When I first learned that some parents at IS 187/Christa McAuliffe were gathering signatures to fight an increased percentage of special education students enrolling at their school, I was reminded of an event from my childhood.

When I was 9 or 10 — about the same age as my son Brooks is now — neighbors came around with a petition to stop the construction of an apartment development for people with physical disabilities. I have a distinct memory of my dad’s immediate disdain for the folks at the door who were far more concerned with their property values than with anyone else’s hardships. That was way before he became the grandfather of an autistic child, or for that matter, had any personal relationship with anyone who might benefit from the new housing. It was simply a human knee-jerk reaction—he knew right from wrong, and this was wrong.

I’m having the same reaction to the campaigning Christa McAuliffe parents.

And it’s not just me—if you read the 46-and-counting comments on Meredith Kolodner’s post, you’ll find similar outrage. But you’ll also find that these parents are being defended for reasons that make a lot of sense.

There is nothing, in practice, that is good about the Department of Education’s sweeping special education reform. Theoretically it’s a winner—mandating that special education students get served in their local schools. Neither of the Manhattan neighborhoods we’ve lived in during my son’s school career were able to provide him with an appropriate public education, so I know firsthand how unpleasant it is to be excised from your local community. The problem is that there is no accounting for where the money is coming from to support these kids. Schools that base their admissions on high test scores and offer rigorous academics are suddenly being forced to take these students without any answers about how this will work. Apparently, schools will be hiring more special education teachers, but it’s all vague and non-specific.  And since it’s already April, parents’ concerns for next year are not misguided.

Adding fuel to the fire is the fact that some gifted schools and charter schools have been exempted from these mandates.

The DOE is clearly not doing its job, but that’s hardly a new story. It has tortured every single special education parent I know. Without exception.

As for the IS 187 parents, I’ve lived in this test-score-obsessed city for too long to be genuinely surprised by their behavior.

Am I really not to take offense when they argue that “there will be children who will be crushed who could have gotten into Christa McAuliffe who will have to be in a regular general education class at another school instead?” A regular general education program has been summarily denied to special education students for years by the DOE, so just to offer a smattering of perspective here: what they’re alleging would “crush” their kids is often our kids’ best case scenario.

And unfortunately, I know all too well that Virginia Cantone is not alone in her sentiment that “no parent is going to want their kid in those classes.” She is clearly convinced that my son, with his inferior test scores, has nothing to offer her child except to slow things down, and that “the truth of the matter is that the wide spectrum of challenges is too great for any of the children to learn, it’s too great of a difference.”

Of course there is a challenge in teaching to different abilities when the gaps are wide, but it can be done and done well: Meredith Kolodner singles out the NYC Lab School for Collaborative Studies as a good example.

Anecdotes from principals and teachers in inclusion schools are encouraging. As long as there are sufficient resources, all the kids at all levels get better educations. And it turns out that test scores and IEPs [Individualized Education Programs], although they obviously play a role, are not the best predictors of which students become the most successful. What often matters more is self-esteem and emotional stability. And on that front, the special education population has an advantage since they’ve been getting help with both for most of their lives.

There’s not a lot of gray area here: perhaps these parents believe they’re acting in their children’s best interest, but the reality is that they are engaging in discrimination. Most of it is thinly veiled, but some is out in the open, as in a commenter referring to spreading around “the burden of students with special needs.” Interesting that no one refers to the G&T kids as burdens, even though they have atypical learning styles.

That physically handicapped apartment complex in my hometown that my dad fought for was finally built in the early 1970’s. It became a driving force for development of similar community housing. Wouldn’t it be something if 40 years from now, Brooks and his special education peers could look back to this moment in time when the tide changed for them in New York City public schools?

 

This post was originally published on Inisdeschools.org.

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