The Right School for Special Needs Children

Special needs children caught in school-network communication gaps
By Petr Svab
Petr Svab
Petr Svab
Petr Svab is a reporter covering New York. Previously, he covered national topics including politics, economy, education, and law enforcement.
October 29, 2013 Updated: October 8, 2018

NEW YORK—The mother of an autistic 5-year-old girl couldn’t hold her tears back when talking about what she went through to get her child into a kindergarten.

“Everyone agreed that Jadeline needed a 12-to-1 class,” the mother, Jacqueline Cruz said. This year an Individual Education Program (IEP) was developed for the child. IEP is an educational program developed individually for every child with special needs.

Over the summer Cruz received a letter from the Department of Education (DOE) assuring her there would be a 12-to-1 student-to-teacher ratio per class in a brand new school just around the corner.

“I was thrilled,” Cruz said.

Nevertheless, during orientation she was told the school would not have 12-to-1 classes in September. So she went to the DOE. “I was told that Jadeline had to go to her zoned school,” the mother said, sobbing. “I felt as if no one was listening to me and no one cared.”

As soon as the school year started, both the school and the mother agreed the child was not ready to be in a class of more than 20 students.

According to Cruz, the school staff could not get approval for her daughter to go to a new school because of changes in the management of special needs children brought about by the DOE Special Education Reform, which began in 2010.

Special Needs Reform

Last school year more than 225,000 students in the city received special education services. That is over 21 percent of the student population. And while just over 30 percent of students in New York City passed this year’s Common Core tests, only 6 to 8 percent of special needs students were able to pass.

The reform aims to narrow the achievement gap by integrating students with special needs in regular classrooms to the most extent “academically appropriate.”

Cruz and several other parents and advocates shared their thoughts on the reform before the New York City Council Committee on Education on Oct. 25. The majority cited a similar concern about special needs children enrolled in schools without proper services.

Carmen Alvarez, vice president for special education at the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), the city’s leading teachers’ union, also gave testimony.

She pegged the main issue of concern on the miscommunication between the schools and the networks tasked with helping schools implement the DOE policy.

“The whole operation is run like a game of telephone,” Alvarez said. “Every message delivered from these lovely people … gets scrambled by the time it gets to the 1,700 schools.”


The School Support Networks were introduced in 2010. They replaced regional school support organizations with about 55 new ones, grouped in five clusters based on distinct school support approaches or philosophies, rather than assigned based on location.

According to the DOE, its aim was to let principals choose the network team he or she believed would best support each school’s needs.

On the other hand, the new system caused a situation where one network helps schools from many different regions.

Before, it was enough for parents to know the local organizations, but now some parents said they don’t know who to contact or how to reach them.

“Dealing with a network is much like dealing with an insurance company when you put in a claim,” Vice President of the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators Randi Herman testified. “The initial answer is no.”

According to the last published survey of principals (2010–2011), almost half of the networks were rated one or two on a one-to-four scale—four being the most satisfactory.

“Grouping schools with similar needs for intensive support would make sense, but isn’t feasible given the logistics,” said UFT President Michael Mulgrew, while testifying before the same committee a year ago, on Oct. 25, 2012.

The DOE presentation on the reform does state that special needs children should be able to attend their zoned schools, or the schools of their choice. But that is not what Cruz was told.

After almost two months of appeals, she finally got a place for her child in a 12-to-1 class in another school, just four blocks away from the first one.

Cruz had to take time out from her job and give up some of her income to advocate for her daughter. “I’m frustrated that so much time was wasted getting to this point,” she said.

“It was not just a process, it was a daily struggle.”

Petr Svab
Petr Svab is a reporter covering New York. Previously, he covered national topics including politics, economy, education, and law enforcement.