Too many Schenectady children are sent to special education classrooms, where lower expectations virtually ensure they never catch up with their peers, Superintendent Laurence Spring said.
While he implements a turnaround plan to respond to widespread academic problems in the district, Spring is simultaneously reorganizing the special education division.
“It’s an area we need to revamp. We need to do better in that area,” Spring said.
An outside group is studying the school’s special education and will issue recommendations in about four months. District Management Council, of Cambridge, Mass., is reviewing student data, observing teachers and interviewing parents now to prepare those recommendations.
Spring said he thinks the district is classifying too many students as special education students. Currently, 18 percent of the student body is in special education — far higher than other high-poverty, urban areas, he said.
“And it’s increasing,” he added.
The district also seems to be doing too much for its special education students, he said, rather than pushing them to be as independent as possible.
“We’ve got an awful lot of one-on-one aides, for example,” he said.
He suspects that many students have been sent to special education after a teacher exhausted his or her set of teaching techniques without success. That’s a common problem throughout the nation, he said.
But, he said, other teachers should intervene before the child is sent to a separate classroom.
“Special education is an awful lot like surgery,” Spring said. “Going into special education is harmful. The research has shown, statistically, large-scale, we inherently have lower expectations for those kids.”
He thinks most students in special education can learn to read at grade level, pass high school classes and graduate with a regular diploma. Only about 1 percent of the district’s students are so disabled that they cannot meet the regular school standards, he said.
“All other kids should be meeting these standards,” he said.
He argued that special education was intended to help students “close the gap” and catch up with their peers. But instead they fall behind, he said.
Among his concerns is the certification of teachers used in Schenectady’s special education classrooms.
The students don’t always get the same level of education as regular students.
“They don’t necessarily have a teacher certified in math teaching them math,” he said.
Given his concerns about the program, he said he wants the district to completely reorganize special education so that teachers pull students out of class for short, intense catch-up sessions, rather than putting them in a separate classroom all day.
“That child will be better off if you can bring the services to the child,” he said.
Spring has long experience with special education. In his first teaching job, he was part of a group of three teachers at East Irondequoit Central School District who tried a new inclusion program, in which classes had a mix of special and regular education students. At the time, inclusion was a new concept.
Although Spring wants more students to get extra help through pull-out programs, the district already has dozens of teachers running those programs.
However, officials have struggled to keep them in the budget. There have been many cuts in that area in recent years, and teachers in 2011 protested that the extra-help program was being changed too drastically and too quickly. Then-Superintendent John Yagielski backed off on some of his changes, but said the district needed to convert the extra-help program into a more effective model.
He argued for an early-intervention model, in which most extra-help teachers would focus on students in kindergarten through second grade. The goal, he said, would be to catch students before they fell too far behind their peers.