When Manuel Gonzalez started kindergarten, his mother, Jasmin, told administrators at Elkin Elementary School in Kensington that he'd been diagnosed with a learning disability while in Head Start.
But a school psychologist tested Manuel and told Gonzalez that he was only having trouble speaking. They enrolled him in a student assistance program called CSAP and said he would attend regular classes. This way Manuel would not have to endure the stigma of being labeled as learning disabled.
They promised to retest him in a year. Four years later, Manuel hadn't improved and hadn't been tested.
In documents describing its Comprehensive Student Assistance Process, or CSAP, the Philadelphia School District states that the program is the mechanism for regular education interventions to help students struggling with academic or behavioral difficulties. The aim is to avoid inappropriately referring students for an evaluation for special-education reasons, as called for under the federal Individuals With Disabilities Education Act.
The act also says that when school officials suspect a student may have a learning disability, testing is required to determine if special-education services are warranted.
Yet parents, advocates, and lawyers say the School District routinely delays such testing by first placing children such as Manuel in CSAP.
A report Philadelphia filed with the Pennsylvania Department of Education for the 2008-09 school year acknowledged that the district failed to act on its own recommendations to provide disability evaluations for 800 students in CSAP.
The district says the report is flawed because the state gives it no credit when a child receives some services but not all.
Deborah James Vance, who oversees school counselors for the School District, said the district complies with the laws. Vance added that the number also might not reflect tests conducted after the state reporting period.
"We close the data at the end of May or June, so they may have been evaluated over the summer or the next school year," she said.
Disability lawyers said the explanation concerned them.
"If they are referred by a team to get an evaluation, then they are required to do an evaluation," said Kelly Darr, a lawyer with the Disability Rights Network.
"It's impossible to have 'some' of that delivered. It makes no sense to me," she said.
Vance pointed to another state special-education report covering the 2008-09 school year, in which the district claims it tested every student within the mandated timeline.
The report, known as the Special Education Data Report, however, shows that the year before, in 2007-08, the district tested students within the time frame only 54 percent of the time.
All Manuel's mother knows is that the system didn't work for her son.
"Knowing that the district could do something, and that they were telling me that they were doing CSAP . . . that was frustrating," Jasmin Gonzales said. "It's no good."
With the parent's approval, the district can place students in CSAP - even clear candidates for testing - because the same federal law also seeks to prevent too many students from being labeled as disabled.
Students spend years in the program before getting needed testing and services.
Gonzalez said she suspected Manuel was disabled when at his second birthday, he could only say, "Mama."
At age 3, she enrolled Manuel in a Head Start program for disabled children. A therapist came to the house to help Manuel with his diagnosed speech and learning delay.
The program devised an Individualized Educational Plan for him, which federal law mandates for students who need special education.
But at Elkin, he was put in CSAP, and there he stayed.
"I thought, they must know what they're doing," Gonzalez said in an interview. "I went along. I was hopeful."
Over the next four years, the district ignored its own recommendations to test Manuel, and he made little or no progress in his classes.
"I felt very helpless . . . because it did not matter how many times I read it to him or explained it to him, he couldn't get it, and he would start crying," she said.
Gonzalez said she asked the district in writing that it test Manuel, to no avail - though federal law requires the test be administered within 60 days of a parent's written request.
"I told the teacher, and she said he was just lazy," she said.
Finally, after watching Manuel stare at a piece of paper for hours one night, she hired a lawyer and won a settlement in 2010. At his prodding, the district eventually conducted a full examination and found what Gonzalez had asserted all along: Her son was disabled.
Now, Manuel is getting help.
The district said it could not find any record of the settlement of Manuel's case.
It's an old story, said Luz Hernandez, who runs Hispanos Unidos Para Niños Excepcionales, an advocacy group that helped Manuel get aid. If parents don't know what to ask for or what the law requires, their children lose crucial learning years to delays.
"Jasmin's case is extremely common," Hernandez said. "Needy children go through the cycle of CSAP over and over again. The difference is, Jasmin knows the process, and even then they were able to delay it for a long time."
Hernandez, an advocate for parents with disabled children in North Philadelphia, said she has worked on hundreds of cases where CSAP fails to help.
Her own son, who is autistic and mentally retarded, attended public schools in the city until he was 15.
"They are there indefinitely, or until someone questions it, and then they try from the beginning again," Hernandez said.