first look

New data provide a glimpse at citywide special ed reform efforts

IMG_5076The city’s special education reforms have moved thousands of students out of specialized classes citywide, according to data shared by Department of Education officials on Friday. But city officials and special education advocates alike said it remained too soon to tell whether the systemwide changes have improved student performance.

Of the 142,220 students with disabilities in the school system last November who are still enrolled this fall, 5,312 fewer were recommended for self-contained classes this year and another 5,612 fewer were recommended for integrated co-teaching classes, which mix special education and general education students. There was a corresponding bump in students receiving only part-time services.

That shift reflects the city’s effort to integrate special education students into mainstream schools and classrooms, changes that were piloted in some schools in 2011-12 and rolled out citywide last year. Those changes were meant to align city policy with research showing that special education students do better when they learn alongside peers without disabilities.

Since the latest reforms were announced, parents and advocates have warned that the city hasn’t provided the money or training needed for them to be successful. Corinne Rello-Anselmi, the Department of Education deputy chancellor in charge of special education, said that the biggest problem was actually getting schools who didn’t typically serve students with disabilities to understand how to meet their needs.

“There was a fear, a personal fear of my own, that many kids would be placed into very restrictive environments or inappropriately moved into programs en masse,” Rello-Anselmi said.

She said that the drops in full-time integrated co-teaching classes indicated that schools are becoming “more thoughtful” about the placement of those students.

Still, when the reforms were first rolled out, Rello-Anselmi acknowledged that schools often didn’t understand their intent and some were moving students into programs that didn’t fit their needs. That “made us stop and think about what’s happening and how it’s being interpreted,” she said, and officials reemphasized that not every student with disabilities is right for integrated co-teaching classes, and not every child with behavioral problems needs a self-contained class.

“We spent an inordinate amount of time to remessage,” she said.

The new special education policies require schools to accept students without considering their special education needs, which they are expected to accommodate. That has led parents and advocates to sound the alarm that some students’ Individualized Education Plans were being amended to fit the schools, instead of schools adapting to students’ needs.

“Many parents have told us that their children are floundering after the principal at the child’s home school pressured the parents to agree to switch the child from a self-contained class to an integrated co-teaching class because the home school does not have any self contained classes,” said Carmen Alvarez, the UFT’s vice president for special education.

In response to those concerns, chief operating officer for special education Johannah Chase said that the city was regularly monitoring data from SESIS, the system that keeps track of information about students with disabilities, to look for questionable patterns of changes. (That system has been criticized widely, as well.)

The information released Friday adds to data released in January about students in the special education reform pilot program that showed positive results. Students at participating schools had bigger test score increases, higher attendance rates, and lower suspension rates than students with disabilities at comparable schools.

Last week’s data included no comparable information about suspension, absenteeism, and test scores as the changes rolled out citywide. Officials said the city would be releasing that suspension and absenteeism data this week, but said it was too early to gauge academic achievement because of the drop in state test scores.

Just 5.7 percent of students with disabilities who took the Common Core-aligned tests last year were deemed proficient on the English exam, and 8.4 percent were deemed proficient in math.

Many advocates for students with disabilities testified that the data doesn’t give a full enough picture of the impact of the reforms. Special education policy coordinator at Advocates for Children Maggie Moroff, who has been requesting more data about the reforms for years, said crucial questions were left unanswered. “It doesn’t say what the students’ experience is like. We don’t know if they moved them appropriately,” she said.

Union representatives also pushed back against the city’s narrative that the rollout of the reforms has been successful.

Randi Herman, first vice president of the principals union, said that she had been reserving judgment about the reforms, but that support for professional development and additional teachers has been inadequate. “Judgment Day has just about arrived,” she said. “Schools are trying to do the best they can with what they have, but they’re been asked to do a whole lot more with a whole lot less.”

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”