The Parents Voice

Observations of the Newark SEPAC

Newark Public Schools and the Pathway to Inclusion. Are We There Yet? How Do We Get There? Who Benefits? Who Loses?

January 6, 2018  

Saafir I. Jenkins, CPP  |  Chief Public Relations Officer, Newark SEPAC

To suggest that 12 Newark schools out of 66 offer inclusion programs is either a misrepresentation of facts or a widespread secret.


Newark Special Education Parent Advisory Council

Inclusion: Op-Ed by Saafir Jenkins, Chief Public Affairs Officer, Newark SEPAC (December 2017)


Newark Special Education Parent Advisory Council (Newark SEPAC) is a Parent led advocacy group purposed with advising the Newark School Districts regarding concerns and issues within Special Education. Newark SEPAC serves the Newark, NJ School District’s special education population by engaging and supporting parents and gathering data for the purpose of advocating for policy enforcement and improvements in order to bring about excellence in education for all students.


Newark SEPAC’s vision is that all special education students, parents, and educators will be engaged in a comprehensive educational community to best serve the needs of the students of the Newark School District.


Newark Public Schools & The Pathway to Inclusion

Are We There Yet? How Do We Get There? Who Benefits? Who Loses?


Inclusion, in the framework of education, ensures opportunities for disabled or differently-abled students to learn alongside typical peers to the maximum extent possible. New Jersey Administrative Code 6A:14-4.2(a) states that, “Students with disabilities shall be educated in the least restrictive environment. Each district [BOE] shall ensure that, to the maximum extent appropriate, a student with a disability is educated with children who are not disabled; [AND] Special classes, separate schooling or other removal of a student with a disability from the student’s general education class occurs only when the nature or severity of the educational disability is such that education in the student’s general education class with the use of appropriate supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily…”


Unfortunately, Inclusion, as a concept, tends to get misused, misapplied, or simply misunderstood.


Inclusion is not a location


While it is common to believe that inclusion is simply a physical placement of a special needs child in a room with typical peers, it is critical to understand that a child’s proximity to other students is often the least of a parent’s worries. Inclusion is the vehicle that enables a school district to expose children with disabilities to standards in general education which are often left out of the self-contained classroom. Inclusion should be the initial expectation of every parent. It is only under extreme circumstances that self containment or other exclusive environments should be used.


Inclusion requires support


All students have a right to thrive in a supportive environment; and students with disabilities are no different. Disabled or differently-abled children must have sufficient supports to truly access the free and appropriate public education to which they are entitled. In order for a school district to be successful in implementing an effective inclusion program, they must be relentless in providing quality supplementary aids and services with full accountability and transparency to parents.


Transitioning from using self-contained classrooms as a standard to inclusion within general education classrooms requires parental input, transparency, and a cooperative partnership with Newark SEPAC to ensure that services and supports are not lost in the process. A deficiency in this area would have disastrous consequences.


Inclusion requires parent involvement


As with every decision concerning a child’s well-being, inclusion is a topic that requires parental involvement.


In a lawsuit brought against the NJ Department of Education for failing to employ appropriate inclusion practices for students receiving Special Education services, it was revealed that the NJ Department of Education did not adhere to IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) by failing to provide disabled children with a Free and Appropriate Education in the Least Restrictive Environment.

Albeit likely a response to the lawsuit, admittedly, records show that the Newark Office of Special Education is now working toward more inclusive educational settings. In fact, in a December 4, 2017 Press Release, Newark Public Schools asserts that, “As part of Inclusive Schools Week, the OSE held Team-Initiated Problem Solving (TIPs) [which included] staff members from the 12 Inclusion Schools” (Newark Public Schools, 2017).


While, at first glance, it may seem that the Office of Special Education has somehow solved the issue of inclusionary lack with its mention of the existence of 12 inclusion schools, records show that true inclusion is still lacking in the district. More importantly, district parents, in large part, are unaware of any formal inclusion programs available to them. To suggest that 12 Newark schools out of 66 offer inclusion programs is either a misrepresentation of facts or a widespread secret.


To date, the Office of Special Education has not satisfactorily engaged parents in the strategic planning of their initiatives to improve inclusion practices. The implementation of any inclusion programming within the district should not exclude parents. Rather, parents must be treated as partners throughout the process to ensure that the best interests of every student are safeguarded.


In fact, in their own Press Release mentioned above, Newark Public Schools includes a link to a website of Inclusive Schools Network, http://inclusiveschools.org.


Interestingly enough, Inclusive Schools Network’s website states that, “Inclusive schools that have maintained success over time have a very important commonality: They engage family members in meaningful school and classroom activities” (Inclusive Schools Network, 2015).

So, it seems that the Office of Special Education would be fully aware of the need to involve parents and Newark SEPAC. Why, then, has Newark’s Office of Special Education failed to adequately engage parents? Why have they chosen to keep their initiatives a secret? More importantly, what is the plan going forward?


Not only have parents been largely excluded in this process, but so has the Newark Special Education Parent Advisory Council, the very ones who have been tasked with ensuring that parents have a voice. What’s most shocking is the fact that the NJ State Department of Education (with Newark named as a Designated District) has been mandated to contact SEPAGs (or SEPACs) to monitor progress of this very implementation.


Newark SEPAC Involvement is Required


Section K, Paragraph 1 of a Settlement Agreement between the NJ Department of Education and Disability Rights NJ, et al, requires that, “When NJDOE monitors the Designated Districts in accordance with this Settlement Agreement [wherein, Newark is listed as a District found to be out of compliance], it will contact the Designated Districts’ special education advisory groups…” (Settlement Agreement, 2014).


Without appropriate engagement and/or oversight by parents and the Newark SEPAC, the Office of Special Education has begun to create controversy in what appears to be an attempt to gain publicity.


Newark SEPAC’s goal is to ensure quality education for all students.

As revealed in a December 4, 2017 Press Release, the Newark Public Schools Office of Special Education has established and/or engaged an inclusive Practices Implementation Team. However, without parents; without Newark SEPAC, the team is incomplete.


One would expect that the Office of Special Education would recognize that a district that struggles with meeting the needs of its disabled students – one that resorts to Self-Contained classrooms and out-of-district placement when parameters within students’ IEPs cannot be met (over 50% of Special Needs population) – would be welcoming of input by a qualified and caring Special Education Advisory group, namely Newark SEPAC.


Newark SEPAC hopes to establish an appropriate partnership in the implementation of Inclusion within the district(s) of Newark Schools.

To that end, to improve the quality of services rendered to Newark’s children with disabilities and to ensure that the best possible inclusionary environment is achieved, Newark SEPAC hereby demands that Newark SEPAC Representatives be invited to all read-outs and strategy meetings with Newark Public Schools district and Inclusive Practices Implementation Team.


Newark SEPAC also seeks to be added as part of the local control transition team to ensure standards of excellence are achieved within Newark’s special education services.


References


Inclusive Schools Network. (2015, September 2). Family Involvement.

Retrieved from Inclusive Schools Network: http://inclusiveschools.org/parents-and-families-are-valuable-partners/


Newark Public Schools. (2017, December 4). Communications: Press Releases. Retrieved from Newark Public Schools: http://www.nps.k12.nj.us/press-releases/newark-public-schools-celebrates-inclusive-schools-week-stand-tall-sit-inclusion-2017-theme/​


Settlement Agreement, Civil Action no. 07-2978 (MLC) (United States District Court for the District of New Jersey January 27, 2014).