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A litany of troubles in special education

By Bill Hangley Jr. on Oct 16, 2012 09:22 AM

It was an evening of troubling data, frustrated parents, and hopeful promises from District officials who know they have a long way to go. 

This month’s School Reform Commission strategy meeting focused on the challenges posed by special education, and judging from the evening’s proceedings, they are significant. Monday's session included a look at a selection of data showing that Philadelphia ranks among the worst urban districts in the nation in terms of the academic performance of students with learning disabilities – Philadelphia’s scores fell below those of Chicago, Los Angeles, Cleveland, and Detroit on national assessments. Special education students are suspended at significantly higher rates than their classmates, and they graduate at significantly lower rates.

cross-district comparison of achievement levels for students with disabilities


“Those numbers are disheartening. …. We have to get better at it, and this is the beginning of the process to get better,” said Superintendent William Hite.

But after a series of presentations in which advocates and District officials explained the complex historical, legal, and procedural underpinnings of the current special education system, the conversation quickly turned to the day-to-day struggles of parents and principals for whom navigating and managing the system is a major challenge. 

“I’m highly frustrated,” said one parent. “When my son comes home, I feel like I have to teach him all over again.” 

“It’s heart-wrenching to see that only 46 percent of students with disabilities graduate,” said another. “It’s devastating.”

“I have a 4th-grade student, and she’s being taught at a kindergarten level,” said a third. “It’s understandable that only 46 percent graduate.”

Parents shared tales of confusion about the District’s many special-ed-related procedures, frustration with the quality of classroom instruction, and anger at a lack of timely responses to questions from the district’s Office of Special Education.

Spanish-speaking parents decried the lack of translation services. “My daughter is 5 years old. If there is a problem, she would not be able to express it,” one said. “I am truly worried as a mother, and I’m asking you for help.”

Meanwhile, school staff and advocates spoke of the shortfall of resources for students, including the lack of qualified nurses, dozens of whom were laid off last year. 

One principal, Cheryl Glaser of Fitzpatrick Elementary, provided a painfully detailed account of the impact that a twice-a-day, two-hour bus ride full of disturbances and disruptions can have on her “emotionally fragile” special education students.

Of the 27 students in Fitzpatrick’s emotional support class, Glaser said, only one is from that school's catchment; others come from all over the city, and the first is picked up by the bus at 6:30 a.m.

“The long bus ride causes one of my students to wet his pants three or four times a week,” she said. “How do we justify subjecting them to the daily debacle?” 

The problems go beyond the impact on students, Glaser said. Parents living far away struggle to make it to IEP meetings, meet their children’s teachers, or get to school for medical emergencies. Students shouldn’t have to travel so far from their neighborhoods just to get the support they need, she said. 

“I bared our dirty laundry and I apologize,” she said. “I respectfully ask the SRC to revisit these unconscionable practices.”

After Glaser spoke, Chief Academic Officer Penny Nixon promised to visit Fitzpatrick. "We will come out and visit the school and look at the transportation," she said.

Parent Robin Dominick, whose children attend Powel Elementary, warned of the impact that waves of school closures could have on the schools that remain open.  

“Our school has been affected because of the facilities master plan,” she said. “A school nearby us closed, and our special education population has tripled. … We’re trying to maintain ourselves as a high-performing school. But this is affecting us in the classroom. Please keep that in mind as you consider 40 schools.”

And Jennifer Lowman of the Education Law Center predicted that the move to a “portfolio model” could well exacerbate all these issues.

“There are so many reforms posited in the District,” she said. “Where do students with disabilities fit?” 

Translation services are an especially significant problem, she said, given the fact that special education students are required to go through so many stages of evaluation and intervention, many of which require parents to understand options and approve final decisions.

“The District is falling down in a really miserable way. Parents are not communicated with in their native language,” she said.

District officials said that they’re just beginning to grapple with the problems raised by special education and that the move to a “portfolio model” of school management will bring even more challenges.

SRC member Feather Houstoun said the high rates of suspensions are a “red flag” and that multiple bureaucratic silos have to be broken down in order to better coordinate services of all kinds. 

Hite acknowledged that the biggest challenge for parents can be finding the right place to turn for answers. Gazing at a PowerPoint chart showing the staffing structure, he said, “I look at this slide, and as a parent, I’m not sure where I would go for help.”

Belinda Miller, deputy chief of the Office of Specialized Services, said that the District’s immediate goals include improving its professional development for staff, enhancing transition services for students entering the District and switching schools, supporting students after they graduate, and solving the transportation conundrum.

“We know that transportation is an issue,” she said. “It doesn’t make any sense for students to spend two hours on a bus to get access to a program.”

Houstoun acknowledged that the District has a lot of work to do, but called this meeting the first step toward a better process. She said that Deputy Superintendent Paul Kihn would oversee a “strategy work group,” made up of key constituents, that will be charged with improving the situation. 

“Let’s remember we have a new team,” Houstoun said. “Judge us a year from now. This is very helpful. We’re hearing where some of the hot spots are. ... Families should not need to come to a meeting like this to get their questions answered and their problems solved.”

