Newark trying to force educators to talk parents out of special education programs

Turnamian: So wrong about so many things
Turnamian: So wrong about so many things

Newark school administrators now working for newly appointed state superintendent Christopher Cerf are trying to force the city’s special education teachers and specialists to persuade the parents of the neediest of the city’s children to buy into a special “pathway” that could rob the students of much needed services.

At meetings a few weeks ago, members of child study teams (CST) were given literal scripts to read to parents over the phone or in person in an effort to talk the mothers and fathers into abandoning self-contained, special needs classrooms for their children in favor of so-called “all-inclusive” classes that mix special needs students with the regular population.

The script, obtained by this site, reads as if the teachers, social workers and psychologists were employed in selling new appliances to the parents rather than engaging in what could be a life-altering decision to change their children’s educational program. One script opens:

“We are calling to share exciting news about special education programs for the 2015-2016 school year,” it reads. “Newark Public School (cq) has created special education pathways for students with disabilities to increase opportunities to be educated in the general education program.”

It concludes with the blatant half-truth: “Research has shown that students educated in the general education classroom show more growth than their self-contained peers.”

The truth is that, indeed, some special education students show more growth in general education programs, while others do not. A comprehensive study  conducted by Princeton University reached this conclusion :

“The research does not support full-time inclusion for all students with disabilities. On the contrary, it appears that there is a clear need for special education. At the same time, given adequate resources, schools should be able to assist more students to be more successful in general education settings.”

In fact, the general consensus is that what matters is not placement but the programs offered to children. Some students do better in self-contained classes for special needs student while some do not.

But that’s not what teachers and specialists–educators who know better–have been told to tell parents about the efforts of the state regime in Newark. Indeed, teachers themselves have been criticized for their alleged failure to talk mothers and fathers into shifting their children into the general population.

Not only were the teachers told to act like salesmen and saleswomen for the state’s efforts to cut back on programs for special education students, the instructors also were given forms that, if filled out and signed by parents, their children would be denied the special education instruction they were already receiving. The form allows the district to change the so-called IEP–“individualized education plan”–for each student without a meeting between educators and parents.

IEPs are the parents’ strongest protections against efforts–like this one–to strip needed protections from children because of their cost or because state-appointed administrators want to promote charter schools that don’t have special education programs. The IEPs have virtually the force of law.  Critics of former superintendent Cami Anderson–since replaced by Cerf in a deal that is supposed to bring local control back to Newark–have filed both state and federal law suits contending the district is not properly following IEPs.

This is what the teducators are supposed to be saying to the parents:

“We’d like your permission to prepare the IEP amendment so that we can provide you with a copy to sign next week and so that (student name) can start the new school year in the best environment.”

The form, in big, bold-faced block letters, is called “REQUEST TO AMEND AN IEP WITHOUT A MEETING.”

The effort to turn licensed professional educators into pitchmen for persuading parents to give up the rights of their special needs children was conducted during a series of meetings throughout the city during which the school employees were criticized for not recommending more children to the so-called “all-inclusive” alternatives.

One of the meetings was conducted by Peter Turnamian, an assistant superintendent and founder of a failed Newark charter school. Turnamian criticized the special education teachers and specialists for their alleged failure to send more and more children to so-called “all-inclusion” classrooms–and he demanded that they work with parents to persuade them to seek a “least restrictive environment.”

“Yes, we all know there are benefits in moving some children–that’s some children–from self-contained classrooms for special needs students to all-inclusive classrooms,” said one special education teacher after the meeting with Turnamian.

“But we also know  many special needs children do better in self-contained classrooms where they receive closer and more focused attention.”

The teacher spoke anonymously because colleagues who had openly challenged Turnamian at the meeting were subjected to criticism and veiled threats. In Newark,  school employees who voice opinions contrary to state policy often face retribution.

The effort to shut down self-contained classrooms for special needs students began well before May’s meetings, however. Teachers have complained that trying to get the state-run system to classify special needs children and provide proper placement for them has been stymied by a school administration that is trying to save money by reducing the number of special education students.

“First, they brought the kids back from out-of-district placements because that cost too much–never mind whether it helped the children or not,” said one special education teacher.

“The point was to save money. Then they shut down schools dedicated to the most severely disabled–now they are pushing all-inclusion as a panacea.”

Teachers pointed out that the alternatives pushed by Turnamian in his talk about “special pathways” often simply do not exist.

“Sure they’re talking about adding teachers to a regular classroom but we know that those teachers simply aren’t available–so the services they are supposed to provide won’t be available.”

Eliminating special programs for the neediest children will, of course, save money for a district that the state administration has driven into a $65 million budget ditch. But the state administration has another reason for removing children from self-contained classrooms. If, as Turnamian is trying to force them to do, the educators talk parents into giving up their rights in their IEPs, the children will be eligible for inclusion in the so-called “One Newark” enrollment plan.

The charter schools participating in the plan–some of them to gain more students at the expense of neighborhood public schools–often simply do not have the resources to take in special needs students.  Placing them in charter schools would violate both state and federal law–unless, of course, parents agree to waive their IEP rights.

