Parents of special-needs students speak out at forum

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Marla Kilfoyle, of Bellmore, recited a series of numbers: 42, 59, 44, 37, 56, 54, 60, 31 to the assembled crowd at South Side High School in Rockville Centre. “These were the scores that my son got on his math tests this year,” she said.

Because of his performance, Kilfoyle said, she didn’t believe her 14-year-old would pass the math Regents exams — a state requirement to earn a high school diploma — and she was considering moving him out of New York so he could graduate, while she continued to work here as a schoolteacher to support him.

Kilfoyle told her story during a 2½-hour forum hosted by elected leaders from across the South Shore on Feb. 7. Roughly 50 parents, teachers and advocates spoke, saying that the state does not offer the necessary testing options to ensure that young people with a variety of learning challenges can graduate from high school on time.

Among the elected leaders at the forum were State Sen. Todd Kaminsky, a Democrat from Long Beach; Sen. John Brooks, a Democrat from Seaford; Assemblywoman Melissa Miller, a Republican from Atlantic Beach; and Assemblyman Brian Curran, a Republican from Lynbrook.
Also joining in the discussion were Long Island Regent Roger Tilles, Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa and Christopher Suriano, assistant commissioner of the State Education Department’s Office of Special Education.

A ‘crime’ against children?
Emotions ran high throughout the evening and peaked when Ava Corbett, 14, of Plainview, took the microphone. She struggled to speak at first, but eventually got her words out.

Ava talked about how, as a special-needs student, her school performance plummeted after she entered high school. She started failing tests, hitting herself and fighting with her mother more often.

“I want to have a life again,” she said before a crowd of nearly 200 people, who erupted in a standing ovation, many with tears streaming down their faces.

As the applause continued, Ava ran out of the room with her hands in the air and a grin on her face.

Her mother, Jessica, took over and continued the emotional appeal, her voice quivering with rage as she accused the members of the panel of perpetrating a “crime” against a generation of children.

“My daughter isn’t a musician, she’s not an artist,” she continued through tears. “She isn’t that good at a lot of things.”

She said that her daughter’s high school curriculum was not well suited to her, and without the Regents Competency High School Test, or RCT — an alternative to the Regents exams that was phased out for special-needs students entering high school after the 2011-12 school year — she would be unable to graduate with a high school diploma.

“Why would she want to go to school if there’s no future?” Corbett said.

Others also made the case for bringing back the RCT. Evan Reiter, 25, of Oceanside, said that, despite learning impairments, he was able to graduate with a diploma and succeed in life because of the RCT.

“It’s better to mend a child than fix a broken adult,” he said. “We need the RCT back as soon as possible.”

Nancy Goldstein, of Long Beach, expressed similar sentiments. She said her son was able to graduate from Long Beach High School thanks to the RCT. “Why keep reinventing the wheel?” she asked.

Others took issue with the Career Development and Occupational Studies Commencement Credential, or CDOS, which replaced the Individualized Education Program diploma, or IEP, in June 2013. The CDOS Credential is given to special-needs students who have completed specialized curricula geared toward career skills. It does not, however, count as a diploma.

Mindy Ross-Knaster, a special-education advocate from Lynbrook, said this was a key failing of the option, since it did not give students a reasonable path to a college degree or to a career.

“Don’t make it a one-size-fits-all diploma,” she said, echoing a sentiment that was repeated throughout the night.

Relaxed standards?
There were other points of view, however.

At one point, Kaminsky interrupted the proceedings to ask whether there were any education experts who would weigh in on why they think relaxing standards for special-needs or struggling students would be a bad idea.

Amy Ryan, assistant superintendent for pupil personnel services at the Commack School District in Suffolk County, argued that reducing passing grades and offering compensatory options would diminish the importance of the established curriculum and the accomplishments of both special-needs and mainstream students who have passed the Regents exams.

She also suggested that it was possible for general and special educators to come together to modify the existing curriculum to better suit students with special needs, but she did not offer specifics.

Not all of the points raised by the audience were negative. Betty Pilnik, of Oceanside thanked Kaminsky for organizing the event, and Rosa for helping establish the superintendent’s determination pathway to a high school diploma last June. This option allows a special-needs student’s teachers, principal and superintendent to determine whether the student has worked hard enough to earn a diploma, regardless of test scores.

Oceanside School Superintendent Dr. Phyllis Harrington was present at the forum as well. She commented afterwards saying the new options for special-needs students were a step in the right direction. But she also acknowledged that they weren’t enough for some students and that district officials had to walk a fine line to maintain standards. “At the end of the day, you want to be sure that the kids are getting a quality education before they leave the walls of the Oceanside School District.”

‘Turning a ship at sea’
Tilles, who remained silent for most of the talk, spoke as the event wrapped up. He acknowledged that state Regents have a difficult job ahead of them. “Moving education policy is like turning a ship at sea,” he admitted.

He also complained that Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office was not giving his organization the legislative and financial support needed for special-education programs. “He’s not making it easy for us,” Tilles said.

Throughout the event, the panel of state officials sat and listened, even when they were shouted at.

In his closing statement, Brooks, who for more than two hours had not spoken, told a story about a student who “couldn’t spell anything right.” Teachers told him he would never go to college, and that he should just join the military. While applying to college, he was diagnosed with dyslexia, a reading disorder. But he went on to complete college, have a career in the insurance industry and serve in the State Senate.

The story was about him.