New York City school chancellor Dennis Walcott has ordered the city’s elite high schools to admit more students with disabilities. The city’s screened high schools admit students based on test scores, essays and interviews. In an email to principals last month, Walcott informed them that they must admit as many students with disabilities as neighboring schools, or his department will place the students for them.
According to the New York Daily News, 11 of the city’s 103 screened high schools had fewer than three students with disabilities last year. Fewer than half of the screened high schools took as many students with disabilities as non-screened neighboring schools. In many cases, students with disabilities may simply not have been informed that they could apply to screened high schools, perhaps due to unacknowledged (and incorrect) assumptions about them not being able to perform well academically. Advocates also note that schools may have been “simply shutting out” students with disabilities.
In addition, education officials are seeking ways to increase the number of students at the city’s eight specialized schools including Stuyvesant High School and Bronx High School of Science. Currently, admission to these schools is based entirely on scores on the city’s Specialized High Schools Admissions Test.
Increasing enrollments for students with disabilities at screened schools is part of the Education Department’s efforts to improve outcomes for all students. The New York Daily News quotes Walcott:
“Ensuring that incoming ninth graders with disabilities have the same access to screened high schools is just one way that we’re raising academic standards for all of our students.”
Walcott also said that the Education Department would increase supports for students with disabilities at the screened high schools. Disability advocates, while applauding Walcott’s announcement to mainstream more students by placing them in the least restricted environment, emphasized the need for such additional supports, which could vary based on an individual student’s needs: Some students might need an in-class aide while others might need certain kinds of assistive technology, for instance.
I am hopeful that the NYC Education Department will indeed stick to its saying that it will provide adequate supports for students with disabilities at screened high schools. In addition, those schools’ communities will need to understand that such supports are not “extras” or “extra help” but accommodations that students with disabilities are entitled to under the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), to help them learn in school environments that may not be set up to provide for their educational needs as defined in their Individual Education Plans.
With that said, Walcott’s insistence that students with disabilities be equally enrolled at screened high schools, and even, at some point, at all of the city’s schools, is commendable. Too often, standards are — consciously or not — lowered for students with disabilities who qualify for special education services. It goes without saying that, provided they meet the academic criteria, all students should have the right to attend the public schools they qualify for.
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