This site has reported on the efforts to use “One Newark” as a method of reserving neighborhood public schools for the neediest children while dispersing the rest among charter schools. Critics view it as part of an inevitable cycle to turn public schools into failures while helping to boost the fortunes of privately-operated charter schools.

Turnamian, once a principal in Montclair, was the founder of The Greater Newark Charter School. He called it the “best” school in Newark. It turned out not to be so great after all. It failed. Just days before Cami Anderson was forced out by Gov. Christie and replaced with Cerf, he wrote an op-ed for nj.com in which he praised what Anderson was doing.

Could he be wrong about special education, too?

 

 

 

 

 

32 comments

  1. Public Education Supporter

    Welcome to NPS under Cerf…an old saying says not to ever say that things couldn’t get worse, because it attracts the “evil eye” and inevitably, things will get worse!
    So, from Cami to Cerf, literally out of the frying pan and into the fire.
    As a teacher who has seen the benefits of a careful analysis on a case by case basis that leads to some children being mainstreamed and others attending smaller Special Education classes, this effort will surely hurt students as the District focuses on saving money and reducing the Special Needs community in its push to privatize Newark schools. Sickening…

  2. A Fly on the Wall

    Mr. Turnamian is a newly minted Special Education expert. He was less than forthright in responding to questions posed to him about One Newark and he continues to be less than forthright in his new gambit. I happen to have a substantial amount of experience working with Special Needs students. Some children with less severe challenges function well in mainstream classes when provided with proper support. An example would be children with Asperger’s who have average or above average intelligence, but struggle with social cues and abrupt changes in routines. Children with severe cognitive impairments do not fare well regular education settings. They need a great deal of individual attention to progress academically. When this new trend was bandied about last school year, not one of the many Special Education teachers in my school voiced support for these alterations to IEPs. Where is the line between reducing mandated Special Education services and child abuse?

  3. Kate

    Turnamian is generally wrong about everything. He has absolutely no concern for the children of Newark. It’s not surprising that he would bully and threaten teachers who refuse to collaborate in stripping services from vulnerable students. It’s a shame that he rose to a position where he can do so much damage.

  4. booklady

    Bob,
    1. Will L Pugliese/Alliance for Newark Public Schools do an analysis of the 2015 PARCC scores for NPS Renew Schools? Naturally, the ASK 2013, 2014 scores can’t be compared, but a meaningful look at how Renew Schools fared should be done. (I just re-read your Dec 3, 2014 article.)

    2. Five members of NJ State BoEd were absent from May 6, 2015 meeting when Mr Pugliese spoke. Even some who were present may still favor One Newark if they don’t reflect on the analysis of Renew Schools.

  5. Mike Kaufman

    do you see this as related to GOP efforts to kick people off disability, make workers stay longer so we die before SS, and Christie’s continued refusal to fund the pensions?

    Bob Braun: Of course. But so many working people get suckered into the idea that Republicans won’t raise taxes, not realizing they are paying far more in the denial of benefits and services.

  6. Mythology

    This truely becomes a hilarious effort by the state because the majority of parents o f special needs students receive financial and medical benefits from the state and federal government. So in their haste to implement this heinous program they obviously and legally have not informed the parrents of what happens to their children’s benifits if they sign this illegal document. Another case for The Education Law Center.

      • K Nat

        IEPs contain more than class size. OT, PT, Speech would be put back to family insurers as with counseling or neurological therapy not directly attributed to “academics.” Parents do not realize those things they are used to getting through school can also be waived in the process.

  7. Nps_spec_ed_spec

    At the meetings this spring, child study team members (psychologists, social workers and Learning disabilities teacher consultant) were asked to contact parents. This isn’t just unethical but violates the professional code of conduct for those involved. Those of us who have professional licenses and certifications may put our own careers at risk by collaborating with the NPS administration.

    • Mythology

      Then this becomes an immediate case for the United States Attorney General’s Office since you are being made to do something that has no precedence in education on a national level and it puts your professional licenses in jeopardy.

    • Nps_spec_ed_spec

      The instructions we received were a detailed, typed out plan with script, but whether or not we received written instructions we are still liable. As licensed professionals, we are expected to know and follow the law. Parents or organizations could sue us as individuals for knowingly signing off on inappropriate IEPs or termination of services.

  8. Lucy Linquist

    The illegalities here are beyond comprehension. First of all, pressuring parents to sign away their rights to FAPE (free and appropriate public education), for their child with disabilities is criminal. If the school district bullies and retaliates against teachers who refuse or criticize this tactic, imagine what the administrators do to parents who criticize or refuse to accept what the administration feels is right. There are serious violations of federal and state laws galore here — assuming this article has the facts right. Not all children can be in inclusion. Sometimes, the least restrictive environment for a child is a self-contained classroom, where all services are delivered in-house and the child isn’t being pulled out of the classroom for services all day long. Of course, if you withdraw the services that the child needs (via the signed document that waives parent rights to a meeting), and throw them into an inclusion classroom, everyone suffers. The child who needs the services grows up to become an adult who can’t be independent and needs to be on public assistance all their life, the other kids in the class suffer because the teacher is trying (and usually failing), to give the child with special needs the attention and special instruction they need in order to learn — it’s a mess! Stop the insanity, stop trying to take away parental rights, and most importantly, start caring about the education of children with special needs. What we give these kids now will be dividends later on,w when they become productive members of society.

