A Tale of Two Schools

Some parents are seizing better school services for their special needs children, while low-income families get the dregs

NEW YORK—Christopher Garland and Ryan Dienstag aren’t that different. Both are autistic, and both go to P94M special education school in downtown Manhattan. One is 8 years old. The other is 10. But their school environments are quite different.

P94M is a school spread across seven buildings at different Manhattan locations. It is part of District 75, a citywide network of public schools educating almost 22,000 children with the most severe disabilities, and consuming nearly a quarter of the $3.4 billion yearly special education budget.

Christopher attends a site in Alphabet City that shares space with P.S. 15, a small elementary school with a 100 percent low-income population. The building is run down, its corners chipped here and there, as one would expect from a building of the 1900s-era.

The school is also a bit noisy. Christopher’s class is right beside a cafeteria, a big nuisance for autistic students who frequently have sensory issues.

Ryan also attends P94M, but at a site in Battery Park, sharing the building with P.S. 276, an elementary and middle school with a 12 percent low-income population. Opened in 2009, the school feels almost like a hotel, with its slick reception desk, bright corridors, spacious classrooms, and rooftop track and field with a stunning view of the Hudson River and the Statue of Liberty.

The Battery Park students have their own floor with their own large cafeteria. The atmosphere is quiet and serene. The children also have a separate playground beside the field, as many autistic children can’t bear crowds.

Beyond Zones

As D75 schools are not zoned, what determines where Christopher and Ryan attend school? Officially the placements are determined by Education Department Enrollment office assigning students based on available seats and services.

Parents have complained for years about placements that do not meet their expectations, and some challenge the decisions.

Federal law states that “all children with disabilities have available to them a free appropriate public education” with services “to meet their unique needs.” That means that the city pays $35,000 a year to educate each District 75 student. This excludes central office, space, and other costs. In the same calculation, a pupil without any special services costs the city some $8,500.

Yet even then, if the Education Department (DOE) cannot provide “appropriate” services, parents can demand that the DOE pay for a private school for the child. Also, if the DOE can’t find proper school placement for the child within 65 days, parents can demand a so-called Nickerson letter, allowing them to quickly find a private school themselves, with the DOE, again, paying the tuition.

More and more parents are using this option. In 2008 the Education Department paid $144 million in private school tuition for special education students. In 2012 it was $236 million, an increase of over 60 percent, according to data provided by the Independent Budget Office.

Marjorie Dienstag, P94M Parent Association president and Ryan’s mother, said more often that not, the dividing line when it comes to placements is income.

Dienstag said only parents wealthy enough to show up with a lawyer can assert their rights. Otherwise, the bureaucratic procedure is so complex and time-consuming that a working parent has a slim chance of battling through, or even learning about the option in the first place. With a lawyer everything is suddenly expedient, she said.

As the cost of private schools increases, the DOE came up with a new strategy, according to Dienstag. When she showed up with a $5,000 lawyer, instead of getting a private school she was offered a spot in the Battery Park school, a site so cutting-edge most parents would settle for it.

In fact, P94M has another two sites in brand new school buildings in Midtown Manhattan with two empty classrooms each, stockpiled just to satisfy parents’ demands, Dienstag said.

New York City Department of Education didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment about its special education enrollments.

Few Options

Options for families that can’t afford a lawyer are limited. Resources for Children with Special Needs, a local nonprofit advocating for children with disabilities, provides “advocates” free-of-charge, who represent parents at meetings with school system authorities.

Ivelisse Garland, mother of Christopher, managed to get such an advocate this year. When the advocate accompanied her to a May school meeting to review the education plan for her son, she was offered a transfer on the spot. Now Christopher is moving to the Battery Park school starting in July. “But what about the other kids?” she said. Indeed, the advocate can only accept so many cases.

Another option is to replenish a lack of funds with knowledge and grit. Parents don’t need to hire a lawyer, it’s enough to act like one, according to Gloria Corsino, president of the parent-led Citywide Education Council for District 75.

She managed to advocate for her two autistic sons with just her own wit. Yet she acknowledged the process was time consuming and she was only able to do so because her work hours were flexible.

For the time being, Dienstag has come up with an imperfect solution: She plans to raise money for the school in the West Village where she lives, and use it for renovations at the P.S.15 site in a public housing neighborhood on the East Side, where Garland lives.

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What Are Special Needs Services?

The New York City public school system offers a variety of services for children with disabilities, including the following:

Speech Therapy: Includes singing, typing, picture communication, face muscle exercises, and other techniques to help overcome speech impairment

Occupational Therapy: Helping to manage daily routines like dining or bathing, developing fine motor skills, risk prevention, and social interaction

Counseling: Staff intervenes when students experience crises, assess for the maltreatment of children, and report when outside agencies need to be contacted

Hearing Education: Hearing aides and support for almost 3,000 deaf students

Sign Language Interpreting: Both for deaf students and hearing students of deaf parents

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NYC Public Special Education by the Numbers

Students with special needs

17.6 percent
Special needs enrollment, as percentage of total

$3.4 billion
Special education budget

$6 billion
General education instruction budget

Per pupil spending in District 75, special needs

Per pupil spending, general education

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