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A Step-by-Step Guide to Kindergarten Admissions for Special-Needs Students

By Patrick Wall | February 13, 2012 6:41am
Margarita Rosado listens to a presentation on financial advice for special-needs parents at a support group for parents of children with Down syndrome in Harlem.
Margarita Rosado listens to a presentation on financial advice for special-needs parents at a support group for parents of children with Down syndrome in Harlem.
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DNAinfo/Patrick Wall

For parents of children with disabilities, the transition from preschool to kindergarten seems custom-built to induce stress. A new school, a new individualized education program (which specifies the services a child must receive), new staff and, this year, a new process for applying to public kindergarten programs.

To help ease the process, DNAinfo presents a step-by-step guide for when your special-needs child turns five. Based on information from the city's Department of Education, it's complete with a resource list and advice from the experts — that is, parents.

Special education reforms taking effect across the school system this year have divided the kindergarten admissions process into two parts: applying to schools and developing a new IEP.

Applying to Schools

1. Visit schools. Visit as many schools as you can and take a close look at the quality of special education services they provide.

Sarah Birnbaum, a special-needs parent and consultant, advises parents to visit a variety of schools – community schools, District 75 (for the most severely disabled), charter, and private

During each visit, Birnbaum says to pay attention to everything: how many flights of stairs kids must climb each day; how much supervision they are given during lunch and recess; how well the principal understands special education; and how many students are in each classroom.

“The most important thing,” said Birnbaum, “is not to put your child in a situation that you don’t think will work.”

2. Attend a DOE orientation session. The city offers kindergarten orientation meetings in each borough throughout February and March which explain the parents’ role in the admissions process.

3. Submit applications. This year, all parents must apply to their local zoned school (call 311 if you’re not sure which school that is.) You can also apply to as many other schools as you like — but know that the new special education policy calls for the “vast majority” of special-needs students to attend their zoned schools.

You do not need to apply to District 75 schools or programs — if your child is recommended for one, the DOE will find the right placement.

To apply, bring a birth certificate or passport and two documents proving residence to each school and fill out an application. The deadline is March 2.

4. Receive offers. Schools will send acceptance letters from March 19 to 23. Families have until April 20 to accept an offer.

Developing an IEP

The IEP is a personalized learning plan designed for each student with disabilities, which includes a description of their current level of performance, annual goals and required supports.

1. Referral notice. This winter, if your child was in a pre-k program, you should have received a letter saying that he or she was referred to the Committee on Special Education. The CSE then assigns a local school psychologist or social worker to oversee your child’s kindergarten transition

2. Information review. Your child’s IEP and other evaluations are reviewed and, if necessary, extra assessments are scheduled.

3. IEP meeting. Parents are the key members of the IEP development team, said Lisa Quinones-Fontanez, a parent and creator of the Autism Wonderland blog. You should arrive at the IEP meeting with goals for your child already in mind.

“Think about what your child is doing and what you’d like them to do,” said Quinones-Fontanez. “But be realistic about the time frame — there’s only so much they can do in one year.”

4. Notice of recommendation. After the IEP is developed, the DOE will send a letter that specifies which services your child will receive and what school will provide them.

If your child has been receiving preschool special education services since this February or before, the DOE should send you a notice by June 15. If the DOE is late sending the notice, you may be entitled to a Nickerson letter, which requires the city to pay a year’s tuition for a state-approved, private special education program.


Advocates for Children of New York, a nonprofit with deep roots in special education reform.

Resources for Children with Special Needs, a nearly 30-year-old support organization with parent centers in the Bronx and Manhattan.

Parent to Parent of New York State helps special-needs parents meet and share information.

The city's official special education kindergarten guidebook.

A DOE slideshow with more kindergarten admissions info.

A detailed FAQ guide on the special education admissions process, produced by Advocates for Children.