With the start of school just days away, parents and advocates for special education students are becoming increasingly concerned that the Philadelphia School District will be unable to adequately educate its most needy students because of staff and budget cutbacks.
A group of parents on Thursday met with officials from the Public Interest Law Center in Philadelphia to learn what steps to take if their child's school is failing to provide education as required by law.
"We want parents to know how to file a complaint immediately," said Helen Gym, co-founder of Parents United for Public Education and a public school parent. "We want them to demand that their children get the service required under the law."
Federal and state special education law spells out rules governing the evaluation and placement of special needs students. It includes regulations in class size, appropriate staff, services such as speech therapy and counseling, discipline and transportation. The district for years has faced legal challenges from parents for failing to identify special needs students and provide services.
The loss of counselors, assistant principals and other staff this year could make matters worse.
"We're very worried," said Sonja Kerr, director of disability rights for the law center, who led the parent meeting Thursday. "And I think the individual schools are just as worried. I've been at schools this week, and the most well meaning principals who are doing their best don't know what services they have or don't have for kids with disabilities."
She also said in prior years, the district put out a chart with special education officers to contact in each region.
"We usually have it a month before school," Kerr said. "We have so far not been able to get that organizational chart."
School district spokesman Fernando Gallard said the district will meet legal requirements.
"The resources will look different, yes, but our commitment is steadfast, and we're going to do our utmost to meet the needs of every child," Gallard said.
About 14 percent of the district's 134,000 students are in special education. Additional students are in the gifted program.
Robin Roberts, a parent of three children at Henry School in West Mount Airy, said she and her husband haven't decided if they will send their children to school on Monday.
"There is no way that I as a parent am going to allow the district to take my children into a building that is not safe," she said.
Maureen Fratantoni, home and school president of Nebinger School in South Philadelphia, said her son, an eighth grader with autism, will need an evaluation in the year ahead for his high school placement.
"They said they would have a team of teachers take control and do the ..process," she said. "No one has contacted me yet about it."
Kerr said parents have several recourses. They can file a complaint with the Pennsylvania Department of Education, which must investigate within 60 days. They can call an education department consultation line where an expert will offer guidance and may even call the district to help resolve the problem, she said. That number is 800-879-2301
She said she is concerned about students whose schools were closed and who are going to a new building this year. She questions whether the new schools will have the students' files and transportation arrangements.
Kerr cited the case of two children with autism: "Neither of them have a ride to school on Monday."
She questioned how some schools will get by without a full-time counselor. Some special education students, for example, require accommodations when taking a test: "It's your counselor who helps you on that."
Kerr also noted that she visited a school in the last week that was starting the year without an assistant principal and wonders if enough staff will be in place to help students with behavioral problems.
She called on the state to become more active in assisting and monitoring the district.
"The state," she said, "has a fundamental responsibility to make sure special education works."