Boston public schools are directing a disproportionate number of black and Hispanic boys and English learners to special schools, making them more likely to be placed in segregated environments that limit their access to educational opportunities, a new report says.
The state’s largest school district needs to revise the way it determines special education eligibility to reduce disparities by race, gender and English learner status, and ensure such classifications are appropriate and consistent, the report adds.
The findings come from a new 129-page review of BPS’s special education program by the Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition of city public school systems that conducts school system reviews across the country.
An overview of the report was presented at Wednesday night’s Boston School Committee meeting. BPS goes through a systemic improvement plan in which it must meet specific goals and demonstrate progress in key areas flagged by state education officials, such as transportation, special education, and student safety.
Superintendent Mary Skipper, who stepped into the role at the end of September, called the report “sobering”.
“A lot of the results confirm what we thought,” she said at the meeting. “We see this as an opportunity for us to look at the district holistically and, more importantly, a range of solutions – both short and long term – about what we need to do in BPS.”
The council’s report identified the key concerns about BPS’s special education system, namely the high identification rate of students with disabilities and the over-identification of certain students.
While Black and Hispanic males together make up 35% of all BPD students, they make up 53% of students with disabilities, according to the report. And while English learners make up 30% of BPS students, they make up 47% of students with a hearing impairment, 46% of those with a communication disability, and 55% of those with multiple disabilities.
“It is important that you look at the prices. How do these rates differ from the nation’s, how do you view disabilities for students across grades and by race, ethnicity and gender? Ray Hart, executive director of the council, said.
What’s “particularly alarming,” Hart said in his presentation, is the slow pace at which BPS supports students in the least restrictive of settings, where they can learn alongside their peers: “It hasn’t changed over the years, yours.” Colleagues across the country have switched,” he said.
Boston places special education teachers in a “substantially segregated” setting at a rate of 29%, compared to a statewide rate of 14% and 13% statewide. This means that many students are sent to schools outside their home district because of a disability, limiting their ability to receive general education and appropriate support in an environment conducive to learning.
This also means that a small number of schools shoulder tuition for students with Individualized Education Programs, or IEPs.
Michael O’Neill, a school committee member, said this was “a wake-up call for us on a critical issue,” adding that these were “issues that we’ve talked about in Boston for years but haven’t fixed.”
“We need to increase our student enrollment in inclusion settings, and we’ve had challenges to accomplish that,” he said, noting high turnover among senior leaders, superintendents and city staff.
Of BPS’ approximately 46,500 students, 22% are in special education, compared to 19% statewide and 14.5% statewide.
To produce its report, the Council of the Great City Schools visited Boston schools August 23-26 and conducted interviews in late September and October with members of the Special Education Parent Advisory Committee, the Boston School Committee, the Boston Teachers Union and the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
It also checked documents and analyzed data. Most recently, in 2009, BPS carried out a review of the special education system.
The report offered a number of recommendations for BPS: improving the consistency and appropriateness of special education referrals, supporting students before they are determined to need special education, analyzing data, setting performance metrics for students with IEP, creating better cross-functional teams in Special Education and English Learners departments, create a comprehensive vision of inclusion across the district, hold people accountable and seek out experts in the field.
The members of the school board recognized the magnitude of the task ahead.
Linda Chen, Senior Assistant Superintendent for Academics, said the district has started work by hiring new assistant directors with disability expertise, establishing a working group on inclusion and providing about $17 million in federal funding to support integration efforts to support schools.
“It will take time, but we must act urgently wherever we can in the suggestions and recommendations in the report,” Skipper said. “It has to be done because our students can no longer wait for it not to be done. ”