This is the story of a partnership between a dedicated group of advocates and Philadelphia School District leaders. This teamwork has resulted in new opportunities for a group of especially vulnerable Philadelphia students with disabilities.
Because of a 1979 lawsuit called Armstrong v. Kline, Pennsylvania became the first state to require “extended school year” (or ESY) programs for some children with disabilities. The children who filed the lawsuit had very severe intellectual or emotional disabilities.
Although the judge made clear that any child who is eligible for special education might qualify for ESY, for many years Philadelphia and other school districts limited ESY programs primarily to children with the most severe disabilities (in Philadelphia, these are called “low-incidence” disabilities).
Several years ago, the Philadelphia Local Task Force (LTF) undertook to improve programs for children with low-incidence disabilities and to make sure that eligible students with high-incidence disabilities (such as learning or emotional disabilities) are also identified and receive appropriate ESY programs. To do so, the task force met … and met with the leadership of the Office of Specialized Instructional Services.
The latest developments? According to Linda Williams, executive director of the Office of Specialized Instructional Services, “This summer, ESY programs for children with low-incidence disabilities will be at eight locations that are air-conditioned and accessible for children with physical disabilities.”
ESY staff has received special materials and training to increase their effectiveness in teaching literacy and math skills. Special education teachers for the ESY programs will be matched with students with the same disability whom the teachers taught during the school year.
Another improvement is that the “standard” ESY program will have three additional instructional days for a total of 21 days.
Eligible students with high-incidence disabilities will have access to the 117 summer programs that are operated for all students. These children are entitled to all the special education and related services on their ESY IEPs. The programs focus on academics in the morning and art, music, and other enrichment activities in the afternoon.
“Each summer program has a special education staff person assigned to help the regular education staff and to make sure that needed supports and materials are in place,” Williams stated.
A major advocacy goal for the Philadelphia LTF was to make sure that school staff understands that any child with a disability can be eligible for ESY if he or she meets certain standards. School staff must be familiar with the range of available ESY program options so that they can suggest the right one at the child’s IEP meeting, and ESY teachers need time to prepare for their ESY assignments.
Cecelia Thompson, task force chair, explained that IEP teams have had more training and technical assistance, but that it is still a challenge to make sure that all eligible children are located and that children’s programs are appropriate and effective. “Parents also need additional training so that they can bring the necessary information to the IEP table,” Thompson said.
As always, much more needs to be done to meet the needs of all students with disabilities eligible for extended school year programs in the District. But, with advocacy and cooperation, progress is being made.