NEW YORK — Just days before the beginning of the school year, Gina Rago had no idea where her daughter would go to kindergarten.
Gianna, a cheerful 4-year-old who was born with cerebral palsy, has difficulty climbing stairs and does not speak, though she recognizes letters and shapes and can communicate through her own version of sign language.
Rago expected that it would be tough to find a public school program that met her daughter's needs. She didn't expect an all-consuming, months-long battle requiring a lawyer, trips to half a dozen schools and hundreds of hours of research, phone calls and meetings.
"This whole process was ridiculous," said Rago, 39, who lives on Staten Island. "No one wanted to listen to me…. I was so frustrated."
Rago is just one of dozens of parents across the city who are struggling with the Department of Education's new special education policy, which seeks to mainstream thousands of kids with special needs by moving them from centralized, and specialized, programs into their local zoned school.
Advocates who work with special needs children say the DOE's goal of mainstreaming is admirable, but they worry that many of the city's 1,700 schools are ill prepared to serve the broad spectrum of kids who are now enrolling, including some who need small, self-contained classes.
Advocates for Children, which supports disadvantaged children in New York City, has received more than three-dozen calls this summer from parents who tried to enroll their child in their zoned school, as the DOE directed, only to be told that the school couldn't provide the services the child needed.
"The problem we're facing is that not every zoned school can serve every zoned student," said Randi Levine, a lawyer with Advocates for Children.
"Not every school can have a small class, and not every kindergartner is ready to be in a big class."
Shael Polakow-Suransky, the DOE's chief academic officer, said the special education reforms are essential because less than one-third of special education students in New York City currently graduate from high school.
Mainstreaming children as much as possible is one proven way to improve their performance, Polakow-Suransky said.
The city has already begun training principals and teachers on how to handle their new special needs students, and the DOE plans to pour $30 million into hiring extra staff to ensure all kids' needs are met, Polakow-Suransky said.
"We're not going to cut corners on this," Polakow-Suransky said. "These are our most vulnerable kids and our goal is to get them the resources they need."
Still, Polakow-Suransky said the city has seen a "handful" of cases in which kids were assigned to a school that did not have programs in place to meet their needs, and he expects to hear about some additional issues after the first day of school Thursday.
The DOE has found placements for every family that has come forward with a problem so far, he said.
"Change doesn't come easily," Polakow-Suransky said. "We've had three decades of neglect for kids in New York City and we're going to change that."
Last week, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio released a report praising the Department of Education's goals but also calling on the city to put more resources into training school staff. The city must also monitor schools closely to ensure all children's needs are met under the new policy, de Blasio added.
For Rago, the saga of finding her daughter a kindergarten seat started last spring, when she met with DOE officials to determine her daughter's Individualized Education Plan, or IEP.
The city initially wanted to put Gianna in a District 75 school devoted entirely to kids with special needs, but after visiting two District 75 schools Rago objected. She felt her daughter would make more progress in a mainstreamed environment.
At Rago's request, officials agreed to place Gianna in a small 12-student class for special needs students within a general-education public school. Gianna's IEP also called for a full-time paraprofessional accompanying her for extra help.
With the IEP in hand, Rago visited Gianna's zoned school, P.S. 53, only to find that the building was full of stairs — posing a danger for Gianna, who is unsteady on her feet.
The DOE then assigned Gianna to the nearby P.S. 55, but when Rago toured the school she found that they would not offer any small kindergarten classes this fall, and they wanted to put Gianna in a standard 25-student class instead.
"She can't talk — she would be completely overwhelmed in a setting like that," Rago said.
After hiring a lawyer and turning down yet another DOE placement, at P.S. 56, because that school cut its 12-student class at the last minute for budget reasons, Rago was left wondering whether Gianna would be able to go to kindergarten at all.
"At this point I’m like, 'My daughter is going to be in my living room in September,'" Rago said.
Finally, early last week, Rago heard that Gianna had been placed in P.S. 4, a school with a strong reputation for serving special needs students with SmartBoards in every classroom. She registered Gianna there on Aug. 28, just over a week before school's start on Thursday, Sept. 6.
"I had to keep fighting and fighting and fighting and she finally got the placement she deserves," Rago said last week. "It's been so tough. I've had a knot in my stomach since [the] initial IEP meeting in April."
Up in the South Bronx, Margarita Rosado had a similarly frustrating experience when she tried to find a kindergarten seat for her daughter, Kayla, who has Down syndrome.
Rosado, 46, tried to register Kayla at her local zoned school, P.S. 150, but staff first said they could not provide the services Kayla needed, including occupational therapy. Then they warned that Kayla would be ostracized by the other children, Rosado said.
"They told me to be prepared because children like mine are typically rejected," Rosado said. "I feared for my daughter's safety at that school. I was very discouraged."
P.S. 150 did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
After many emails and phone calls, Rosado finally secured a spot for Kayla at P.S. 236, where both staff and students warmly welcomed Kayla when she visited on the last day of school in June.
"They treated her as a person before discussing her disability," Rosado said. "That's all we want for our kids. I cried in the classroom when I saw all the kids go up to [Kayla] and hug her."
Rosado said she was disheartened that it took so much work to get DOE officials to listen to her concerns and meet her daughter's needs. And even though Kayla's story ended well, Rosado worries that other families will not be so lucky — especially if they don't realize how hard they have to fight.
"It was a very long, very heartbreaking process," she said.
Advocates for Children's ARISE Coalition has more information about the rights of special needs children and the steps families can take to ensure their kids' needs are met. Parents can also visit one of the DOE's office hours sessions for families with questions about special education or call the DOE's special education hotline, 718-935-2007. Advocates for Children has a hotline as well, 866-427-6033.