Big changes are coming to the New York City public schools in September. Rumors have been swirling for months amongst professionals, yet only recently has the official message been delivered: the Department of Education will be mainstreaming the majority of students with special needs in the public school system in a few short weeks.
Yes, this is in accordance with the Individuals with Disabilities Act's (IDEA) notion of offering students an education in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). Yes, this is in line with policies adopted by many districts around the nation.
Still, the immediate results may leave parents and professionals alike with more concern than comfort.
How can a single general education teacher provide the proper support for 30 children, including what may amount to a third of those children being classified as special needs? How can teachers not only ensure academic success, but prepare for the social and emotional challenges that will no doubt play a role in classroom dynamics? Bullying, low self-esteem, depression and lack of motivation are real issues facing even young children today, a disproportionate number of those students having special needs. How can a teacher with little to no special education background be the ideal instructor for children with special needs?
Disclaimer: I am biased. I have seen far too many children with special needs flunk out of the second grade to believe that mainstreaming all of NYC is the answer. I have dried too many tears and heard too many stories about being teased and tortured and beaten up, too many anecdotes about being called "stupid," and far worse names by peers to think that the DOE's decision is truly being made in the best interests of the child. I have witnessed far too many passionate and qualified special education teachers being excessed now that the rules have changed. I am not here to say that self-contained classrooms are the solution or that private special needs schools are far superior (though, again, full disclosure, I have worked in both self-contained classrooms and private special needs schools and I have seen children succeed both academically and socially/emotionally).
I do not have the perfect solution, although I wish I did. Right now, the best thing parents and professionals can do is take the time to get informed, learn their rights, ask questions and get involved.
Speak to your local representatives and make sure your voice is heard.