A Charter School for Students with Language-Based Disabilities on Staten Island

About 1 in 5 students has a language-based learning disability, of which dyslexia is most prevalent. And in the borough of Staten Island, there has long been a dearth of appropriate school placements that can adequately address these common learning issues for the over 40,000 students PK-8.  In fact, young students who live on Staten Island are sometimes bused for hours to other boroughs to get their educational needs met.

Bridge Preparatory Charter School for Creative Thinkers (aka Bridge Prep) hopes to change this dynamic. The proposed public charter school recently passed the first hurdle of the charter review process in Albany. Bridge Prep plans to open its doors to Staten Island residents for the 2018-19 school year, and while charter approval isn’t a sure thing, the project enjoys strong support from the Staten Island community, including from Borough President James Oddo, and hopes are high for an on-time opening.

The plan for year one, as outlined in Bridge Prep's letter of intent to the state education department, is to open five classes of no more than 12 students (one class for Grade 1, two classes each for Grades 2 and 3). By the 2022-23 school year, the student body will grow to over 300 students from Grades 1 – 7.

Public charter schools have free tuition. Applications will be open to Staten Island residents and filled by lottery.

Congratulations to the founders and to everyone who has worked so hard on behalf of students with dyslexia on Staten Island!

New Class Action Lawsuit Takes on RSAs

In New York City, Related Service Authorization vouchers, or “RSAs,” are given to families when the school district is unable to provide mandated related services at school (or when children attend non-special education private schools). In theory, parents can take these vouchers to any provider on the city's list and get their child the services on their IEP.

But the practice of handing out RSAs has long been disingenuous. It places the burden of finding providers squarely on the backs of families of children with disabilities with little to no support or follow-up from the district. The lists of RSA-accepting providers that the district provides to parents are useless. The vast majority of providers on these “lists” are simply not willing to work at the rates the district pays, which have not increased in decades and are far below market. What’s more, the DOE knows this; they can see that these vouchers are not being cashed in.

In July, NYC Public Advocate Letitia James published a damning policy and investigative report titled Denial of Service: New York City Schools Are Failing to Provide Mandated Supports to Children with Disabilities that reveals just how sweeping this problem is.

While the Public Advocate rightly points out that this problem is most acute in the Bronx, where one district (District 8) has a deplorable 91% rate of unused RSAs, this is a citywide scourge—not just a Bronx problem. The report found, for instance, that Manhattan had rates of unused RSAs ranging from 35% on the Upper West Side (District 3) to as high as 62% in parts of Lower Manhattan (District 1). Even the “best” numbers in the city, which come from Williamsburg and Greenpoint in Brooklyn (District 14), have an unacceptable rate of 23% of RSAs going unused.

While this may be great news for the bean counters trying to make the DOE’s budget stretch, it also means that students with disabilities are not receiving their mandated and necessary services—the City is failing in its obligations under IDEA. Last week, as reported in the New York Times, Disability Rights Advocates, a nonprofit legal organization, filed a class action lawsuit in federal court. The plaintiffs in the case are Bronx Independent Living Services (BILS) and several children with IEPs who attend public schools in the Bronx. 

In our practice, we frequently encounter situations where clients are unable to find related service providers that will accept RSAs. Every situation is different, but we have resolved this for many of our clients by suing the DOE to compel them to reimburse parents for payments made to providers at market rates (and to pay for services at those rates going forward). We have also been successful in obtaining compensatory services for students who were wrongfully denied services. But having to redress negligence is far from ideal for families; and it is not a reasonable path for most New Yorkers who may not understand their rights or may not have the resources to pursue a lawsuit (or a reimbursement scheme). We are watching this new federal case with great interest in the hopes that it, and the attention the Public Advocate has brought to the issue, may bring overdue reform in this area.

NYS’ Rapidly Evolving High School Graduation Requirements for Special Education Students

New York State’s high school graduation requirements for public school students are rapidly evolving. If you are considering enrolling your child in a public high school, it’s a good idea to acquaint yourself with the myriad ways in which this is all in flux.

A diploma with no Regents exams?

Last month, at a Board of Regents meeting, the State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia raised the possibility of providing a new path to a local diploma for high school students pursuing certification through Career Development and Occupations Studies (CDOS), according to Chalkbeat.

The CDOS credential certifies that a student has “the standards-based knowledge and skills necessary for entry-level employment.” CDOS students take career and technical education (CTE) coursework, complete work-based experience requirements, and meet other standards aimed at workplace readiness. Originally, CDOS was only available to students with IEPs, although that is no longer the case. Prior to 2016 there was no way for a CDOS student to earn a high school diploma, which limited those students’ abilities to gain some kinds of employment, enter the military, or pursue post-secondary education. But in 2016, the state rolled out the “4+CDOS” option, meaning that CDOS credential students who also passed 4 Regents exams or Departmental assessments could earn a diploma too.

Now, Commissioner Elia is reportedly raising the possibility of allowing CDOS students to earn a local diploma without taking any Regents exams at all. This would be a very significant policy change, but critical details about what would be required of students aren’t available at this point. The NYS Education Department press office told Chalkbeat, “Today, the Board of Regents and the Department started a discussion to examine all of New York’s diploma options and graduation requirements. This discussion will continue over the coming months. It is premature to speculate on any changes that could be made as a result of this process.”

Without a formal proposal it’s impossible to evaluate this idea. We will report back to you about the public hearing and public review process once it is underway.

