School Reform Commission Meeting Focuses on Special Education

At the request of the Law Center’s coalition of special education advocates, October’s School Reform Commission strategy meeting focused for the first time exclusively on special education. An audience of over 200 parents, educators, and advocates attended to discuss the significant challenges and shortfalls of the District’s services to students with disabilities.

Parents expressed their frustrations with navigating the complex special education procedures and systems put in place by the District, as well as the many critical resources the District is failing to provide children: translation services for non-English-speakers, an adequate number of school nurses, and proper curriculum. Even Superintendent Hite, looking at a chart of the District’s staffing structure, acknowledged that, as a parent, he isn’t sure he would know where to turn for help. In addition, because many schools do not have requisite special education services, some students are bused to schools that are 2 hours away from their home, which creates emotional and physical stress for the students and prevents parents from fully participating in their child’s schooling.

The result of the challenges faced by these families was reflected in data discussed at the meeting: Philadelphia ranks among the worst urban districts in the country in terms of academic performance of students with learning disabilities. Students with disabilities are also suspended at higher rates than their non-disabled peers and have significantly lower graduation rates.

While the meeting illustrated the number of significant challenges the District needs to overcome, it was also a promising first step for officials to hear the concerns of parents and educators. We will continue to work with other advocates and the community to identify and press for solutions to the challenges facing students with disabilities.