After opposition from advocates, Philly district scales back plan for new special-ed program

 Members of the Philadelphia School Reform Commission and Superintendent William Hite meet in May. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Members of the Philadelphia School Reform Commission and Superintendent William Hite meet in May. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The School District of Philadelphia has significantly downsized plans for a new special-education program after advocates and lawmakers raised objections.

But those same advocates aren’t ready to completely support the revised proposal, which is scheduled for a School Reform Commission vote Thursday morning.

The debate centers on a small handful of students with emotional disabilities, but highlights larger disagreements about how the district should educate some of its most challenged and vulnerable students.

The current proposal creates an Alternative Special Education Program to serve 100 students starting in September. The program would be temporarily run by a company called Catapult Learning Inc. — at a cost of $10 million over three years — and focus on emotionally disturbed students. During that period, Catapult would train district staff to eventually take over the program.

That’s a major change from the original vision district officials laid out in mid-June.

Back then, the district put forward a $36 million plan for a school that would educate 200 students in September and, eventually, as many as 600 kids. The district delayed voting on the measure after special-education advocates questioned its intentions and blasted school officials for not consulting them in advance about the proposal. The furor reached City Hall, where City Council passed a resolution urging the district to press pause.

In particular, advocates worried the new school would be used to segregate special-education students from their general-education peers, instead of developing ways to include them.

That was never the idea, district officials said.

Bringing kids back into the city

In fact, they argue, the new school would be more inclusive because it would bring into the district students who had previously been in segregated private programs outside the city.

“[Private schools] are often located in isolated areas or far away from the city’s center, sometimes resulting in a two-hour commute for students,” states a draft version of the SRC resolution. “The School District wants to be able to offer high-quality programming for Philadelphia students in Philadelphia and in facilities that also include general-education programs.”

Officials also said the new program was necessary to accommodate 106 students who had been at a school in Fort Washington, Pennsylvania, run by another private provider, Wordsworth. Wordsworth came under fire recently when a student at its residential treatment facility in Philadelphia died following an altercation with an employee. That facility lost its license.

The district decided not to renew its contract with Wordsworth, creating an urgent need for new programming, officials said.

SRC member Christopher McGinley, who had reservations about the original proposal, said he was on board with this one.

“The first [resolution] I was very opposed to,” McGinley said. But now, “the implementation of the Catapult program will be in existing public schools so kids can be educated with their age-appropriate peers.”

McGinley, a former suburban superintendent, also said that the new proposal accommodates students from Wordsworth while allowing the district to “plan thoughtfully and carefully” for educating high-needs students in district programs, rather than through outside providers.

Not entirely convinced

Advocates, however, remain skeptical.

“We certainly recognize the movement the district has shown, it’s a great improvement,” said Lee Awbrey, staff attorney at the Public Interest Law Center. “But the concern among advocates is that a large percentage of the students who end up in these segregated alternative settings actually could thrive in a truly supported general-education setting.”

The Public Interest Law Center and 15 other organizations — united under the name Philadelphia Coalition of Special Education Advocates — penned a letter in June opposing the Catapult proposal

The district has met twice with advocates since then, said Maura McInerney, a senior staff attorney at the Education Law Center.

The advocates like the changes district officials made, but think they could go even further.

In another letter sent to the SRC Wednesday, the advocates said the new resolution “still falls short of ensuring that Catapult Learning, Inc. will provide students with low-incident disabilities a high-quality individualized education program in a least restrictive environment.”

For instance, McInerney said, the district could explicitly cap the Catapult program at 100 students. McInerney and others also worry about one of the proposed locations for the new program, which is expected to be split among three sites.

One of those sites, advocates said, would be E.S. Miller School in West Philadelphia, which currently houses two other alternative programs. Advocates would prefer the new Catapult initiative be in neighborhood schools.

“We believe Miller is fundamentally inappropriate to serve students with low-incident disabilities and denies them the ability to be educated in the least restrictive environment,” McInerney said. “Low-incident” disabilities are those that are less common, such as autism, emotional disturbance, and intellectual disability.

“Our overarching goal is to make sure students are more integrated into their neighborhood schools,” she added.

The district plans to house its new program for emotionally disturbed students at Miller, one neighborhood high school and one elementary school.

Cheryl Logan, the district’s chief academic support officer, said no final decision had been made on the sites where the new program would be located. It’s important, she said, to involve local decision makers in those choices because many school communities recoil at the idea of adding special-education students with emotional problems.

“I’ll have communities come out and say they don’t want these children,” Logan said. “The last thing these families need is for communities to come out and say they don’t want them.”

Logan also said the district plans to cap the program at 100 students in accordance with advocates’ wishes.

‘Opportunity for paradigm shift’

Speaking more broadly, she said the district wants to de-privatize the education of special-education students with the less common disabilities and bring them back into district schools. The district recently established a program for students with hearing disabilities at John Hancock School in Northeast Philadelphia and another program for the visually impaired at Lankenau High School in Roxborough.

“We realize that we can do a really great job with our students and we want to provide ourselves with more opportunities for our students to choose these options,” Logan said.

The district also believes bringing special-education programs in house will enhance its oversight capabilities. A draft version of Thursday’s resolution says the contract with Catapult will “welcome, encourage, and expect frequent monitoring and oversight.”

Advocates see Wordsworth’s end as an opportunity to rethink the approach of relying on expensive, segregated private placements. McInerney calls for the creation of many smaller programs for special-needs students embedded inside neighborhood schools.

“There’s an opportunity to make a paradigm shift,” she said.

Those types of shifts aren’t so simple to execute, said Logan. While the district shares that long-term goal, many of the students at Wordsworth and other private facilities have Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) that call for them to receive the kind of services only a dedicated program can provide. The district cannot unilaterally amend those IEPs and move Wordsworth students into neighborhood schools.

“We just can’t say we’re going to integrate,” Logan said. “They’re in a separate placement because that’s what their IEP has called for.”

McGinley brought up the same point, saying that students cannot be summarily moved until they undergo a full evaluation through the IEP process, which requires consultation with and agreement from parents or guardians.

Awbrey acknowledged that providing students with all the supports they require within a general-education setting is also expensive, and that the district doesn’t have enough revenue to do it right.

“That’s why we also have the fair-funding lawsuit in Harrisburg,” she said, referring to a case now before the state Supreme Court arguing that the state is unconstitutionally shortchanging districts of adequate funds so they can provide all students with an education suited to their needs. Many of the same advocates who have been pushing on the special-education resolution are behind the fair-funding lawsuit.

Still, she said, “We need to rethink student placement to incorporate high expectations of what teachers can achieve and what students can achieve in safe, properly supported settings. We think a lot of students shipped off for behavioral reasons to segregated settings are being denied the education they deserve, which is one that can happen in their neighborhood schools.”

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