The new superintendent of Boston Public Schools is promising big changes in special education programming to end more than a decade of systemic turmoil that has unfairly affected thousands of students of color.
In an interview with GBH News, Superintendent Mary Skipper said she would make broad systemic fixes and correct the way Black and brown students are channeled into special education classrooms at higher rates than their white peers.
“There’s no way I’m going to come in and be an effective superintendent and not deal with this straight up,” Skipper said. “So that’s what I’m going to do.”
Such reforms eluded Skipper’s six predecessors spanning the last decade, including three interim superintendents. But persistent problems in Boston’s special education program were among the flaws highlighted by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education last summer when it said that city schools were failing their most vulnerable students and threatened a state takeover. They’re also problems that parents and advocates say have been clear for more than a decade.
One of the district’s responses to the state’s review was to hire the Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington, DC-based organization with deep ties to the Boston School Committee, to conduct an assessment of special education.
The council’s report, released in late November, found that BPS enrolls more special-ed students, on average, than the state and nation, and over-identifies Black and Latino male students as having a learning disability. Black males are 14% of the overall population, but 24% of students enrolled in special education, the report said. Latino males are 21% of the student population, but 29% of special education students.
Together, Black and Latino males make up about 35% of BPS’ overall population, but more than half of special education enrollment. White students, by comparison, are 7% of the general population and almost exactly the same percentage of special education students.
Ray Hart, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, said one of the most troubling findings was that Boston removed special education students from the general student population and placed them into separate schools or classrooms at twice the rate of other districts in the state and nation.
Boston’s system for assigning students is decades-old and outdated, he said.
“It hasn’t changed over the course of a number of years, while your peers across the country have transitioned,” he told the School Committee last month.
Skipper said the district will fix the problems by expanding the “inclusion” program, which would mean bringing removed students back into general education classrooms and providing extra staff and learning support for those students and teachers. She said a big step toward that goal was a new contract with the teachers’ union ratified this summer outlining inclusion requirements.
The rollout will begin next to fall with a group of schools, he said, calling it BPS’ “entree into the inclusion that we’re looking to build out over the course of the next five years.”
She did not identify the schools that would be part of the rollout, and when requested from BPS, a school spokesman provided a list of Boston schools that already offered part-time or full-time inclusion of classrooms.
Skipper also said he’s hiring a senior advisor for special education who can implement a timeline for change over the next five years.
“This is the future for students with disabilities and all students,” she said. “So this is something that is not going to go away.”
For some parents, frustration is high.
Sheena, whose 8-year-old Black daughter has been in different types of special-ed classrooms, said she’s at her breaking point. GBH News is not using her last name or the name of the school to avoid identifying the child.
First her daughter was in an inclusion classroom, where the teacher moved too fast, she said. Now she’s in a separate special education classroom in a new school, where her daughter has been struck and called names by her classmates.
“I’m taking her out,” she said. “I just don’t want my child to set up for failure. Minorities are set up for failure. Help the kids.”
Some education activists said Skipper’s renewed focus on special ed was welcome, but they wanted to see less talk and more action. Several people interviewed for this story said many of the same special education problems were identified 13 years ago — in a similar report by the Council of the Great City Schools identified commissioned by the district.
“It’s like the definition of insanity, right? You’re going to do the same thing over and over again and expect different results,” said Boston Education Justice Alliance executive director Ruby Reyes. “It just feels like we’re in this cycle of literally the same players … saying the exact same things that they said in 2009.”
Two of the five co-authors on the latest report had notable ties to the efforts to reform BPS’ special education programs.
Education consultant Sue Gamm was a co-author of both reports, in 2009 and this year’s. And former BPS deputy superintendent Karla Estrada — who oversaw special education in the district as recently as 2018 — was hired by the Council earlier this year and named as a co-author of the new report.
Estrada did not respond to requests for comment, and recently left the Council.
Reyes also noted that Skipper was an administrator in the district overseeing the city’s high schools when the 2009 report came out.
“At what point do you actually start [making changes], instead of just saying that you’re gonna start?” Reyes asked. “I think that’s why families, and I myself am very angry. Because they never start, they just start to start.”
Roxi Harvey, whose child is in a BPS special education program, and who serves as the chair of the district’s special education advisory group, said she’s trying to balance the frustration she feels after years of stalled plans with her hopefulness in Skipper.
“She says she’s committed, but you know, I’m old school,” Harvey said. “Commitment is shown in action.”
Skipper, who started on the job in late September, cautioned that the changes would take time. The work involves evaluating and changing how the district enrolls, assigns and funds special education, he said. It will also be important to improve teacher and staff training for handling students with diverse needs, he said.
There will be some less complicated changes, she said. The district can immediately improve the identification of students learning English who may need — or don’t need — special-ed programming by ensuring that they are assessed in their first language, not English.
Skipper said the first step has to be leadership stability. The school district has had a revolving door of superintendents who weren’t around long enough to make change happen, and Skipper said that has contributed to the problems the district now faces.
“That kind of inconsistency of leadership — starting and stopping, starting and stopping — when you’re talking about something that really requires sustained focus, sustained investment, that interrupts that process,” Skipper said. “I think that explains … why there hasn’t been traction.”