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Thousands of Special Education Students Missed Nearly Two Months of School

Board of Education headquarters in Downtown Brooklyn.
Board of Education headquarters in Downtown Brooklyn. Photo: Jason Scott Jones/THE CITY

Tens of thousands of New York City public school students with disabilities are so “severely chronically absent” that they miss nearly two months of instruction per year, a new analysis found.

For the most recent year of data available, 13% of the roughly 200,000 students with disabilities missed 36 or more days during the 2015-’16 school year. That’s about 26,000 students who were absent at least one out of every five school days.

An even higher percentage of those students who were classified with emotional disturbances — 38%, or 4,800 of the 26,000 — missed nearly two months of school that year, according to the Research Alliance for New York City Schools.

“The negative consequences of missing school are well documented for general education students — and are especially detrimental to students with special needs,” the report says.

‘Disenchanted with School’

Dawn Yuster, director of Advocates for Children’s School Justice Project, called the data “alarming” but “not surprising” because of a shortage of mental health and emotional supports for students in schools.

She accused the Department of Education of not prioritizing services, pointing out that there are more NYPD school safety agents — about 5,500 — than psychologists, guidance counselors and social workers in the public schools, according to elected officials.

“We see this in our case work all the time where sadly students have [educational plans] that show they’re not receiving evidence-based academic and social-emotional supports, and they end up getting totally disenchanted with school,” said Yuster. “Some of them have anxiety and don’t go to school because they’re not doing well academically.”

The findings come on the heels of last week’s release by the State Education Department of test scores for kids in grades 3 to 8, which showed slight gains for students with disabilities — but a huge gap with their general education peers.

In math, 17.5% of students with disabilities scored at grade level in 2019 compared to 53.4% of general ed kids.

In English, the gap was even bigger, with 16.1% of students with disabilities scoring proficiently in 2019, compared with 56.2% of general ed students.

Students Fare Better in Integrated Classes

A prior study from NYU’s Steinhardt Institute for Education and Social Policy found that special education students who spend more time in classrooms together with their general education peers tend to attend school more than students placed in special ed-only classes.

The authors of that 2017 study theorized that these students feel a stronger sense of inclusion and belonging, which made them less likely to skip school.

“In large urban systems, like NYC, where schools educate hundreds of thousands of students each year, feeling and being included might be especially salient for those with unique needs,” the report found.

The report by the Research Alliance also looked at a host of other trends among special education students in the city’s 1.1 million-student public schools system.

Among the other findings, based on the 2015-’16 data:

• Black and Latino students are overrepresented in special education programs compared to overall enrollment numbers.

• Boys outnumber girls with special needs by two to one.

• Asian and white students are diagnosed with autism at higher rates than their black and Latino peers.

• Black students are more than twice as likely as other students to have special needs categorized as “emotional disturbance.”

DOE officials said they’re adding 85 licensed clinical social workers in the coming school year as part of an effort to bolster direct mental health services for students.

“Students need to be in school to learn, and we’re focused on developing safe and supportive school environments that engage our students and families every day,” agency spokesperson Danielle Filson told THE CITY on Tuesday. “We’ve brought our attendance office under the Office of Community Schools, which has a proven track record of reducing chronic absenteeism.”

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