With Michael Nutter taking office as mayor of Philadelphia, the Notebook invited comments from advocates for disability rights and behavioral health services on the question, “What can the new mayor do to provide increased support to children with disabilities and their families?”

Janet Stotland, co-director, Education Law Center:

School reform in the Philadelphia School District must include students with disabilities. It’s not enough for the District to assume that new reform initiatives will “trickle down” to these children. Students with disabilities are legally entitled to special help, and the District must make clear plans to accommodate them. For example, Philadelphia is promoting high school reform including smaller high schools – those schools must be able to serve students with all types of disabilities. The District’s new CEO should have a track record of operating effective programs for students with disabilities. The mayor doesn’t run Philadelphia’s schools, but he can have a tremendously beneficial influence.

Hana Sabree, parent activist:

I would like to see the mayor begin the process of seeing that all public school facilities in Philadelphia are made fully accessible. He should also ensure that the School District collaborates with the city’s Office of Mental Retardation and Behavioral Health to identify all students who are 18 years old and about to transition out of high school or drop out – often children in special education fall through the cracks with no supports. He should look at what the School District is doing to ensure that students with disabilities are being fully included and take a look at other districts where inclusion and real education are taking place. He should also have town meetings with families to hear their ideas and concerns.

Cathy Roccia-Meier, chair, Philadelphia Right to Education Task Force:

The Right to Education Task Force looks forward to working with a Nutter administration to ensure that students with disabilities have access to the best possible special education. We ask for his assistance in fully implementing state and federal regulations; ensuring all students have program plans that guarantee progress in the curriculum; providing funding that is equal to the need in Philadelphia; verifying that all District schools provide access and space for special education services; and making sure that with any policy, procedure, or plan he examines, he asks the question: “How does this affect students with special needs?”

Rachel Mann, attorney, Disability Rights Network of PA:

Too many of Philadelphia’s children are facing mental illnesses and emotional disorders without adequate support. Last year, Mayor Street formed a “Blue Ribbon Commission” on children’s behavioral health. With the hard work of several hundred interested individuals, the Commission issued its final report with recommendations in January 2007. As a result of that report, a “Philadelphia Compact” was signed, and various committees were formed to develop specific strategies for carrying out the recommendations. It is imperative that the new mayor honor this work and ensure that the recommendations are followed to the greatest extent possible.

Shelly Yanoff, executive director, Philadelphia Citizens for Children and Youth:

About 20 percent of Philadelphia’s children have behavioral health issues. By paying attention to them early and providing support and family-focused community services, we can avoid many severe problems. That takes commitment and coordination among service delivery systems, schools, and communities. We need to start early – the mayor can join the state in supporting behavioral health consultation for child care providers who need guidance in dealing with a child showing signs of social or emotional problems.

We have some excellent models of collaboration between aspects of the city’s child welfare system, the behavioral health system, and the School District. But these programs have been unable to serve the number of kids who need them. The mayor can join with the behavioral health system and the District to broaden the reach of these programs. Put services where the kids are – in schools and communities.

Brenda B. Taylor, associate superintendent of specialized services, School District of Philadelphia:

Mr. Nutter has demonstrated his belief in public education. We encourage him as mayor to consider the diverse learning needs of our student population when developing his education agenda. We welcome the support of the mayor’s educational cabinet in increasing opportunities for students with disabilities throughout their educational experience as well as in the local workforce upon completion of school.

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