Brooks is a success story: he is a smart and happy autistic kid who has conquered many of his pervasive challenges and continues to work long and hard on the ones that persist.

But according to the Department of Education, my son is a failure. Because unless he has graduated to a less restrictive environment (LRE)—from special education to integrated, or even more desirable, all the way to mainstream—he does not earn their seal of approval. In fact, by their accounting, he is a collosal failure since he went the opposite direction: to a more restrictive environment.

For Brooks, his new setting offers him the opportunity to learn, and it seems to me that this would be everyone’s first and foremost concern. But it seems more important to the DOE that he require less and less support over the years. Now, if he was one of the small percentage of autistic kids who outgrow their challenges and get declassified, their formula would work because he wouldn’t require services. It’s only when you factor in the reality of his disability—a disability that in his case, interventions cannot inherently change—that this success measurement becomes at best, inaccurate, and at worst, a major disservice to the most special education students.

There are fortunate exceptions to this flawed logic, like the ASD Nest program, The New York Center for Autism Charter School, and the new Neighborhood Charter School of Harlem—these are excellent austism programs that neither require nor expect “graduation” from special education services. Incredulously, though, the sweeping new city-wide special education reform starting in September are not based on any of these pockets of quality education, but rather the single two-year pilot program where success was measured how? You guessed it: by how many students moved into LREs.

The DOE claims that the new reform is all about providing students with disabilities “increased access to and participation in the general education curriculum,” but I remain skeptical. After all, this is the same DOE that shamelessly beefs up their legal staff to fight off special education lawsuits instead of building appropriate schools, and it’s important not to forget that forcing special education students into mainstream classes saves them money.

The big charter school chains, often criticized for underserving special needs students, are very clear about their objectives and also proud of their record. According to one of Success Academy’s recent teaching position job postings, they believe in “graduating children out of special education services as quickly as possible.” Founder Eva Moscovitz recently revealed in a WSJ article that “about 7% of disabled students at Success Academy move out of ‘special education’ classification.” Ms. Moscowitz claims they do it “through intensive instruction.”

Is it really possible that she doesn’t understand the implications of her statement? How it infers that my husband and I and all the caring and compassionate professionals over the years that have tried to help my son, many of them doctorate-level specialists in their fields, have simply not employed enough “intensive instruction?” And that everything would be different if we had simply used more of her school’s core values: “elbow grease, grit and perseverance?

In case anyone requires additional evidence that the DOE has some misguided ideas about how to educate special needs kids, their documented research for the new reform states: “The performance of students without disabilities is not compromised by the presence of students with disabilities in their classrooms.” Until the DOE understand that special education students have the capacity to enhance classrooms, and not to compromise them, there can be no true reform.


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