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NYC: District 75: students with "significant SPED needs"; "jump in autism diagnoses"

Oct 19, 2018,City Limits: NYC’s Special Education System Feels the Impact of Teacher Shortages … Unlike most community and district schools, which integrate inclusive special-education instruction in a general-education environment, District 75 works with students with more significant special education needs. Student needs in District 75, Tsai says, can be hard to understand and far more intense.

“When it comes to District 75, (students) really rely on services like speech therapy to be independent verbally and to have occupational therapy to assist them with daily living skills,” she says. “We have our own schools, we service our students on the basis of equality according to Individualized Education Programs. We’re just like everybody else, it’s just that our needs are a lot more.”

In special education, particularly in related services like speech and occupational therapy, the staffing supply has always struggled to meet the demand, particularly as more students receive Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) which detail the mandated special-education services a given student must receive. Many of the more than 297,000 students receiving special education services from the DOE work with teachers and other providers in general-education settings, but District 75 staff work with the more than 23,000 students who require more specialized services.

The district is comprised of 69 schools, though many of these schools are spread out over multiple sites and some exist in co-locations with general education schools. One District 75 school in upper Manhattan is divvied across thirteen sites spanning from West Harlem to the Upper East Side (though some District 75 schools are wholly housed in a single facility).

District 75’s role in the New York City Department of Education is unique, and there is no other school district in the nation fashioned to work solely with students with significant special needs (which can include significant cognitive delays and sensory impairments, autism spectrum disorders, emotional control issues or multiple physical disabilities). In addition to the staff shortages, District 75 has a teacher-absentee rate exceeding the rate of New York City teacher absenteeism citywide, according to federal data.

The fraught situation is the result of a district trying to meet a ballooning need while lacking the staff to meet it, according to Tsai.

The number of students receiving special education services throughout the country is high, with approximately 6.7 million children receiving some kind of service in the 2015-2016 school year. Additionally, there has been a 55 percent increase in the number of students served by the IDEA Act in the 40 years since it was first signed into law, according to the Learning Policy Institute. The number of school-age special education students in New York City rose from 230,928 in FY 2014 to 265,769 in FY18, according to the most recent Mayor’s Management Report on the DOE.

Part of the increase could stem from the jump in autism diagnoses; a 2018 Centers for Disease Control report found that one in 59 students in a study group could be identified as having autism, compared to in 2007, when the CDC surmised that one in 150 children were diagnosed with autism. The CDC surmised the increase was not due to a greater incidence, but because reporting strategies had improved. Nevertheless, these increases place a heavier burden on special education services in schools throughout the country, including in New York City. …

However, both Tsai and Titanya DeLoach, a STEM 5th grade teacher at P.S. 176x, a District 75 school located in Co-Op City in the Bronx, say the most pressing issue for District 75 schools remains in finding qualified applicants to fill open positions. This particularly holds true for services like speech and occupational therapy, which are seeing a boost in demand; a 2015 New York Times article cited a 30 percent rise in the number of student referrals for occupational therapy from the prior four years….

Even when the staff is in place, the level of need for District 75 students may outstrip its availability. Tsai says that District 75 students often require more sessions with students compared to students with IEPs in a general-education environment. In community schools, a therapist may be dealing with more students with IEPs, but the amount of services each student needs may be lower, which leaves therapists more time to work with more students….

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