Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Karen Sprowal on the negative impact of excessive class sizes on students with disabilities

Yesterday there were hearings of the NYC Council Education Committee on the myriad problems with special education in NYC schools; with thousands of children denied their mandated services, and pushed into classes that were too large to meet their needs.  Here is an article from CapitalNY,  that mentions the testimony of a parent whose son died while waiting for a private school placement.  Below is the testimony that Karen Sprowal gave on behalf of Class Size Matters.

October 28, 2014

Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today.  My name is Karen Sprowal, I am a public school parent of a sixth grader with special needs. I am here speaking to you today on behalf of Class Size Matters a citywide advocacy group devoted to providing information on the benefits of smaller classes to parents and others nationwide.

A few weeks ago, 73 professors of education and psychology sent a letter to Chancellor Farina, pointing out that the sharp increase in class sizes over the last few years was not only undermining the quality of education in our schools, but also working against the potential benefits of the administration’s special education initiatives:  

“We believe that the benefits of many of the other positive reforms that the city is pursuing, such as increasing access to Universal prekindergarten, establishing community schools, and inclusion for students with disabilities, will be undermined unless the trend of growing class sizes is reversed in the city’s public schools. In particular, placing students with special needs into classes of 25, 30 or more will not work to serve their individual needs, or the needs of the other students in the class.”[1]

I attach the letter to my testimony.   As research shows reducing class sizes to increase student achievement is a proven approach whose value has been shown over and over again. Lowering class sizes will lead to a host of health and economic benefits, as well as substantial savings in avoiding the costs of private school placements and most importantly, enhance the chance of successful academic outcomes for thousands of NYC students with disabilities. 

Recently Chalkbeat reported that special education complaints from teachers rose 60 percent between 2012 and 2013, citing issues including too-large class sizes and a lack of services.[2] Our analysis of DOE statistics show that last year, 3805 special needs children in grades K-8 were in self-contained classes that violated the class limits; 10 percent of those assigned to 12/1 classes; 11 percent of those in 12/1/1 classes; 18 percent of those in 6/1/1 classes, and 9 percent of those in 8/1/1 classes.[3]

What is just as problematic is that in the effort to provide inclusion, the DOE is pushing special needs students into general education and inclusion classes that are much too large to meet their needs -- as these class sizes are increasing every year, and now at their largest in early grades in 15 years.  Don’t get me wrong, inclusion is a great model if class sizes can be kept low enough; but we all know this is not what is happening in NYC schools. 
As a parent of a sixth grader who attended P.S.276 in Brooklyn with a learning disability recently explained,  her son could concentrate better and he received more attention during small-group sessions with other special-education students than in his integrated class. The child himself said, “When I’m in my regular class, sometimes they don’t notice me.”[4] 
In 2012 a memo in which DOE instructed principals made it clear in a very threatening tone, that they could not deny a zoned student a seat in an inclusion class – until class sizes had reached maximum levels of 25 in Kindergarten, and 32 in grades 1st- 5th, and 30-34 in middle and upper grades:  
The need to cap a grade arises when a zoned school is physically unable to accommodate all of its zoned students. In order for a cap request to be approved, all of the following conditions must be met:

·         All GE/ICT in a given grade have reached the contractual maximum (K = 25; Grades 1-5 = 32; Grades 6-8 Title I = 30/ Non-Title I = 33); and
·         There is no mechanism to collapse sections, more efficiently program, or repurpose rooms; and
·         There is no other space to open an additional section.

For recommendations that are not in the best interest of students, regular progressive disciplinary measures for school leaders and IEP teams will apply.”[5](emphasis added)
The result has been failure: failure for the inclusion initiative, and failure for too many of our children. I’m not just talking about academic failure. This initiative has also led to a rise in the share of suspensions experienced by students with disabilities as well – as noted in DOE data. [6]
The blog Motherlode in the NY Times recently published the poignant account of a mother whose son repeatedly acted out and was suspended as a direct result of being placed in a large inclusion class.  It was only when he switched schools and was assigned to a smaller class that his behavior improved and he was able to learn:

 “Last year, I saw my son, now age 9, at the lowest of lows in his classroom. He was hitting other children, spitting on them, stealing, leaving the classroom and even kicking a teacher. He barely got any schoolwork done. Things got so bad that he got two in-school suspensions.

All this time, Xavier, who is in special education, was in an “integrated co-teaching class” with a full classroom of other children. ….. Xavier’s school seemed happier to punish him than to help him. For three years it pushed him to the side because it didn’t know how to deal with him. I often wondered to myself whether this was happening in every public school, to all special education children or just to my son. 

Six months ago, I was able to get my son transferred to another public school. I’ve been able to see how a child can thrive with the right support. This new school is awesome. It immediately placed my son in the right setting — there are only 11 students in his class. Xavier is doing great. No outbursts, no being sent to the principal’s office. Instead, Xavier is going in early for math tutoring. He is passing spelling tests. He is rushing in the house after school to do homework because now he understands it.[7]

When my own child entered school, back in 2008, he was fortunate enough to be in a classroom with only twenty students.  His class sizes remained between eighteen and twenty-three from kindergarten through third grade. Despite the difficult learning challenges he faced daily, he flourished during those years in both general and inclusion class settings. At one point when he was well above grade level his teachers suggested that we consider the gifted program for him.

However, when he entered fourth grade his class size increased to twenty-nine students and it was apparent that more than any other factor, class size mattered for my son. As many student with ADHD he was unable to focus or be productive in a classroom with so many students. I watched in horror as my son unraveled, here was my once inquisitive, bright, eager to learn and happy child who essentially stop learning and became emotionally unhinged whenever he was in school.

His fourth grade teacher wrote on his report card, he only participated in class instruction when the class worked in smaller groups. By the middle of the school year in order to keep in school, he required an arsenal of IEP support services, including a crisis Paraprofessional. These services were badly managed with very little oversight, collaborations or accountability. He began having frequent meltdowns in class, his attendance suffered; he was subjected to suspensions and for the first time ever hospitalized just weeks before that school year ended.

Tragically this became a huge problem for not only my son, but for many other students with special needs who suffered academically as well the same fate behaviorally as a direct result of excessive class sizes.

During the mayoral campaign when asked directly by parents, Bill De Blasio promised he would reduce class size in all grades, to the levels the city agreed to in their original Contract for Excellence plan.[8]  Mayor De Blasio has yet to show any sign that he intends to follow through on his promises, and we expect class sizes to increase yet again this year in schools throughout the city. The city's lack of commitment to reduce class size and its failure to implement its own Contracts for Excellence plan has been devastating for my son and so many others like him as well. 

Despite class size reduction being the number one concern for public school parents on the DOE survey for eight years, in numerous town hall meetings this fall the Chancellor has brushed off parents who expressed the need for smaller classes.

The special education inclusion program will not work to help special needs children learn, until and unless class sizes are reduced and their basic constitutional rights to a smaller class are met.      

Thank you for your time.  

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think getting a personal mentor with a student with disabilities might be the best way for personalized learning and mentorship.

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