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New York City
November 2002

Phi Delta Kappa Sponsors Panel of Experts to Discuss Changes on the Horizon for Special Education
By Marie Holmes

Within the evolving field of special education, the ramifications of President Bush’s No Child Left Behind legislation are felt acutely.

When President Ford signed into law the Education for Handicapped Children bill (94-142), establishing that children with disabilities were entitled to the same free, public education as all other children, only 33 states were providing such services.

This legislation was not a result of the Ford administration’s good intentions, explained educator James Fogarty to a group of teachers and other education professionals at a Phi Delta Kappa lecture program held recently at Pace University. The law, revamped in 1997 and now known as IDEA—the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act—followed a lawsuit (Penn vs. ARC).

Up for legislative review this year, IDEA has three central tenets: least restrictive environment (the impetus for the inclusion movement), full appropriate public education and due process, to ensure that the local school board is providing students with services that meet these standards.

While there are more services available for persons with disabilities ages 3–21 than perhaps ever before, leading educators continue to debate how exactly the State should provide disabled children the education to which they are legally entitled.

General consensus seems to favor the inclusion model, where special education students are brought, as much as possible, into the general education classroom. The extent to which general curricula should inform special instruction, however, particularly in light of mandated increases in standardized testing, remains a point of some contention.

The New York City Department of Education, is in the process of implementing the inclusion model throughout the
city’s schools. Linda Wernikoff, Deputy Superintendent for Special Education Initiatives, explained that New York City’s schools had been asked to volunteer to experiment with inclusion models. “Change does not happen because you mandate change, so we started very slowly,” she said. The goal is to have in place a “continuum” of services available, without requiring the students that need them to change classrooms. “The new continuum really returns special education special education to services and not a place you send the child,” said Wernikoff.

The individual needs of schools must be taken into account, she stressed. “When it comes to inclusive education, it’s not going to work if it’s just the special ed people.”

Kathleen LeFevre, Director of Instruction for District 75, which serves special needs children in occupational therapy centers, hospitals, special schools and schools within schools throughout the five boroughs, oversees the education of 21,000 students, most of whom, she said, have “severe disabilities.” Approximately half of these students take standardized assessments, with the other half taking part in the state’s alternative assessment program. The alternative assessments allow educators to document a student’s progress in a variety of ways. In the examples on the district’s website, photographs of a child using coins to make purchases prove numerical literacy, while copies of worksheets and student writings replace reading exams.

LeFevre voiced no opposition to testing in her response to Fogarty’s address at Pace. “There have to be expectations and accountability,” she said, adding that these expectations need not be “unrealistic.” “I think it’s a fundamental right of children to have a standards-based education.”

As for those students labeled ‘special needs’ in order to secure funding to provide them with services, or, as several speakers lamented, simply because of their skin color or economic status, the standards and accountability espoused by No Child Left Behind, it is believed, can save them from being under-educated. The danger, according to Jill Levy, President of the Council of Supervisors and Administrators, is that more severely developmentally disabled children will be hurt in the process.

“I have a grown son who came through the system before 94-142,” she told the audience. At the time, there were no services available to disabled children in New York City. Levy was told to institutionalize her child, and she did. Thanks to his mother’s determination to seek out the proper supports, Levy’s son was able to succeed. He now works and lives independently with his wife, also developmentally disabled.

“Today, my son would be a failure,” said Levy. “Although he has a high school diploma and feels pretty successful, he never would have met the Regents exams.”

Levy proposed the creation of an ombudsman’s office, citing a total lack of “independent advocates for children.”

“We have to listen to the people who have been there,” she said, “and we have to be very careful about what we believe is best for somebody else.”#

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