    • Mythology

      Your response to this article assumes a lot. Detailing what rights a special education student will lose is premature. First and foremost is the steps that need to be taken to stop this and similar types of thinking from even taking place. We as a community have endured and witnessed so much corruption over the past five years that we should have established connection with the Federal Government when anything, and I mean anything is put forward by these state district superintendent. This proposal had no legs whatsoever. It is an idiots’ way of trying to seek favor with the governor of New Jersey. You stop it by giving all hard copies of the plan to the national media and state that it is a Christie/ Trump education plan.

      • Urban Educator

        Mythology,

        I fail to see why you consider these reactions to be premature. Plans were well under way at the close of the last school year in my renew establishment. There was talk of placing Special Ed teachers in mainstream classes with Special Ed inclusion students added to the mix. All LD self contained classes were to be discontinued. This is happening in real time.

        • Mythology

          I consider it premature because I haven’t read or heard of what step are being taken to stop this initiative. Again what I have read on this blog is reaction and fear. So IMO initiatives like this will always be unfounded until a court decision is rendered. In other words, teachers today are the front line against the corrupt and unjust. You literally are protecting our children like no other generation has since the Civil Rights Era. Thus, I post to praise and encourage you.

          • Urban Educator

            I try very hard to do right by the students entrusted to my care. I concern myself with their emotional well being. It is extremely difficult to work in an environment hostile to teacher input. Thanks for your confidence in us Mythology.

      • Bill Wolfe

        You obviously didn’t read the links you posted – the policy statement emphasized INDIVIDUAL child evaluation.

        Don’t make me excerpt the text. Go and read it yourself.

  9. Karin

    Someone should report this to the Office of Civil Rights (federal)- they will take care of this. It’s beyond appalling and how any individual can escape from “suggestions” like without accountability is beyond me. It’s criminal.

  10. Cheryl Connors

    One size does not fit all! What about the “continuum of placement options” in IDEA and NJAC? The least restrictive environment (LRE) is relative to the child’s needs!! In addition Cerf was the former NJ education commissioner!!!! Did they think bc he took a short hiatus in the private sector (less than a year!) that people would forget???? Does this not smell of corrupt to you???

  11. Who else

    I’ve heard in high schools they are even getting rid of the inclusion classes and trying to have the CST members provide “consultation” to the classes having special education students in them. Also, having general education teachers, with no special education training, teach special ed classes.

  12. Another staffer

    Criticism and veiled threats? I’ve heard some if the threats were pretty straightforward- not veiled at all. And criticism? I would call it verbal abuse and harassment. The word is Turnamian will call people out publicly, as if they are young children being reprimanded. And then the threats…

  13. BMO

    This scenario is not exclusive to Newark. As a parent of a special needs student, I have seen similar “Request to Amend an IEP without a Meeting” documents in a couple of other school districts. It is actually generated from of one of the IEP software programs commonly used throughout the state. That said, many school districts in NJ are doing anything possible to cut Special Ed programs to save themselves money. Sadly, very often it is not in the best interests of each individual student. I believe this push to cut services and even “declassify” students prematurely starts at the state level and until parents start educating themselves regarding their rights and begin to speak up, these illegal tactics will continue.

  14. Sarah-Ann Harnick

    Another lead-footed attempt to dismantle the NPS. Next year, the claim will be that neither students nor teachers benefitted from this scheme. People will be fired, students will be bundled off into “more-effective” classrooms which won’t be much more than baby-sitting.
    This whole dismantling of public education is evil. And illegal. Does the Christie administration think that Abbott v. Burke doesn’t apply to them?
    Can’t wait to see the new definition of “thorough and efficient”.

  15. Bill Wolfe

    All Cerf needs now is a slogan and a logo, and the campaign launch is good to go.

    This is what I call the internal self-emboweling of government and hollowing out of democracy – this is what Baraka’s local control will assume control of.

    When I began my career in government, the political scientists had a concept known as “agency capture” or “regulatory capture” to describe the process whereby the government regulator or agency got to close to and served the needs of the corporation instead of the public interest.

    But that term assumed that there was an actual government to be “captured”.

    Today, government is bought, paid for, and owned by the regulated corporate interests – there is no government left to be “captured”.

    The process can be described now as “phagocytosis” – do the Google or weigh in biology teachers!

    • Bill Wolfe

      also meant to say the regardless of the merits, it is deeply offensive for a professional to be forced to read from a prepared script.

      That also defies the individual assessment at the heart of the concept of an IEP.

  16. Phil Hamlet

    So, does it mean students with a disability get the same education with typical students? Well, it has pros and cons. Students with special needs are often failed to pass a test, (I ever read that more than 80% failed) then how if they will have general tests? I’m sure more than 90% failed because it’s not for them.

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