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New York City
December 2002

Council Member Eva Moskowitz Hosts Forum on Special Education
By Tom Kertes

If an expression of curiosity and caring at an open forum on the part of “government” goes a long way toward solving problems, the “Forum on Special Education” in Community School District 2, headed by Council Member Eva Moskowitz, can be termed an unqualified success. “I have a four year-old at home with learning delays—so my involvement is personal as well as professional,” Moskowitz, the Chair of the Council’s Education Committee, said in her opening remarks.

The exceptionally informative panel of speakers touched on a broad range of issues of concern to the one hundred-plus in attendance. “Following the new continuum recently put into effect, we at the Department are looking at special education services in a variety of different and novel ways,” said Linda Wernikoff, Deputy Superintendent of Special Education reform at the Department of Education. “Due to the upcoming budget cuts, we are also trying to maximize the limited resources we are able to spend by rethinking our services and the ways we are delivering them.”

“Our main focus is on the following points,” added Wernikoff. “We used to rely on segregated special ed classes. Now we are looking at how to expand services so the majority of these kids could be in a general educational environment. We are looking at referral patterns; minorities and foreign language students are clearly over-represented in the special ed population. And, in order to improve the overall quality of our services, we are also looking at the de-certification process. This is going to be done in order to see how we can best transition children into the general education population.”

Panel Member Shane Humphries, a District 2 parent, was not overly optimistic. “My personal experience is that the new continuum looks good on paper,” he said. “But, in practice, it seems to be a road to nowhere, at least for now. When we call for action or a follow-up under the new rules, no one at the school or at the Department of Education steps up to the plate in order to translate words into action.”

On the other hand Sarita Rein, Chair of the Committee on Special Education in District 2, saw the cup as half full. “The new continuum allows for a wider than ever variety of ways to educate our special ed kids,” she said. “In our district, our collaborative teaching classes–which have a regular teacher and a special ed teacher in the same classroom – went up in numbers from 2 to 49 just in the past school year. Have they been perfect? Have they been the most appropriate way to help every child? Of course not. But overall, we can safely say that they’ve been a great success.”

Advocate Miguel Salazar, Program Director for Public Education, Resources for Children with Special Needs, was far more cautious in his evaluation. “As expected, implementation of the new continuum has been a case-by-case struggle,” he said.

Dr, Katherine Garnett, Chair of the Special Education Department at the Hunter School of Education, spoke of the problems as both nationwide and systemic. “What I’m trying to get across to you parents is that, wherever I go in this country, the same forces are trying to unravel the laws in force, and the funding currently in place, for special education,” she said. “So, in order to counter these forces, you as parents and advocates must congregate together and speak as a powerful, unified group with one voice.”

Opening the floor to the public, Moskowitz asked to “focus on implementation. Yes, the problems can be overwhelming at times,” she said. “And we will look at all of them, large or small. But I’m sure there are some of them we can start to solve right here and right now.”

Such as a non-working answering machine at District 2, the subject of the complaint of a beleaguered Melissa McNeese who was the first parent at the microphone. “It’s impossible to get through,” she said. “We’ll make it possible,” Moskowitz promised. Then things got tougher: frustrated parents spoke passionately of everything from “impossible overcrowding in classes where no instruction can be done,” to “an absence of sufficient flexibility in the new continuum.” There was also widespread agreement among the public to the effect that “inclusion and decertification is not for everyone;” they also called for a profound change in attitude toward special ed kids and parents by principals and schools. “There is a systemic, general environment of disrespecting parents,” one speaker said. “Truth is, many principals look at us as a necessary evil they must somehow tolerate. We may need a complete reeducation of those in authority before real change can be effectuated.”

As the evening wore on, it also became clear that the overall lack of funding–which is about to get worse due to the upcoming budget cuts–often makes even the best intentions impossible to implement. “I promise that we will do our level best to change things,” Moskowitz said. “We, in government, must hear what you the public has to say from close up. That is why I came here. And that is why we are going to have these town meetings very often from now on.”#

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