Navigating Learning Disabilities in New York City Classrooms

Navigating the education system is hard enough as it is for students with learning disabilities, but lack of facilities and socioeconomic factors can make things even more of a challenge.

Many students with normal or even above average intelligence struggle academically because of their inability to process information in the way that traditional classroom learning was designed for. According to the National Institute for Learning Development, it is the extreme inconsistency in these students’ abilities that puts them behind their peers. The tension between what they can and cannot do can make a traditional, impersonal academic setting extremely frustrating to these students.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA), passed in 2004, requires public school across the United States to develop Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) for students who meet the requirements for special education.

By law, students with disabilities are entitled to an Individualized Education Program. There are several steps that parents have to partake in to obtain.

The New York State Education Department described the I.E.P. as a strategic planning document that highlights a student’s unique needs and how the school will strategically address those needs. The department emphasizes the key goals of putting a student on Individualized Education Program:

Support a student to participate and progress in the general education curriculum.

All students with disabilities must be included in state-wide assessment programs. Disabled students only participate in different, alternate exams if the I.E.P. provides an approved statement of why the student does not have the ability to participate in the regular assessment, and why an alternate assessment would be more appropriate for the student. In the case that a student has a severe disability, the student would participate in the New York State Alternate Assessment (NYSAA).

Ensure a strategic and coordinated approach to address a student’s needs.

An I.E.P. is structured as a set of goals that a student should aim to complete. For completion of a goal to be measurable, it must be described in a way in which its results are observable or able to be counted.

Guides the provision of specially designed instruction.

If approved to participate in an Individualized Education Program, students are entitled by law to have access to the mandated facilitations that their program entails. These resources include but are not limited to:

  • Assistive Technology (AT): equipment, devices, and services that help students with disabilities participate in school. It is required that this technology can be properly used, which includes training for parents, professionals, and students on how to use a device.
  • Related Services: group or individual speech and language therapy, physical therapy, occupational therapy, counseling, hearing and vision services, orientation and mobility services, and school health services.
  • Supplementary Aids: special education teacher support services, consultant teacher services, and teacher’s aids who specialize in working with students requiring special education.
Incrementally prepares the student for adult living.

For students beginning with their first I.E.P. being put into action when a student is age 15 (or younger if deemed appropriate) and updated at least annually, the I.E.P must include measurable postsecondary goals based on the student’s preferences and interests in the areas of:

  • employment (e.g., integrated competitive employment)
  • postsecondary education and training (e.g., career and technical education and training, continuing and adult education, college)
  • independent living skills (if applicable) (e.g., adult services, independent living or community participation)

Although require by law, many of the entitled services that come with the approval of an I.E.P. are not fully provided by New York City Schools.

In 2017, the New York City education department revealed in its annual report to the City Council that more than 48,000 students either did not receive or only partially received mandated special education services.

This public report was issued only after one of the New York City’s public advocates, Letitia James, released her own investigative report on the denial of mandated services to disabled students. She found that, during the 2016–2017 school year, there were 13,000 incidences of mandated services not being delivered.

There are schools, however, that provide personalized education for New York City students with learning disabilities. One of the most well-known is Churchill School, a private East academy for students from grades K-12 with language based learning disabilities.

Like many private schools in New York City, Churchill has a steep cost of tuition. In 2014, the cost of tuition was publicly recorded as $37,000 per academic year. The school is also extremely in demand. It is not uncommon for the school to receive hundreds of application for only a dozen slots.

These two factors have attributed to the fact that proper special education services are distributed to a disproportionate demographic of the population of disabled students. Although funding by the Department of Education is allowed in the case of insufficient educational support in regular city schools, Lynn Settlow, the Director of Instructional Support at Churchill, explained that this process is not as simple as it seems.

“Kids are funded to go to Churchill, the amount of tuition of a New York City private school, if you can prove that your child’s school district can’t meet your child’s educational needs the city pays for you to go. But, to get to that point, you need lawyers and other help that is expensive.”

Settlow also described her dismay at the racial disproportion in her student population, which does not align with the education department’s data of students requiring special education in New York City. Fifteen percent of students with I.E.P.s are white while over forty percent of students at Churchill are white.

NYC Students with IEPS by Race/Ethnicity (NYC Department of Education)
Churchill Students by Race/Ethnicity (Niche)

“Our population is overwhelmingly white, which is definitely not representative of New York City,” she said. “We’ve been trying to find ways to increase our diversity because we are less diverse than we would like to be.”

Churchill’s diversity initiative states that it is “dedicated to creating and maintaining an inclusive environment that respects differences in age, ethnicity, family structure, gender identity or expression, learning style, physical ability, race, religion, sex, sexual orientation and socio-economic status.” It is also a member of the Independent School Diversity Network, a community dedicated to strengthening diversity, equity and inclusion in independent schools.