Staten Island Parents Push for More Autism Programs in Public Schools

By Nicholas Rizzi on February 17, 2014 9:16am 

 With a new schools chancellor, Staten Island parents and advocates have restarted a fight to get more autism programs in public schools.
With a new schools chancellor, Staten Island parents and advocates have restarted a fight to get more autism programs in public schools.
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DNAinfo/Amy Zimmer

STATEN ISLAND — Parents of children on the autism spectrum have launched a new push to improve services in Staten Island after the election of Bill de Blasio as mayor.

At the first Panel for Educational Policy meeting in the borough since Carmen Fariña
took over as de Blasio's schools chancellor, parents pressed her to add more autism programs in public schools.

"It's competitive," said Michelle Thomas, who has two sons with autism, about trying to find a school for her boys.

"It's almost like private school where they're going to pick the creme de la creme because they can be that selective."

Thomas has been working to get her youngest son Luke, 4, into one of the few NEST programs offered in the borough.

The program, which teaches high-functioning students in a co-learning classroom, is only offered in three schools around the borough, with only eight seats in each.

"Staten Island has the highest number of ASD [Autism Spectrum Disorder] children in the city. Does eight spots seem adequate?" Thomas said.

But the Department of Education said the program serves a small portion of students on the spectrum, and Staten Island has more seats than any other borough.

Andrea Lella, CEO of Families Helping Families NYC, an organization that provides support for students with disabilities, said the numbers and other options aren't enough.

"Every year the parents in our district go through this competitive process to get into schools," she said. "Special ed shouldn't be about a competitive process, it shouldn't be that way."

Aside from NEST, the DOE also offers Horizon classes for students with autism, with a total of 10 programs in the borough.

Both NEST and Horizon mandate yearly training for teachers, something that Lella said has been missing in the past.

Staten Island also has 8:1:1 classes — which have a ratio of eight students, one teacher and one paraprofessional — that have served students with autism for years.

Lella said teachers in the program do not require mandatory training, and previously only the well-loved P.S. 69, where the program originated, had it because the principal paid for it.

The DOE said it was integrating the 8:1:1 into the Horizon program, which requires mandatory training.

DOE officials said they add more seats to autism programs every year.

But Lella said there's still a lack of options and many parents take legal action to force the DOE to pay for appropriate education in private schools — which is a lot more expensive for the city.

"That's what we're being very foolish about. We're not investing the money in mandatory training but we're spending 10 times that amount," she said.

"It just doesn't make sense."

Thomas, who's oldest son, 7-year-old Ryan, has had problems with the DOE's placement, said she was cautiously optimistic about the new commissioner.

"The initial buzz has been that at least she's an educator," Thomas said.

"But anybody can sit on a podium and say 'we're going to, we're going to.' It's very frustrating as a parent of children with autism."

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