Sources: Slides from The Current State of Special Education [PDF], a presentation at the Oct. 15, 2012, School Reform Commission meeting

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Comments (18)

Submitted by Ken Derstine on October 16, 2012 11:13 am

Could someone please explain what this bullet point buried in the Power Point presentation, on the slide called Challenges, means:

• Impact on District budgets upon transition of students with disabilities from charter to District schools after 12/1

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 16, 2012 12:23 pm

Federal Idea Part B Funding is per-pupil funding based on where the student attends on Dec 1 as reported in Penn Data. If that student transfers from a charter to public school on Dec. 2, the Charter will still receive the federal monies, although the district will be responsible for continuation of services.

Submitted by ConcernedRoxParent (not verified) on October 16, 2012 1:15 pm

Which is why a lot of schools see an increase in student populations after the holidays. The Charterr school gets to keep the money, and the local school has the expense.

Good system - eh?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 16, 2012 1:45 pm

So we can expect lots of transfers of special education students from charter schools back to traditional public schools during the months of December (after the first) and January.
Who will be looking closely at the data on transfers?
Ed policy center? Ed law center? Alert!

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 16, 2012 1:11 pm

I think that is a really important question. What does the data actually show and who is responsible for tracking it. I do want to reiterate, the state per student funding which is higher for Special Ed, continues to follow the child from school to school, month to month. The funding affected by transferring out after Dec. 1 is IDEA Part B federal funding.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 16, 2012 3:11 pm

So would the same agency (SRC) that sanctioned the dismantling of the public schools have any vested interest in tracking data that would discredit charter schools? Not so much.

Would the same agency that permitted the layoffs of 47 nurses have any vested interest in data suggesting these layoffs are harming children as well as costing taxpayers money in the long run? Not so much.

What a mess!

Submitted by Robin Dominick (not verified) on October 16, 2012 12:04 pm

I want to clarify the crux of the issue at Powel (what was not quoted). The issue is not about the increase in special education students. The issue is that while our special education numbers have gone up, as well as overall student population, we actually lost a teacher and support staff since last year. When schools close and populations are shifted, adequate staff must also be provided. Resources MUST follow the students. This issue must be part of what is addressed during the closing of schools with the Facilities Master Plan. Filling "seats" with no additinal resources will not benefit anyone.

Submitted by Bill Hangley (not verified) on October 16, 2012 1:52 pm

Thanks for that clarification, Robin.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 16, 2012 2:12 pm

"A litany of troubles for special education" is about to get worse.
Perhaps we need better data on students leaving charters and returning to traditional public schools before we close 40 neighborhood public schools.

The BCG was quite happy with the chart above indicating Philadelphia reading scores for special education are low. But where is the data to suggest that charters accept, retain, and improve special education students?

What a mess the corporate privatizers have created. I disdain them, but I don't blame them. They aren't supposed to have a handle on the havoc they are creating. They are behaving like the businesspeople they are. I do hold in contempt the public servants, the Broad superintendent graduates (Ackerman/ Hite), and leaders like Obama, Emmanual, Romney, Nutter, Corbett, and any educational leader who can sleep at night while this nightmare unfolds.

Submitted by LS Teach (not verified) on October 16, 2012 5:01 pm

Did they discuss the hierarchy within OSIS and within the schools? I was a teacher who was SEL for a year and seeing the vast amounts of "pass the buck" and lack of collaboration/cooperation between principals and regions made me realize that the current structure of OSIS is not working. It is easy to see how the SDP ends up paying millions of dollars in compensatory education. The Notebook should reach out to current and former SELs and conduct an investigation of how system within the SDP "actually" works...

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 17, 2012 2:01 pm

OSS (no longer OSIS) is there to provide support to the district. Most of the supports are mandated in their role as the Intermediate Unit. The problem is not OSS. The Principal and Superintendents are the ones who make it happen.

The services and supports and professional development are there. It is a matter of asking for them.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 17, 2012 9:14 pm

The problem isn't OSS? SDP SELs, how many emails with instructions on how to implement our programs and stay in compliance have you received this year? I thought I must not have been on the listserv because a full month of school passed before I heard anything from OSS. Turns out, they just aren't sending out emails! How can new SELs service kids properly without any sort of guidance?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 16, 2012 5:50 pm

A new team? What new team?

Lisa Haver

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 16, 2012 11:52 pm

Is the 46% graduation rate for special ed students unacceptably low? Certainly. So is the overall graduation rate in Philadelphia, which is just over 50%.
Address the overall quality of schools, address the student/teacher ratio, address the lack of support staff in schools, and this will help ALL students, not just special ed students.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 17, 2012 1:05 pm

Let's see the numbers from two years ago. That was when we had a full staff, including case managers. OSIS lost HALF of their staff due to the cuts last year. As far as the hierarchy goes, most of them have left the district because they didn't like the way the Administration was treating the students. We're working as hard as we can to serve all the special needs students of the district.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 17, 2012 2:02 pm

OSIS needs to separate and allow for IU 26 to be Philadelphia County IU 26, thereby allowing it to be revenue generating like it's counterparts in the suburbs. That also allows the IU to separate itself from the politics of the district and service all the students of Philadelphia.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 17, 2012 3:31 pm

IU26 = Philadelphia County IU26 = SRC

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 18, 2012 3:53 pm

The Philadelphia School District is looking for dual-certified special education teachers (LS/Eng) to fill open vacancies NOW. See the district Vacancy List for more information!

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