Saturday, July 22, 2006

How NYC is Failing it Special Ed Students

Edweek’s blog led me to this three-part WNYC radio story, “How NYC is Failing Its Special Education Students.” I highly recommend listening to the whole series. It originally aired in June.

Below is one of the WNYC graphs depicting how New York City’s high school administrators dole out disproportionate numbers of IEP (Individualized Education Program) diplomas. IEP diplomas are not really diplomas at all. What they communicate to potential employers and colleges is, “This is a special ed student who does not have the intellectual ability to graduate from high school.” From my experience, administrators in NYC use these “diplomas” as a way to get rid of their “problem” learning disabled students (rather than taking the time to actually educate them).

Two of my former principals issued IEP diplomas to students who showed up to school maybe 20 percent of the time. They also gave them to students who showed up every day, tried their best, and could have easily gotten local diplomas, if not Regents diplomas, if they had just stayed one extra semester in high school. Such students should be encouraged to stay in school for a few more months to get a diploma that will actually help them succeed in the future. High school special education students should also be clearly educated about what an IEP diploma actually entails. WNYC reporter Beth Fertig does an excellent job covering this and other issues affecting NYC’s special education students and their families.

Monday, July 10, 2006

I'm Insubordinate, Part 2

The day after Principal Puffschmuck charged me with insubordination, I gave her a copy of the relevant section of IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act). I was still hoping she’d see the light - or at least something remotely resembling logic in the area of special ed.

IDEA is basically the bible of special education professionals. It clearly states that a minimum of two teachers must be present at special ed annual review meetings – “at least one special education teacher of the child” and “at least one general education teacher of the child.” (The general ed teacher requirement is waived if the child doesn’t participate in general ed at all, which was not the case for students at my school.) This bare minimum requirement was also clearly spelled out in a NYC Dept. of Ed “high priority” memo that was given to all principals.

Of course, successful annual reviews involve not just two teachers, but all of the child’s teachers and service providers. How Puffschmuck thought it made sense that the teachers at annual review meetings did not need to be the child’s actual teachers was beyond me. Aside from being a law, it should be common sense to anyone who even remotely considers the purpose of annual reviews that the teachers attending these meetings cannot be any random teachers from the school. They must be teachers “of the child.”

The purpose of annual reviews is to discuss and write the child’s academic (and in some cases behavioral) goals for the upcoming year. Responsible parents attend these meetings and take them very seriously. High school students are also encouraged to attend their own annual review meetings. After the meeting, the agreed upon goals are entered into a legal document called the IEP (Individualized Education Plan). The child is then promoted or held back based on whether or not s/he meets these goals.

So … uh ... yeah … it’s kinda important that the teachers who run this process and write the goals actually know and teach the child. Yet Puffschmuck had ordered me to conduct annual reviews and write IEPs for students I did not teach or even know in any capacity. And when I told her I could not follow through on this order because, as a special ed professional, I knew it was not in the best interests of my students and their parents, she wrote me up for insubordination and threatened my job. When was it that Puffschmuck lost sight of the fact that she was a public educator and not a military dictator?

One of the many sad realities of inner city teaching is that some parents don’t show up for their kids’ annual reviews. This seems to make some administrators think it’s okay to cut corners and further disservice the child by turning the annual review process into a meaningless charade. I don’t care how much of a pain in the ass a child is or how irresponsible his or her parents are. Every special ed student has the right to a meaningful annual review process. Living in the projects, having a learning disability, and having parents who don’t show up for school meetings does not make a child open game to further educational injustices. This is not an issue I am willing to waiver on. This is why the fight with Puffschmuck was so important to me. This was why the annual reviews needed to be done right. They needed to be meaningful. We owed it to the students.

But back to being insubordinate. The Individuals with Disabilities Act was not proof enough to Puffschmuck that she was wrong. She told me I’d have to go through a union grieving process if I wanted to try to get the letter of insubordination out of my file. A letter like this can ruin a teacher’s future career options. The teachers’ union rep in my school was a nice enough guy and a well-respected veteran teacher, but I’d often heard other teachers accuse him of being in cahoots with the administration, so I was skeptical. My district union rep was awful. He knew nothing about special ed. He was condescending, and he liked to claim credit for victories teachers actually won on their own. I also tried speaking with a union rep who supposedly focused on special ed issues. She was not even aware of the wording of IDEA.

