Special Education Superintendent Bonnie Brown Discusses
Challenges and Opportunities for NYC’s Most Fragile Students
New York City’s special education system has an old friend at its helm. Bonnie Brown, recently appointed Superintendent of District 75, a network of some 23,000 special needs students in self-contained and mainstreamed classrooms citywide, brings not just 30 years of NYC teaching and administrative experience to her job, but a passion and energy that make it clear to anyone who’s spent time with her that she’s a fierce advocate for the city’s most fragile student population.
“The challenges that face me in 2007 are very similar to the challenges that faced me 20 years ago—and that’s basically getting equity for our students,” reflects the energetic Brown in a rare moment of tranquility between meetings. “Historically, special education started in the basement and then we ended up in most buildings on the fifth floor in the corner. We’re in co-located buildings where we [often] don’t have access to the cafeteria or the library or the auditorium. So we need equity in terms of resources that are available in our schools,” sums up Brown.
Ever the optimist, Brown sees a new era of collaboration as New York City embraces the small schools model, with sometimes three or four principals, each heading up smaller learning communities, now co-habiting in the same building. Sharing such close quarters forces the disparate parties to work together: “We’re developing building councils to make sure that we’re making informed decisions about shared resources, about safety plans, about extracurricular activities. By doing this, it’s forcing District 75 to be brought to the table, and our children are part of the mix,” she adds with a passion borne of long-waged crusades on behalf of her students.
Brown is no stranger to collaboration. She and her staff have formed impressive linkages with universities, hospitals and other institutions to infuse best practices into the city’s special education programs. Brown reels off an imposing array of partnerships: “Many of our parents are asking for ABA [Applied Behavior Analysis] for children with autism. We’ve been working for many years with Rutgers and they do all our professional development [in ABA]….Many other parents of children with autism are interested in the TEACCH model which emanates out of University of North Carolina; we work directly with Dr. Cox at UNC Chapel Hill.” She’s particularly proud of a recent multi-million grant enabling District 75 to partner with Hunter College for Positive Behavior Intervention Supports (PBIS) in 40 general education schools, to develop and train teams on proactive behavioral interventions so that students can remain in the least restrictive environment in their home zoned schools.
Hard work pays off, and Brown’s success stories could fill volumes. Fifteen percent of her kids get phased out of special education classrooms every year to less restrictive environments. And on the other end of the spectrum, for those students not capable of obtaining a Regents or local diploma, every borough offers a transition center that trains students to earn a livelihood in their adult years, cycling them through such jobs as hotel housekeeping or hospital/university food services till they find one they want to pursue. “We have kids that have gone through our automotive shops who are making $36,000 a year now,” she adds triumphantly.
Brown is especially proud of District 75’s internal paraprofessional training program whereby their own students are trained to work with early childhood students who are not cognitively able. Brown tells a poignant story of Diana Miller, a Down’s Syndrome child whose mother, Pat, was told to place her in Willowbrook 50 years ago. Instead, Pat became her daughter’s most powerful advocate, and today Diana is a veteran and beloved paraprofessional in District 75.
Behind every statistic Brown recites is a heart-wrenching story of human victory over adversity. Yet the challenges are still daunting: New York City real estate is so expensive that it’s hard to secure group homes to help young adults acclimate to independent living, as BOCES programs are doing so successfully in the surrounding suburbs. “We try to link these young adults with service agencies, but my parents come back and tell me that many of them are sitting home,” says Brown regretfully.
But tomorrow is another day. There are new battles to wage, new solutions to problems once deemed insoluble. And one never doubts Bonnie Brown’s ability to hurdle these challenges and bring hope to the lives of the 23,000 children and their parents who are under her capable watch.#