Rochester schools seek new direction, outside help, for special education

June 15, 2017 06:28 PM

Rochester school system leaders declared the district has begun reforms to its special education programs after an independent report that documented widespread inadequacies.

On Thursday, senior administrators met with experts from NYU’s Steinhardt School to discuss the disproportionate numbers of minority students suspended from school or labeled as having broad learning disabilities, one of many issues raised by the audit.

“They have these different programs and different people that are supposed to help you and nobody's listening,” exclaimed Kellee Logan. Logan said her son Anthony, now 17, has struggled for years. “You're hurting my son,” she said.  “And the educators, the administrators, nobody saw that he was struggling to the point that he's 17 and he functions at a nine-year-old level.”

“We are asking people to give us a chance to prove that we really can make a difference,” said Sandra Simpson, Chief of Special Education.

A school district spokesman described Thursday’s meeting as a get-acquainted session between senior leadership of the school system and analysts from Steinhardt’s Technical Assistance Center on Disproportionality.

The report, requested by the Rochester school system and completed in April by education consultant and former Los Angeles Schools Chief Academic Officer Judy Elliot, has among its findings: 

Rochester Schools’ referral rate for special education has increased sharply (93%) in the past three years but 36% of the students referred in 2015-2016 were found ineligible.

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Rochester schools identifies students with disabilities, emotional disturbance and “other health impairment” at a rate well above the national average, 55%, 38% and 233% respectively.

Black students were disproportionately likely to be suspended, and categorized as “other health impairment.”

The district doesn’t have sufficient systems to identify students at risk, or to deal with students of multiple races and ethnicities.

A lack of services results in students being moved from school to school to receive special education, or moved out of the Rochester school system altogether to other agencies.

“There are children whose futures have been really destroyed by the decades of mismanagement of the special education program,” declared Bryan Hetherington with Empire Justice Center, who praised the candor of the report and the district’s immediate response. “This report makes it impossible for senior leaders, for the Board of Education, to be in denial about the scope of the problem.”

School Superintendent Barbara Deane-Williams promised robust steps to reform Rochester special education, including some initiatives already underway. She pointed to the hiring of a special ombudsman to act as an advocate for students and their families as well as the moving of some special education administrators into classrooms to better help teachers.

Deane-Williams also predicted more training for educators, closer relationships with area colleges to improve special education services and more attention to students who might need extra attention at school but could be helped before it became necessary to refer them to special ed.

“This is going to be a 3 to 5 year, probably closer to five year, process,” she said,  “but the kind of relationship and service that families should expect, should be expected now. And we are going to make that happen."

Simpson promised closer attention to individual students. “We know we have to know every child by name, and by face,’ she said. “When we refer to a frame of ‘case managing,’ what does that mean? It's taking ownership over each individual child."

“There is now a theoretical commitment by the superintendent to fix a lot of these problems,” said Hetherington. “The difference is really going to be how the district responds now that they are acknowledging the problem.”

Long, who said she has had to take a strong advocacy role for her son, declared the need for reform has meant exhausting effort on her part.  “It's not just Anthony,” she said. “I know it's not. It could be the neighbor on the corner's child going through the same thing and they just don't know."

Simpson acknowledged some reforms will require additional spending but Heatherington insisted reforms to the special education programs would pay dividends across the school system.

“If the changes in instruction and the other changes that are recommended in here become normal in the district,” he said, “it will greatly benefit all children, not just the children with disabilities.”


Charles Molineaux

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