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Mayor reforms special ed with boro school as model

Mayor Michael Bloomberg held up a Middle Village elementary school as a model for a citywide overhaul of the special education system that will funnel funds out of administration and into the classroom.

The mayor visited PS 87 at 67-54 80th St. last Thursday to announce a comprehensive reform that he promised “will bring more of the sunshine of openness and accountability” to the city’s beleaguered special education programs.

“By and large New York City schools fail shamefully to improve the odds for students in special ed,” Bloomberg said as he stood in a classroom crammed with school officials and reporters sitting on child-sized chairs. “We will not tolerate a system that dooms our children in this fashion.”

Bloomberg touted the reform as a major component of his administration’s mission to improve public education in the city after having won control of the schools last year.

“They have stood up and given control to the mayor,” he said of the state Legislature, represented at the event by state Assemblyman Michael Cohen (D-Forest Hills) and state Sen. Serphin Maltese (R-Glendale). “It’s now our responsibility to make sure we deliver great service.”

Under the current system, 150,000 students citywide are classified as disabled, with half of them placed in what educators describe as the most-restrictive setting, taught exclusively with other special education students.

The goal now is to perform better student evaluations to determine whether special education placements are appropriate, and to integrate the students as much as possible with their peers in regular classrooms.

That is the approach that PS 87 has followed for the past seven years under principal Arlynn Brody, who has “put a strong emphasis on integrated learning where special ed students stand and learn side-by-side with their non-disabled peers,” according to Schools Chancellor Joel Klein.

“They are using the strategies that are the core of our citywide reform,” Klein said. “It’s schools like this that we need to replicate throughout the city.”

Nearly 35 percent of students at PS 87 are in special education, because the school accepts pupils from beyond its zoned boundaries so they can take advantage of its progressive programs. The school was among about 200 high-achievers citywide that were exempted from the uniform curriculum that will be taught in every city school come September.

Specialized instructors like occupational therapists and ESL teachers all come into the classrooms at PS 87 to work with students, the result being a class where Klein said a visitor could not tell the special education students and their non-disabled peers apart.

The city’s reform will follow a three-pronged approach, Bloomberg said, that will focus on improving instruction for all students with disabilities, eliminating unnecessary bureaucracy and enforcing accountability at the school level.

The Department of Education will improve professional development for teachers and train them in leading instructional strategies, Klein said.

The 37 district-level Committees on Special Education will be streamlined into 10 regional CSEs — each incorporated into one of the 10 Learning Support Centers being created as part of the city’s restructured school system. The more than 1,900 staff members who worked in the district special ed offices will be redeployed: about 750 will remain at the new learning centers; and 500 will go to the schools, reducing the staff by 600.

“We’ll see whether we can find other jobs in the system” for the 600, Bloomberg said.

The evaluations for special ed students, currently performed at the schools and then duplicated on the district level, will be done exclusively in the schools, eliminating what Bloomberg characterized as an unnecessary step.

The reform will turn 960 evaluators who currently do not teach at all into half-time instructors, adding the equivalent of 480 new teachers to the system at no additional cost.

“It’s a reallocation of resources in a much more efficient way,” Klein said of the reforms.

To improve accountability the city Department of Education will establish a set of benchmarks for the special education programs. The city will also set aside $2.5 million as an incentive to reward schools that perform well, while another pot of $2.5 million will be doled out to low-rated schools that need assistance.

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.

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