaser said. Parents living far away struggle to make it to IEP meetings, meet their children’s teachers, or get to school for medical emergencies. Students shouldn’t have to travel so far from their neighborhoods just to get the support they need, she said.

“I bared our dirty laundry and I apologize,” she said. “I respectfully ask the SRC to revisit these unconscionable practices.”

After Glaser spoke, Chief Academic Officer Penny Nixon promised to visit Fitzpatrick. "We will come out and visit the school and look at the transportation," she said.

Parent Robin Dominick, whose children attend Powel Elementary, warned of the impact that waves of school closures could have on the schools that remain open.

“Our school has been affected because of the facilities master plan,” she said. “A school nearby us closed, and our special education population has tripled. … We’re trying to maintain ourselves as a high-performing school. But this is affecting us in the classroom. Please keep that in mind as you consider 40 schools.”

And Jennifer Lowman of the Education Law Center predicted that the move to a “portfolio model” could well exacerbate all these issues.

“There are so many reforms posited in the District,” she said. “Where do students with disabilities fit?”

Translation services are an especially significant problem, she said, given the fact that special education students are required to go through so many stages of evaluation and intervention, many of which require parents to understand options and approve final decisions.

“The District is falling down in a really miserable way. Parents are not communicated with in their native language,” she said.

District officials said that they’re just beginning to grapple with the problems raised by special education and that the move to a “portfolio model” of school management will bring even more challenges.

SRC member Feather Houstoun said the high rates of suspensions are a “red flag” and that multiple bureaucratic silos have to be broken down in order to better coordinate services of all kinds.

Hite acknowledged that the biggest challenge for parents can be finding the right place to turn for answers. Gazing at a PowerPoint chart showing the staffing structure, he said, “I look at this slide, and as a parent, I’m not sure where I would go for help.”

Belinda Miller, deputy chief of the Office of Specialized Services, said that the District’s immediate goals include improving its professional development for staff, enhancing transition services for students entering the District and switching schools, supporting students after they graduate, and solving the transportation conundrum.

“We know that transportation is an issue,” she said. “It doesn’t make any sense for students to spend two hours on a bus to get access to a program.”

Houstoun acknowledged that the District has a lot of work to do, but called this meeting the first step toward a better process. She said that Deputy Superintendent Paul Kihn would oversee a “strategy work group,” made up of key constituents, that will be charged with improving the situation.

“Let’s remember we have a new team,” Houstoun said. “Judge us a year from now. This is very helpful. We’re hearing where some of the hot spots are. … Families should not need to come to a meeting like this to get their questions answered and their problems solved.”

Sources: Slides from The Current State of Special Education [PDF], a presentation at the Oct. 15, 2012, School Reform Commission meeting

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