Gurney's Inn
July 04, 2007

In Sag Harbor: Special Ed Ratio Too High?

Are the kids being stigmatized?

That's a question asked by some parents after a recent study revealed that the Sag Harbor Union Free School District has classified a disproportionately high number of students "special education."

According to NYS education Department statistics, the Sag Harbor school district has 17.4 percent of students classified as special ed, a number that's higher than contiguous districts on the East End. In fact, only one school district on Long Island is higher – Roosevelt, which has been wracked by scandal and is now being run by the state.

Educators quizzed said special ed students are often stigmatized and made fun of by other students.

Dr. Dominic Annacone, Wainscott Superintendent and former Sag Harbor School superintendent believes the stigma of a special ed classification may shadow a child for life. "You don't want that label to become a life sentence," he said.

"The goal of any special education program should be to put the students back into the mainstream," he added. "It's become a major industry." That's because the state provides a bump up in state aid for each classified child.

According to Laurie Duran of the district's Pupil Personnel Services office, there are many students who came to the school from New York City and other areas after hearing about how "wonderful" the district's program is purported to be. "The whole area has blossomed." Many families wanted to move out to the East End and "heard that Sag Harbor had the best schools." Local realtors quizzed said they have never heard a potential home buyer inquire about the school's special education program, however, and Sag Harbor school district has a mediocre record of performance on standardized test scores.

Another reason is that the instructional support team (IST) is more in effect today than in the past, when students may not have been broken down on the elementary level, Duran said. Some students may not really need the special ed classification but may have learning disabilities or other issues, she acknowledged.

"Unless there is something in the drinking water there is no logical reason why the number should be higher than the neighboring districts," Annacone said.

Though Sag Harbor has almost one in five students classified as special ed, only one percent require special classrooms – meaning most are in regular classes. That figure is among the lowest on Long Island. Annacone said school districts get a 20 percent bump in state aid for each classified child – therefore, Sag Harbor reaps a financial windfall without incurring much of the extra expense many other districts incur – the cost of extra teachers for isolated special education classrooms.

Duran said inclusion has helped to mainstream students into the classroom with a special ed teacher.

And, part of the instructional support team means putting them into a class with the support of a teacher without being classified. "If they need those services, yes, we'll refer them to the committee. It's not like we're just like, 'Hey, let's bring them in so we can classify them.'"

Another big difference since she started at the school 24 years ago, when there were 26 special ed kids, was that many were at BOCES. "There weren't places in the school back then for special classes."

After the students were brought back, "some of those kids, after a couple years, flourished and were declassified. So the system really has improved a lot."

However, Annacone said when he was the superintendent in Sag Harbor in the eighties and early nineties the percent of special ed students was below average. "They [the state education department] told me we didn't have enough."

There are currently 187 students classified as special education in grades K through 12, with the percentage in the high school much higher than the elementary school.

Numbers will decrease this year, she said, because students from the Ross School will be lost to the ruling that they will be part of the Wainscott school district. "But now we'll get other kids that go to Stella Maris," she said. Yet East Hampton and Bridgehampton serve both private schools and have much lower percentages of special ed students.

Class sizes, she added, are getting smaller as students are aging out of high school. "I think the population's going to go down a lot. We're getting there – we really are. Every school has the parents who think you're not doing enough and ask, 'Why are you hurting my child?' Trust me, that's not why we're here." But others believe that a special ed label may cause long-lasting damage.

Annacone said that districts such as Sag Harbor should be asked to publish the rehabilitation rate for students; that number, he said, is critical. "How long do these kids stay in the special ed program and how fast can they get out? That's what it's supposed to do, if the program truly works. Students are supposed to be rehabilitated and put back in the mainstream."

Another key element, he said, is what kind of classification Sag Harbor students have. "With that percentage of kids, and it's always been one of my pet peeves, is that there may be a large number of kids who are classified as learning disabled. And that becomes a dumping ground."

While there are some students who are legitimately disabled, Annacone said in many instances, kids labeled as learning disabled have other kinds of problems, including emotional, financial, and displacement issues. "What amount of money do they get, specifically for special education?"

Annacone said classified students who are severely impaired can cost districts $30,000 to $50,000 per year. When he was superintendent, the state special education division sent out auditors and performed exit interviews. On average, the percentage of students that require special education is about 10 percent. "To me, it's stupid to have a quota system. If a student needs the services we should provide them, but we're not going to manufacture special education students."

All the contiguous districts around Sag Harbor have significantly smaller percentages of special ed students: Bridgehampton has 10%, East Hampton 12.3%, and Southampton 8.8%.

Both Superintendent Kathryn Holden and Director of Pupil Personnel Services Lisa Scheffer declined repeated requests for comment by press time.

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