• Where Your Child Fits In

    Two Experts Pull Back The Curtain On The World Of Special Needs Education In NYC

    By Veronica Torok

    As if negotiating the special
    education process isn’t daunting enough, frequent reorganizations to the NYC
    Department of Education and recent changes to local procedures may leave city
    parents wondering where to begin, especially when it comes to kindergarten and
    elementary enrollment. To help get answers to some key questions, New York
    sat down with two experts, Nina Lublin and Jean Mizutani of
    Resources for Children with Special Needs (RCSN), an independent, nonprofit
    organization committed to helping families of children with disabilities. —

    As RCSN’s Early Childhood
    Specialist, Lublin demystifies the
    special needs referral process and helps families of young children with
    special needs secure the services their children need. Meanwhile, teaching families
    how to access appropriate education programs is part of Mizutani’s job as the
    organization’s Educational Advocacy Team Leader and Bronx Special Education
    Parent Center Program Coordinator.

    Here, they help
    explain the latest changes in the special education community in order to help
    guide parents’ decision making. The good news? When it comes to what may be
    right for your child, parents know more than they think.

    What are the primary functions
    of RCSN?

    Nina Lublin: To empower
    parents of children with special needs. In NYC, as you know, fewer than 20
    percent of youth with special needs graduate with a diploma, and thousands lack
    essential afterschool programs and support services. RCSN is here to create
    bright futures for the city’s at-risk children and youth by empowering parents
    with the knowledge, skills and confidence to advocate for their kids. We also
    advise and collaborate with educators, mental health professionals and all
    levels of government to bring a family perspective to the systems that are
    designed to help children. We’ve been funded as a federal Parent Training and
    Information Center (PTI) for about 20 years. We are also funded in part through
    a New York State Education Department project called the Special Education
    Parent Centers. Our PTI work is city-wide. We work with families of children
    birth through 26 [years], whose children have special needs.

    What should parents know about
    the Turning 5 guidelines and the process of transitioning a student from
    preschool to kindergarten?

    Jean Mizutani: The whole
    process has changed, and next year it’s going to change even more. I think the
    bottom line is this: There is a focus on inclusive education, and the goal is
    to educate typical students and students with disabilities side-by-side. In
    order to achieve that…schools are supposed to have a wide variety of supports
    and special education services that can be provided to enable the child with a
    disability to participate in these local schools… If I had a child with a
    specific disability, such as autism or PDD (Pervasive Developmental Disorders),
    I would ask, Is the staff in the school trained in working with students on
    the spectrum? Is there a behavior specialist that the teacher could go to if
    she needs support or assistance?
    I would try to find out how much support
    is there.

    NL: In New
    York State,
    a three- or four-year-old is classified as a Preschool Child with a Disability.
    And when that child turns five—if it looks like your child is going to get
    school-age services through the Department of Ed—one of the important things
    that happens after the child gets evaluated is getting a specific
    classification. That is, using one of the 13 categories from the Individuals
    with Disabilities Education Act. So moving from having a “Preschool Child with
    a Disability” to having a child that might be categorized as having a speech
    and language disability or a learning disability or an intellectual disability,
    or on the autistic spectrum, or with an emotional disturbance—those categories
    carry an awful lot of weight when it comes to securing appropriate classroom
    programs and obtaining appropriate services.

    Do you see the recent changes
    that make the kindergarten registration process the same for all children,
    those with special needs and those without, as an advantage?

    JM: Parents that have
    children with special needs should not rely exclusively on schools for
    information. First, parents should gather a good balance of information by
    attending the NYCDOE’s Turning 5 Information Sessions that are held this month,
    followed by “Transition to Kindergarten” trainings conducted by RCSN or the Early
    Childhood Direction
    Centers. All parents must
    participate in the kindergarten application process, so full advantage of open
    house opportunities should be taken. This is important since the majority of
    students with disabilities will be educated in the community schools that
    accept them and the school will have the explicit responsibility to provide the
    individualized supports and services that are needed. In certain cases where a
    school that accepts a child cannot provide an appropriate program, the DOE’s
    office of Student Enrollment will provide an offer of placement for a specific
    school. For the most part, this will occur primarily for students that require
    a District 75 placement (a specialized, city-wide full time special education
    programming) for children that have significant cognitive or emotional challenges,
    sensory impairment or autism. If a preschooler has been attending a program of
    that type, parents should ask for a list of District 75 programs to tour, which
    is available at the NYC DOE’s Information sessions.

    What advice do you have for
    parents about choosing between public and non-public or private schools?

    NL: As kindergarten keeps
    changing, and as both school reform and special ed reform move forward, many
    families are concerned about what kind of kindergarten experience awaits their
    child. Some parents are thinking about charter schools, others are thinking
    about public school kindergarten, and indeed more than a few parents are
    thinking about private schools; also some of our little ones may be eligible
    for some of the funded non-public schools. It’s a gigantic research project for
    families that starts very early, and I think that many families will opt for a
    public kindergarten experience. As we have seen in the past couple of years,
    not all public school kindergartens seem to be created equal, even though they
    all must meet city and state standards… My background suggests to me that,
    wherever possible, we should encourage families toward public school
    kindergarten, which is voluntary by the way, with whatever supports and
    services the child needs. I usually recommend that to families.

    What are some good ways for
    parents to get involved?

    JM: I think it’s more
    important for special needs parents to be front and center; to be known by the
    school and to get involved—in a bake sale, if there is a book drive, whatever
    it is. While the parent is doing that, I think the parent should also ask if
    there is a special education parent teacher association. There is such thing as
    special education PTA, and that’s been
    relatively rare in the past, but the reason I bring it up now is because now
    we’re talking about including children with disabilities in regular community
    schools in large numbers.

    What steps should parents take
    if they suspect their child may have special needs?

    JM: You know more than you
    think. You know your child better than anyone else. Our new training tagline is
    “When it comes to your child, the expert is you.” If you have a concern, check
    it out, follow your own instinct… I don’t think that there’s really any
    downside to having your child evaluated if you have a concern.

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