So one day I said, “F*** Puffschmuck. F*** the union.” (Note: I didn’t begin cursing until I became a teacher.) It was clearly all a big charade. Sadly, that was how I was beginning to view the entire NYC Dept of Ed. A big charade. But if there’s one thing I learned in journalism school, it's how to pick up a phone and get through to people. I called the Superintendent’s office. With a little persistence, I reached the Deputy Superintendent. By some amazing stroke of good fortune, I found myself communicating with a South Bronx administrator who still had his wits about him and who did not view teachers as the enemy. (They exist!) We had a rational conversation. I faxed him my letter and Puffschmuck’s letter. After reading them, he called me back and said, “When you’re right, you’re right, Miss Dennis.” The next day he told Puffschmuck to remove the letter of insubordination from my file.

The end. Or so you’d think.

One of the UFT (teachers’ union) reps later reprimanded me for speaking to the Deputy Superintendent directly. “You shouldn’t talk to them. You can’t make deals with them.” Well …. no, that wouldn’t be in the best interest of the UFT, would it? Teachers and superintendents actually communicating directly and respectfully? If this trend caught on it’d be the death of the UFT. Of course, the UFT still took credit for my victory. (Glad to know my 80 bucks a month in union fees were worth it.)

Puffschmuck never mentioned her conversation with her boss - the Deputy Superintendent - but it became obvious that she wasn’t going to let it go. This was the same woman who’d fired one of our English teachers (the only teacher who’d ever attempted to start an AP program at the school) after he showed other teachers a story he’d written about his experiences with Puffschmuck. Puffschmuck was portrayed unfavorably, to say the least. And then bam! The AP teacher was gone. He didn’t put up much of a fight, though. I think he wanted to get as far away from Puffshmuck as possible.

Now it was my turn. I’d made Puffschmuck look bad, and she just couldn’t stop herself. She began lurking around my classroom, hoping to find some technicality to nail me on. Meanwhile – in other news - the school’s hallways were a zoo, even during classes. Most students didn’t even know who Puffschmuck was. Seriously. She was an interim, first-year principal, and she had no idea how to lead. (She came from teaching ESL in Brooklyn, and I still don’t get why she was so clueless as a principal.) She had never even introduced herself to the students. It sounds unbelievable, but it’s true. This is the kind of sad leadership that makes bad South Bronx high schools even worse.

Puffschmuck would occasionally walk down the hall, and the students would just keep doing whatever they were doing. They didn’t even know she was the principal. One day, she came into my classroom and said she needed to see one of my students. I told the student to go to Puffschmuck’s office at the end of class. He said, “But Miss! I don’t even know that lady!”

Puffschmuck had a difficult time finding anything wrong in my classroom. My room was physically immaculate. Puffschmuck herself had encouraged other teachers to model their classrooms after mine (this was before our insubordination battle had begun). I'd put my all into turning a tiny, crappy classroom into a pleasant learning environment. I planned my lessons weeks in advance. I returned my students’ papers with abundant comments that they were eager to read. I had applied for and received a private grant for one of my literacy units. My students’ test scores were (relatively) good. Several of my special ed students – who’d been classified as 3rd-5th grade readers - passed the English Regents Exam.

I’m not saying I was the perfect teacher. It was only my second year of teaching special ed. Some of my students still had severe behavioral problems. Some still cut class. My emotions sometimes got the best of me (especially after a night of work-induced insomnia). I had - and still have - a long way to go. But considering the conditions, and compared to the quality of teaching around me, I was doing a pretty damn good job.

So after snooping around my classroom for a few weeks, here’s what Puffschmuck came up with. I didn’t respond. Puffschmuck was fired at the end of the year.

Dear Miss Dennis,

When I entered your classroom on Wednesday during the double block English class, periods 5/6, I observed that the shades were completely drawn and the room was darkened since there was evidence that the students had been watching a video clip.

There must be accommodations made for either natural light or ceiling light to be present. Students should have some interactive activity that they can engage in during a pause or break in the viewing, such as, writing answers to questions or a “turn and talk” activity and light is necessary for them to perform these activities.

Also, please ensure that lights are turned on for all other classroom activities.


Principal Puffschmuck