Philly School District agrees to enhance special-ed services

The Philadelphia School District has agreed to provide enhanced special-education services over school breaks to students who qualify for them.

The school system and a group of parents who initiated a class-action lawsuit in 2014 reached a settlement Monday.

Federal law mandates that school districts provide extended-year instruction over summer vacation and winter break to students with disabilities. Three parents sued the district, alleging that beginning in the summer of 2013, the school system provided a one-size-fits-all summer program. That was illegal, lawyers representing them said, as those services must be tailored to fit students’ individual needs.

Going forward, the district has agreed to craft extended-year program services on a case-by-case basis. It has also promised to train school personnel and parents, and to share data on extended services for three years with the Public Interest Law Center, the organization that represented the parents.

“It is a victory, but it is a first step,” said Lee Awbrey, a lawyer on the case. “We’re going to continue to monitor the situation.”

The school system said that it had already made "substantial adjustments" to its extended-year program for special-needs students, and that the improvements go beyond what is mandated in the settlement.

"We have added music, art, and physical education," said H. Lee Whack Jr., a schools spokesman. "We have also revised our Individualized Education Program writing system to capture the specific needs of every student who qualifies for Extended School Year."

Kimberly Williams, a plaintiff whose son has autism and a profound language disorder, was startled when she received a form that said her son would get the same services as other students.

“When the School District wouldn’t provide my son with the language therapy he needed, I had to pay out of my own pocket for additional services, even though my son has a right to individualized services,” Williams, whose son attends Roxborough High, said in a statement. “I really hope the district will follow through with this settlement and provide my son with the education he deserves.”

Parents ought to be aware that extended-year services should be part of their children’s individualized education program, a legal document that formalizes the services students must receive.

“Parents have a right to ask for them -- they need to be discussed,” Awbrey said. “If they disagree with the assessment, they can engage in due process hearings to get the services to which they are entitled.”

Citywide, 26,000 students receive special-education services.

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