One Woman’s Journey to Make Sure Her Son’s Education is Free and Appropriate
Register for the Astoria School Symposium on Saturday Feb. 1st – There will be a booth at the fair staffed by local parents who have gone through the IEP admissions process with their special needs children and want to give their advice and support.
Having to apply to schools for a four- or five-year-old can be a nerve-wracking experience. You want to make the right choice, but if you’ve never gone through the process before, it’s hard to know where to begin. Decisions can be even more difficult when you are raising a child with special needs, and the options at your local public school leave you feeling nervous.
Erin Black was familiar with the kindergarten admission process when it was time to apply to schools for her son, Quinn. Her daughter, Lyla, was already in the Gifted and Talented Program at PS 85. However, Quinn’s education plan was not as clear to arrange.
Quinn has a speech delay. For the past two years, he had been attending Stepping Stones, a special education preschool where he was receiving speech therapy. Erin knew that it was common for children with speech delays to also have difficulty learning to read and write, and that seemed to be the case with her son. Quinn couldn’t identify letters at four years old, so he probably wasn’t going to be reading at five. Erin wanted to make sure that Quinn was not lost in a regular classroom. However, as of last year, if your child needs an Individual Education Plan (IEP), you must go to your zoned school first to see if they can fulfill your need.
The Public School Options
Erin went to PS 85 and told the school that her son was receiving speech therapy, and she wanted him to be tested for special support. Public schools have two ways to work with students who need IEPs: they can put them in a regular classroom of 25 students and pull them out a couple times a week for therapy, or they can put them in an integrated class taught by two teachers, where half of the students have special needs and half do not. Erin felt that neither option available at her zoned school would work. Quinn’s current preschool class had 12 students; he would get lost in a regular-sized class of 25.
Usually, if neither of those two options works, the next step is District 75. These are special programs throughout the city for children with severe learning challenges. They usually have a specific focus. For instance, most of the children in the classroom have autism or most of the children have Down’s syndrome. The children in District 75 tend to have significant cognitive delays or behavior-based diagnoses, so they are not following the kindergarten curriculum. Quinn, however, tests in the average range cognitively and does not have behavior issues, so although the class sizes are small, District 75 wouldn’t have an appropriate peer group for him either.
The Blacks had a dilemma: Quinn didn’t really fit into any of the options the DOE (Department of Education) had available. Their only recourse was to investigate private school options, but the private schools that serve special needs are very expensive: $60,000 – 80,000 a year.
FAPE: Getting a Free Education at a Private School
Luckily, there is a law called FAPE or Free and Appropriate Public Education. Basically, the law states that if the DOE cannot meet a student’s needs through the public school system, they must pay for a school that can fulfill those needs. They do this through funded private schools that are associated with the DOE. Since neither the zoned school options nor District 75 could fulfill Quinn’s needs, the Blacks decided to sue the DOE to fund private school. They wanted the DOE to provide a school with a smaller classroom, that would also be teaching the common core for kindergarten, where Quinn would receive therapy for his speech delay.
Erin researched private schools, making sure they were funded by the DOE, and came up with five schools that fit Quinn’s needs. Then she applied to those schools. “The applications were like college applications, six pages long with essays, lots of work!” Quinn made it to the interview round for three of the schools. Erin noted with a sense of humor that the interviews were for Quinn – who has a speech delay – alone. She’s not exactly sure what transpired in the interviews, but despite the speech delay, Quinn is very social and ended up being accepted to all three schools. Erin decided that, if the DOE would fund Quinn’s education, she would send him to the School of Language and Communication Development (SLCD) in Glen Cove.
Then the Blacks hired a private neuropsychologist to evaluate Quinn, instead of waiting around for the DOE to evaluate him. They also hired a lawyer who specialized in education law to sue the Department of Education.
A Back-up Plan
Before the Blacks could do anything official, they had to wait to see what PS 85 would say. Erin knew that she wanted a small class size, but they almost never recommend that. If they did agree to a small class size and also that a District 75 program would be too restrictive academically for Quinn, they could have referred the case to the CBST (Central Based Special Education Team) to decide. As expected, they concluded that Quinn would best be served in the integrated classroom. Consequently, the Blacks requested a private hearing…but it fell through the cracks.
