MS. REBECCA SHEIR
I'm Rebecca Sheir and welcome back to "Metro Connection." Today our theme is Winging It. And in just a bit we'll wing it with a comedian, who's trained hundreds of people in the art of improv. We'll also make some music on the fly with singer-songwriter Angela Sheik. First though, we're going to look at some big changes in the D.C. public schools, in the realm of special education. The office of the State Superintendent of Education says nearly 13,000 students in the District are in special ed programs. And for years many of them have been educated in private schools on the city's dime. But this school year that changed. Special correspondent, Kavitha Cardoza, is here to explain those changes and how teachers and families say students are fairing under the new system. Hi, Kavitha.
MS. KAVITHA CARDOZA
All right. So this year DCPS started bringing special ed students back into the city's public schools. But why? What was the thinking behind this change?
Well, DCPS's new philosophy is Better Services, More Kids, Closer to Home. And so last year nearly 1,600 students were placed in private schools. This year it's approximately 1,200. And DCPS wants to reduce that number even more. Nathaniel Beers, he's the head of special education services for DCPS and says there are instances where private placements are best. But he also says students are generally better served when they are close to their communities.
MR. NATHANIEL BEERS
The reality is, is that kids with disabilities are going to live in the communities in which they currently live. And we do no one a service, not them, not their families, not the community, if we're shipping them out of the community and they're not visible.
All right. But private schools can be really expensive. So I'm wondering about the financial aspect of all this. How much of this decision is being driven by money?
Money is definitely a part of it. In the past, DCPS has spent as much as $150 million per year on these private placements and approximately $60 to $90 million more on these students' transportation. If you look at the breakdown per student, and of course the amount varies widely, it costs approximately $36,000 to educate a child with disabilities in D.C. public schools and twice that in a private setting.
Well, that's quite a difference. But beyond the issue of money, there's the question of what actually happens in the classroom once these students move into their new schools. Do you know what teachers are saying about the larger numbers of special ed students in their classrooms?
Well, I spoke with Nathan Saunders. He's head of the Washington Teachers Union, and he says teachers are happy that these students are returning to DCPS. But he says educators are also already under so much pressure to teach, when you add in children who have very specific needs, it's challenging. So, for example, you may have a student who acts out and disrupts the entire class, or you may have one with, say, autism and, as a teacher, you've never been trained to deal with his or her needs. Saunders says the success is uneven.
MR. NATHAN SAUNDERS
In some places it's gone successful and other places it went horrible. Teachers have really done a yeoman's job in terms of trying to deal with the influx of students being returned to the system while the resources have been slightly lacking. The D.C. public schools and D.C. government must use the savings on the special education student or else what you will see the District government fall right back into the lawsuits that got them into this predicament in the very beginning. And the cycle will simply go over again.
Kavitha, something we haven't yet addressed here are the parents of these students. How do they feel about having their kids move out of private school?
Well, I think it depends on what the child's needs are. I've heard from parents who are willing to try this out and see how this goes because they like having their child go to their neighborhood school. But there are parents, such as Greg Masucci. He went to the city council to speak out because he doesn't feel his child's needs are being met at all.
MR. GREG MASUCCI
When your special needs child is placed in a classroom whose teacher not only lacked the special ed certification, or any prior special education experience, when a completely under qualified teacher then proceeds to miss 25 percent of the school year, thereby finally forcing DCPS to combine two autism classes into one, there's overcrowded, incredibly loud, chaotic and seriously detrimental to the development of the autistic children, like my son, you think to yourself, surely I have case for private school placement.
And how has DCPS responded to Masucci's claims?
Well, school officials won't comment on individual cases, but Nathaniel Beers, with DCPS, says the school system is making progress. And they are now not just talking about compliance and lawsuits, but about quality. He says they've spent millions of dollars on teacher training and hiring dedicated aids for these students. Next year they'll add approximately 30 new classrooms for children with special needs.
I think it's really important, Rebecca, to point out that this population is very, very vulnerable. There are huge gaps in their academic achievement and historically, expectations have been super low. Beers says that that's changing and now they're focusing on setting higher goals for each of these students and measuring whether they're making progress.
Well, Kavitha Cardoza, thank you so much for walking us through this big change with D.C. public schools.
You're welcome, Rebecca.
If you're a teacher or a parent in the D.C. public schools, we'd like to hear your thoughts on this shifting approach. You can reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org or find us on Facebook.
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