Parents win important victory protecting students who are not ready to graduate

Parents of IEP students recently won an important battle related to the watering down of graduation requirements. Earlier this year, the NYS Department of Education permanently adopted a number of changes that were made provisionally in the fall of 2016 regarding high school graduation requirements for special education students. One of the changes reformed a pathway to graduation called the “superintendent determination option.”

To be eligible for a local diploma by superintendent determination, a student must have minimum scores on the Regents exams of 55 in ELA and in mathematics (or a successful appeal of a score between 52 and 54). But for the other three exams, students can substitute a review of other documentation showing their proficiency in a subject area. In order for a student to be considered for a review, they must have a current IEP and have earned the required course credits for graduation.

Parents contended that school superintendents were gaming the system, saving their districts money by moving young people along before they were truly ready to graduate. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) guarantees a disabled student’s right to receive a free and appropriate education (FAPE) until they graduate or until the end of the school year or summer term in which they turn 21.

Some students who cannot meet the Regents testing requirements undoubtedly benefit from the superintendent determination option. But for others, graduating “on time” instead of spending an additional year (or two) in their school program is not in their best interests.

The rules now require a superintendent to first receive a written request from an eligible student’s parent or guardian before beginning the review process for a local diploma based on superintendent determination. This is good news for special education families throughout New York State—and a testament to the power of parent advocacy to achieve meaningful policy change.

Independent Living in White Plains: The POINT program

Every month our staff hears presentations from outside organizations so that we can keep up with the ever-changing world of special needs service provision and serve our clients better. There are so many programs and resources out there, and while they may not always be directly related to our everyday legal practice in special education, it is helpful for us to take the broad picture.

Last month, we met the founders of an incredible program called POINT (Pursuing Our INdependence Together) in White Plains. We were so impressed with what this determined group of parents has created for their children’s futures, and we wanted to spread the word to our clients who might be interested—particularly those with developmentally disabled children in their teens.

POINT was founded by families who felt that there was a pressing need to create a supportive community for young adults with developmental disabilities who want to live independently. They began the program in 2008 with 14 units in an apartment building in White Plains, and have since grown to 50+ young men and women in their 20s and 30s who live in over 10 locations in White Plains. They carefully selected White Plains for this community project because it is an urban setting with lots of opportunities for participants and has public transit, but isn’t too overwhelming.

Partnering with Westchester Jewish Community Services and JCCA, POINT provides service coordination and benefits management, cultural and social activities, exercise and sports, 24-hour emergency supports, social and independent living skills trainings, and regular staff check-ins. POINT participants all work (or seek work), volunteer, and/or attend school—and over half of the participants have paid employment.

Families are intimately involved and participate in regular meetings, picnics and other social events, collaborations on new enrichment opportunities, and serve on committees that work to further grow this flowering community.

When your child graduates from high school or turns 21 years old, and no longer has a school-funded day program, it can feel like the rug has been pulled out from under you. We hear this time and again from our clients: graduation is bittersweet. The message we took away from the amazing parents who founded POINT is that the teenage years are critical for maximizing independence readiness and that parents with like-peers need to stick together and think collaboratively. There is more power for change in numbers and community.

If you are interested in learning more about POINT, you can email point@wjcs.com.

Busing Part 2: Troubleshooting

It’s nerve-racking, particularly if this is your first time dealing with the NYC Office of Pupil Transportation (commonly referred to as OPT), but busing doesn’t get worked out until the very end of the summer, and parents must expect to do some follow-up. OPT is a sprawling agency that provides busing for over 600,000 students every year.

At the end of August, if you have not yet received a notice in the mail from OPT, check the OPT website for your child's record and routing information. You will need to input your child’s birthdate and nine digit NYC ID number (sometimes called an OSIS number) to access the OPT student information web-form. You can find your child's NYC ID number on their IEP.

If you don’t see the information you need for your child, call OPT and ask if your child and/or their assigned routing information is in the system (sometimes the online system hasn’t caught up). At the same time, reach out to the busing liaison at your child’s school and alert them to the issue. If these folks are unable to quickly address things, you may need to contact your CSE district representative (and let your attorney or advocate know too). Sometimes it becomes necessary to bring your child’s IEP to the CSE offices and more or less camp out until you can speak to someone.

Unfortunately, it is the case that many bus routes are not properly assigned when the school year begins. Because this happens so often, we always advise clients that it’s good to have a back-up plan for transportation for the first few weeks of the school year, even if busing is provided for on your child’s IEP.

It’s also not unusual to get your scheduling call from the assigned bus company with your child’s pick-up and drop-off time only a few days before the start of school—even though we’d all like that information a lot earlier. The reason for this is that only after all the routes are assigned can drivers go out into the streets with their vehicles to practice them. These dry runs are how pick up and drop off times are initially set. Try not to panic when you are given a pick-up time of 6:15 am (for example). Most of the time, as the driver learns the route, these times shift forward considerably.

When that big first day arrives, reserve a smile and warm greeting for the driver and matron. Drivers and matrons of course vary in quality, but for the most part they care about kids and take their jobs seriously. It is in your best interest to establish a good relationship with them. They may be willing to give you their phone numbers so that you can be in direct contact (although you can always contact the bus company dispatcher too).

However, if you do have a problem with the driver or matron, or with your child’s busing in general, you can file a complaint with OPT (718-392-8855). Ask your child’s school to do the same. The most common problem we see is a bus that is consistently late for school, and it is much easier to address this if your child’s school is documenting it properly and communicating with OPT.

For the most part, once the route issues are worked out, children love the bus! So hang in there.

This is part two of a two-part article about busing. Part 1 discusses how to secure busing from the DOE.