first day of schoolThis week thousands of New York City five-year-olds strapped on their backpacks, clung tightly to their parents’ hands, took a big gulp, and became kindergarteners – a rite of passage that, while scary for some kids and bittersweet for most parents, is an exciting day of picture taking and pride. Sadly, this is not the case for too many low-income special needs students, whose parents find themselves up against a Department of Education that is pursuing policies that impede their children’s progress. For them, turning five and entering kindergarten often means the abrupt loss of many of the special education services and benefits that they received in pre-school.

I am not alone in being frustrated by the mindless bureaucracy and apparent indifference towards its special needs students shown by the New York City Department of Education. Parents of typically developing children have legitimate concerns about a range of issues, such as increasing reliance on high stakes testing, the lack of middle school choices, and the lack of planning for the impact of development on our neighborhood schools. But for poor families with special needs children, the stakes are even higher: it’s about a child’s access to education.

The problems are particularly acute for students making the critical transition from special-education pre-school to kindergarten. These “turning five” disabled students may have had the benefit of relatively robust and holistic support in their pre-school years: appropriate school placements, tutoring, therapeutic interventions and other supports to meet their individual needs. However, when they enter kindergarten, they are facing a host of obstacles. The DOE regularly terminates needed services for children entering kindergarten based on administrative convenience and unrelated to the needs of the child. This is despite the advice and recommendations of pre-school teachers, doctors, psychologists and other trained professionals who have worked with these students and know their needs. For example, in a recent NYLAG case, the DOE has terminated a turning-five autistic child’s one-to-one dedicated educator that the child needed to manage her severe behaviors as she transitioned into kindergarten. In another case, the DOE drastically reduced a turning-five child’s speech and language therapy simply because the kindergarten program could not provide more.

There are a limited number of attorneys, including the Special Education Unit at NYLAG, that provide free legal representation to see that low-income disabled children receive the appropriate public education, including necessary related services, to which they are legally entitled. When the DOE fails to do so, we represent parents at administrative hearings, and, where necessary, appeal to the State Review Office and federal court to secure DOE funding for an educational program in an appropriate non-public or private school that is able to address the student’s unique needs.

The State’s and City’s educational policies and practices impact not only the “turning five” population, they negatively affect all special needs students, at a time when the population of disabled children is continuing to rise.  Millions of dollars of taxpayer money are often wasted by the DOE in administrative hearings and appeals with the purpose of denying special needs children necessary educational programs and related services.  With a new administration about to get to work, let’s hope the DOE will make the changes necessary to ensure that all disabled children receive appropriate educations.

Blog Post by Yisroel Schulman
President & Attorney-in-Charge