Suddenly, it was August, and Erin was scrambling for other options. She talked to the principal at Immaculate Conception to see if Quinn could redo preschool there. She figured that she could buy her son some extra time before he had to learn to read and write. Immaculate Conception is the only private school in the area that does not take funding for universal pre-k; therefore, the only school that could potentially take Quinn as a preschooler, even though he would be five. The principal agreed. Still there was no word about the hearing. “It was super stressful… I was buying uniforms for both schools [Immaculate Conception and SLCD] and supplies from both lists,” Erin recalled.
Suing for Pendency
The Blacks’ lawyer said they needed to sue for pendency because they still hadn’t received word. That meant that, until a new IEP could be agreed upon, they had to fall back on the old one, or the one that was last agreed upon. Normally, this would mean that Quinn would stay at the program that he was currently at, but since he had aged out of his preschool, they had to find a new program that could meet all the components of his old IEP. Quinn’s preschool had 12 students in a classroom, speech therapy, everything the Blacks wanted in a kindergarten.
A week before school began, the Blacks had the pendency hearing with the Board of Education, since they had not yet resolved the dispute about the new IEP that PS 85 recommended. The court officer asked the Board of Ed. if it had a school in mind that met all the components of Quinn’s old IEP. The Board of Ed. had not studied Quinn’s case and was taken off guard; they could not think of a school for Quinn. Since Erin had already researched and had Quinn accepted at SLCD, the court officer agreed that Quinn should start there on pendency. The DOE would foot the bill.
The Blacks were relieved that they had a plan come September, but it wasn’t permanent; there was no guarantee that he could stay there. Last month Erin got a call from the DOE saying that they wanted to discuss Quinn’s IEP for next year – even though there had never been anything settled for this year. The Blacks’ lawyer told them to go ahead with the meeting but not to explain that this year’s case was still pending. The meeting was at his current school with an official from the DOE, his teachers, and the school’s psychologist. Everyone agreed it was the right place for Quinn.
Erin was pleased, but pointed out that, while we now know where Quinn will be for first grade, they still hadn’t figured out this year. At that point, the DOE agreed that Quinn could stay for his whole kindergarten year. Now, Erin is in the process of signing the paperwork that will keep Quinn at SLCD for the rest of kindergarten and all of first grade. And now they have the home court advantage for future meetings.
The Blacks are lucky that there is FAPE to provide a free and appropriate education for their son, but Erin realizes that she is also lucky that she was able to navigate the system. “What if I didn’t have neighborhood support from other families that have gone through this process; what if I didn’t speak the language; what if I didn’t have the education that taught me to research what I needed?… A couple of kids in Quinn’s class haven’t had their cases solved.” Realizing her fortune and the knowledge she has gained from going through the process herself, Erin is always happy to help anyone who comes her way with questions. “When someone comes into Raising Astoria [a baby and maternity boutique] with questions about special needs, Kim and Laurie always know to send them my way.” Erin has also spoken about special education at the Astoria School Symposium in the past. While this year she is not able to attend, there will be a booth at the fair staffed by other Astoria parents who have gone through the admissions process with their special needs children and want to give their neighborly support.
Special education preschools commutable from Queens that Erin recommends:
Birch Family School
Western Queens Early Childhood Center
10-24 49th Avenue, Long Island City, NY 11101
Central Park Early Learning – AHRC
15 West 65th Street, New York, NY 10023
NYL Gramercy Preschool – YAI
460 West 34th Street, 2nd Floor, New York, NY 10001
Stepping Stone Day School
7740 Vleigh Place, Flushing, NY 11367
There are quite a few “funded” special education K-5 schools in and around the city, but probably only a few are appropriate for any given child. Some focus on autism, some emotional/behavior issues, some physical challenges, etc. These are the ones Erin looked at for Quinn’s speech delay.
The Child School
587 Main Street, Roosevelt Island, NY 10044
410 East 92nd Street, New York, NY 10128
The Parkside School
48 West 74th Street, New York, NY 10023
25 E 104th St, New York, NY 10029
School for Language and Communication Development (SLCD)
100 Glen Cove Ave, Glen Cove, NY 11542
Written by Rebecca Raymond – Rebecca is Public Relations Chair for the Astoria School Symposium and an Astoria mother of two.