In October 1995, the fledgling NYU Institute for Education and Social Policy (IESP) published its inaugural report, Focus on Learning: Reorganizing General and Special Education in New York City. To generate the report, IESP organized a panel composed of Ann Marcus, Dean of NYU’s School of Education; Robert Berne, Dean of NYU’s Wagner School of Public Service; three NYU special education experts -- Mark Alter, Jay Gottlieb and Dorothy Siegel, an IESP staffer, and the panel’s coordinator, Norm Fruchter, IESP’s director. The panel met for six months, interviewed a broad spectrum of general and special education practitioners, and reviewed many studies and papers about special education.

Focus on Learning’s resulting report argued that far too many students were placed in separate settings rather than in more appropriate, less restrictive environments; students of color were over-represented in special education; many students were placed in special education not because of disability but because general education could not meet their learning needs; and the cost of evaluating, transporting, tracking, re-evaluating, mainstreaming and decertifying students who may well not be disabled siphoned resources from a resource-starved public education system.

The Focus report’s key recommendations included:

  • reversing incentives in state funding formulas that placed students in restrictive settings by creating fiscal incentives to educate all students, and particularly students with disabilities, in their home/neighborhood schools;

  • basing school-level special education funding on the percentage of special education students in each school’s population;

  • merging special education allocations with supplementary general education resources to create an enrichment stream at each school.

Additional recommendations called for establishing classroom-based assessments of students at risk of school failure, as well as assessments for all students with disabilities; developing an instructional plan for students academically at risk in every school; forming a school-level instructional support team to help implement those plans; and structuring a rigorous system of accountability and evaluation to ensure effective implementation of all the recommendations.

Focus on Learning’s overall goal was to transform structural limitations and significantly improve teaching, learning and educational outcomes for both general and special ed students. The essence of the report was an extended argument for a school-based model of special education, an effort to focus all available fiscal and instructional resources to meet a wide variety of student learning needs in regular schools and classrooms rather than in separate and segregated settings. The report argued that the school-based model could transform the dual segregated system, in which general education students were separated from special education students and instruction was separated from evaluation, into a more integrated system that better served all students’ needs.

The NYC system has moved significantly towards a school-based model since 1995, but the Focus report’s criticisms still indicate some of the limits of effective education for special education students, who now represent a substantial proportion of the citywide student population. 21% of the city’s students are currently placed in special education, up from 13% in 1995.

The Focus panel worked closely with then Chancellor Ramon Cortines, who was planning to systemically implement the Focus report’s recommendations. But Cortines was removed by then Mayor Giuliani and replaced by Rudy Crew before Cortines could act on the report. Chancellor Crew introduced several major instructional changes (see: Scaling Reforms in NYC Schools ) but was not focused on improving special education, so the Focus report made an initial splash and then disappeared. But in the years since the Focus report was issued, the NYC DOE has introduced other reforms designed to advance the school-based model. Two specific developments within the DOE in the 1980s and 1990s contributed to the school-based model’s ascendancy.

  • From the late 1980s to the early 2000s, administrators, teachers and school reformers created some thirty alternative transfer high schools to serve the needs of the city’s growing over-age and under-credited high school population. This sector of small second-chance recuperative schools strives to re-engage students who have dropped out of traditional high schools or fallen behind in credit accumulation. Many of these students were at risk of being classified as disabled by the special education classification system. In 2006, the NYC Department of Education’s Office of Multiple Pathways began to create some 30 new second-chance high schools and strengthen the existing transfer schools’ curriculum, instruction, programming, guidance, support structures and accountability. Currently, the NYC system has 56 transfer high schools serving more than 13,000 over-age and under-credited high school students, a school sector designed to help students recuperate their lagging starts and achieve a high school degree.

  • In the early 1990’s, Brooklyn’s District 15 collaborated with District 75, the citywide virtual district for students with severe or low-incidence disabilities, to create a “collaborative co-teaching” classroom model to serve both general education and special education students in the same classroom, taught by one special education teacher and one general education teacher. Known as the Integrated Co-Teaching (ICT) model, this approach is now commonplace across the city’s school system.

In the late 1990s, Dorothy Siegel, one of the IESP panel members critical to shaping the Focus report, collaborated with Shirley Cohen, a Hunter College special education professor, to develop the ASD-Nest program, an inclusion program for students on the autism spectrum in NYC schools. The ASD-Nest program is a development of the school-based model designed to include autistic learners in their neighborhood schools, with new instructional and programming arrangements and teachers specifically trained to meet autistic students’ instructional, social-emotional and therapeutic needs in inclusive settings. Teaching and support in the ASD-Nest model focuses on students’ strengths, rather than deficits, and uses evidence-based strategies in Integrated Co-Teaching (ICT) classrooms that emphasize Social Development Intervention (SDI) and are supported by intensive teacher training and professional development led by NYU. Over the past 17 years, the NYC DOE has expanded the ASD-Nest program from one District 15 elementary school to 59 traditional elementary, middle and high schools serving thousands of NYC students.

Siegel and her colleagues are currently working with the NYC DOE to develop a pilot inclusion program for the 10,000 special education students classified as emotionally disturbed. The pilot program incorporates the ASD Nest program’s basic principles -- keeping students in regular classes for much of their school day while restructuring classroom environments and teacher support. The pilot program seeks to redefine inclusion as the default option for students with emotional disturbance classifications, and employs a trauma-informed approach and supportive therapeutic practices. The program is based on research evidence that trauma-informed care strengthens students’ ability to learn, builds critical relationships and helps students self-regulate at developmentally appropriate levels. While not all students classified as emotionally disturbed have had specific traumatic experiences, many, if not most, have experienced the collective trauma caused by structural racism and by having to endure social exclusion in segregated special education settings.

The new NYC DOE administration is also planning to develop other school-based models to address specific student learning needs. Schools Chancellor David Banks has recently indicated that the NYC DOE is working to create district-operated schools for students with dyslexia in each of the five boroughs. A Staten Island charter elementary school for dyslexic students, The Bridge Preparatory Charter School, opened in 2019 and currently serves students in grades one through four, and will add fifth grade in the upcoming 2022-23 school year.

All these developments--small transfer high schools for over-age and under-credited students, specialized ASD-Nest programs for students with autism, other specialized programs within traditional schools for students classified as emotionally disturbed, as well as schools for students with dyslexia and other reading difficulties, are specific examples of how the school-based model that the Focus report advocated is being expanded and transformed to serve a wide variety of student need in traditional public schools.

Though the instructional and supportive arrangements vary, the underlying Focus principles stress student inclusion rather than segregation; specific evidence-based teaching strategies; provision of comprehensive instructional, socio-emotional and therapeutic supports for students; and intensive and ongoing professional development efforts for teachers. Hopefully special education will continue to evolve into a broad spectrum of interventions configured to meet specific student needs within mainstream schools and classrooms, rather than in separate, segregated and restricted placements to which students are effectively sentenced.