MANHATTAN — Margarita Rosado tried to keep her skepticism in check when she walked into her local public school and asked for a kindergarten application for her daughter, Kayla Morocho, who has Down syndrome.
She had been reluctant to move Kayla into a public school setting, but had few affordable options since her daughter, 4, will soon age out of the United Cerebral Palsy of New York City's free preschool program for students with special needs.
A new city policy dictates that all schools must accommodate the majority of special needs students, integrating them into locally-zoned general education classrooms rather than travel to more specialized facilities.
But Rosado, who lives in the Bronx, worried Kayla would no longer receive personal attention from a small army of therapists, full-time aides and special education instructors, as she does in preschool.
Her concerns were justified.
Instead of assuring her that her daughter's needs would be met at the school, as the policy dicates, Rosado said staffers declined to give her an application and referred her to a district special education office.
"I don’t think we have the right program for her here,” Rosado recalled the school's staff psychologist saying, with a warning that Kayla may receive fewer services in kindergarten than she had in preschool.
"It's very scary, it's very confusing," said Rosado, an information technology assistant. “If I could just stay home and home-school my daughter rather than go through this process, I would.”
Since the experience at her local school, Rosado has applied to other schools outside of her neighborhood out of fear that her zoned school is not ready to meet her daughter's needs.
Other parents and advocates have echoed Rosado's concerns as the city rolls out its new policy.
As part of that shift, parents with kindergarten-age students must apply to their local schools directly for the 2012-13 school year. Previoulsy, they contacted a district special education office.
Before the changes, district officials placed students with disabilities in whichever schools could provide the services they needed — even if those schools were sometimes out of the child’s district.
At the same time, within schools, special-needs students were often separated from their general-education peers.
Under the new policy, each local school is expected to provide all the services that are called for in a student’s IEP, or individualized education program. Schools are being asked to provide those services to students, as much as possible, within general-education classrooms or through temporary visits to special staff or classrooms in the school, according to the DOE.
Only students who “require a highly specialized program or set of services” will be referred out of the student’s home district to District 75, a citywide set of schools and programs for students with exceptional needs, said DOE spokesman Francis Thomas.
While the city as a whole has long been federally mandated to accommodate the needs of students with IEPs, its move to have neighborhood schools meet those needs is new — and could force some schools to serve more or different special-needs students than they have in the past.
The new policy applies to all of the city’s nearly 1,700 schools, but parents going through the kindergarten application process, which runs through March 2, are dealing with it now.
The city said its drive toward inclusion — which started as a pilot program in 2010 with 260 public schools — is based on research that suggests that the more time students with disabilities spend in general-education classrooms, the better they perform in school.
The DOE intended its new special education policy to increase the on-time graduation rate for students with disabilities — which was 27.9 percent in 2010, compared to the general graduation rate of 61 percent.
In a letter sent to principals in November, Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott said the policy shift had already led to some improvements for students with disabilities in schools that were included in the pilot program, making fewer recommendations to send students to self-contained classrooms.
While advocates praise the city's push for inclusion, they and some parents are afraid that schools will not be ready to accommodate all students' needs, which could leave children like Rosado's daughter stranded in ill-equipped classrooms.
“They’re saying to schools: ‘Take in a bunch of kids who you didn’t take in before — and do it right,’” said Maggie Moroff, coordinator of ARISE, a coalition of special education advocates and parents.
Moroff said that while advocates "support the goals of the reform absolutely, we have worries about the implementation.”
In addition, teachers and principals have expressed concern that schools are not adequately prepared for an influx of new students with disabilities.
“We haven’t really heard about what we have to do as a school,” said Amy Hom, principal of P.S. 1, an elementary school in Chinatown. “Nobody has really talked to us.”
Hom said she's concerned about how the policy changes may affect her school's budget wondering, for instance, how she would pay for a specialist whom only a few students require.
“You can’t fund a whole teacher for just two kids,” said Hom, although she believes her school will ultimately be able to provide students whatever services they need.
Other parents fear local schools will not have the expertise to deal with the full range of special needs that students may have.
Yamira Siu-Jabbaar said that when her son, Malik Jabbaar, entered kindergarten in 2009 at P.S. 92 in Harlem, his local school, he was the only student in his special education class with Down syndrome.
Siu-Jabbaar said she felt compelled to meet with Malik's teachers every day to discuss his needs, explain his learning style and push for more challenging work. She often passed along printed articles about Down syndrome.
"In my situation, I almost have to educate them how to teach my son," said Siu-Jabbaar. "They keep saying, ‘I know, I know,’ but it was evident they didn’t know."
Some worry that if every school is expected to accommodate all but the most severely disabled students, schools may be tempted to inappropriately tamp down on students’ recommended IEPs.
For example, if a school is stretched when it comes to additional manpower, it might be less likely to assign students to one-on-one counseling.
“That might mean that [a school’s] vision of how a certain child’s needs could be met is affected by what’s available at the school,” said Jean Mizutani, a program coordinator at Resources for Children with Special Needs, a New York-based nonprofit.
Schools are not allowed to change a student's IEP unilaterally, but can do so if parents are involved in the process.
DOE spokeswoman Deidrea Miller said the city offered professional development to teachers and staff to prepare them for the policy shift and each school network was provided with a special education coach.
She said the department had “put a framework in place” to address funding changes triggered by the new system. And she disputed the notion that the new policy would lead to inappropriate IEP adjustments.
Regarding Rosado's experience with the Bronx elementary school, Miller said, "I cannot comment on any facts pertaining to this student, but students requiring specialized programs will continue to have access to those programs."
Sarah Birnbaum, a consultant for parents of children with special needs, said no matter how the special education policy shift plays out, parents should educate themselves about the changes.
“It’s so important to be aware of everything your child really does need, and not to be a pinball in this process,” Birnbaum said. “That’s true every year, but I think it’s especially true this year.”
Additional reporting by Julie Shapiro