The effects of the pandemic show themselves in every survey of post-pandemic behavior, among students and adults. The pandemic isn’t over but the isolation and anxiety it produced had long-lasting effects.

Dorothy Siegel, Elise Cappella and Kristie Patten describe what they call “a better way” to help students with disabilities.

On December 1, 2022, New York City Schools Chancellor David Banks announced a path forward for transforming and rebuilding trust in the city’s programs serving students with disabilities. This plan includes the sustaining and scaling of four successful and innovative programs serving students with disabilities across the city, the creation of a new paid internship program for high school students in Occupational, Physical and Speech Therapy for students with IEPs, as well as the empowerment of families and community through a new advisory council that will make bold recommendations on reimagining special education in the New York City Public Schools.

This announcement demonstrates the city’s commitment to address the systemic and historic marginalization of students with IEPs, a marginalization that has disproportionately impacted the city’s Black and Brown students with IEPs.

A recent Chalkbeat article, “Public schools are NYC’s main youth mental health system. Where kids land often depends on what their parents can pay,” exposed to public view the growing number of New York City students with serious mental healthissues and behavioral problems that get in the way of their education. Because New York State has inadequately funded mental health services, the onus falls on local school districts, which don’t have the option to turn students away. “The entire state of New York has shifted the burden of mental health to the school districts,” said a social worker quoted in the article.

Under federal law, school districts must provide all students with disabilities, including those with mental health and behavioral problems, a “free and appropriate public education.” And many such students in New York City do receive a high-quality education with therapeutic supports in the public schools.

But serious inequities abound. As Chalkbeat noted, in the New York City public schools,

Black boys get classified with emotional disabilities at a far higher rate than other kids. In the 2020-2021 school year . . . Black students made up less than a quarter of students overall, yet they accounted for nearly half of students classified as having an emotional disability. White students, who made up 15% of all students in New York City public schools, accounted for just 8% of emotional disability classifications.”

As we can see, Black students, especially boys, are overwhelmingly overrepresented in the emotional disability classification. This matters because students with this classification have much worse outcomes than other students. As per Chalkbeat, in 2020-21 only 12% of students classified with an emotional disability received a Regents diploma in four years, compared to 73% of all New York City students.

For decades, New York City students who are classified with an emotional disability have found themselves on a path to highly segregated classrooms and schools, and, ultimately, limited life options. Neighborhood schools are not able to meet the needs of such challenging students, especially in inclusive settings. A recent report by NYU Research Alliance for NYC Schoolsstated that in 2016-17 only 33% of students with an emotional disability were served in an inclusive setting, compared to 66% of students with all disabilities. These young people often drop out and may fall into the juvenile justice system.

In the past few years, an increasing number of students with mental health and behavioral problems, no doubt exacerbated by two years of Covid, are showing up at the schoolhouse door. Of these, some find their way to private schools whose tuitions arepaid by the public school system – close to $1 billion in the last school year alone for students with autism, learning disabilities or mental health/behavioral issues.

Predictably, the overwhelming majority of these private school students are White and hail from more advantaged backgrounds. According to the Chalkbeat analysis, most students who are able to attend private schools on the public dime “live in just four of the richest and whitest districts,” including the Upper East Side and the Upper West Side of Manhattan and Park Slope in Brooklyn. As noted above, racially disparate classification is onemajor inequity in the system. But another is family wealth.

Clearly, New York State can and must do more, especially the restoration and rebuilding of mental health services for children and adolescents with mental health and behavioral issues.

But there is much that the New York City public school system can do as well, in particular at the beginning of a child’s educational journey. Students at risk of being classified with an emotional disability can and should be diverted from that drop-out/juvenile justice path onto a much better life path, as early as possible.

There IS a better way: The Path Program.

The New York City Department of Education (DOE), in close collaboration with researchers at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development (NYU), have developed a better way to educate these students: the Path program, which is based on the highly successful ASD Nest Program for autistic students. Path, like Nest, is a comprehensive, cohesive, collaborative, fully inclusive program that serves students at risk of an emotional disability (ED) classification. Path redirects these students onto a more hopeful path.

ASD Nest Program

The ASD Nest Program has developed over the past twenty years as a collaboration between the DoE and NYU. Launched in 2003, the DoE’s ASD Nest Program works with autisticstudents who are capable of doing grade-level academic work. The goal is to help these students develop competence in their academic, social and behavioral functioning, in order to realize their full, unique potential as independent and fulfilled adults.

In the 2022-23 school year, 69 New York City public schools are educating approximately 1,700 ASD students in 350+ integrated co-taught K-12 classrooms. The vast majority of Nest students stay in the program through twelfth grade, where 95% of Nest high schoolers graduate with a Regents diploma.

Path Program:

The Path program promotes the inclusion of students with emotional disabilities within community schools and strives to disrupt the historical segregation of Black and brown children in restrictive special education settings. The program employs many of the same evidence-based principles, practices, and structures developed for the Nest program, with the addition ofevidence-based trauma-informed and social-emotional learning strategies known to work well for students with this classification. Path classes are small co-taught integrated classes, with no more than four students classified with ED in each class, alongside twelve to twenty typically developing peers. Teachers provide the general education curriculum, using specialized supports and a variety of co-teaching models. With related services integrated into the day, Path classrooms incorporate supports typically provided by outside therapists to foster a safe environment in which Path students can comfortably interact with peers. Whole-class social, sensory, behavioral and academic strategies form a foundational level of support, consistent across all settings.

All school staff – teachers, therapists and administrators — receive high-quality pre- and in-service training and on-site support. Path staff meet weekly as a team to create comprehensive support plans for each student, which involve classroom and individual supports and family partnership.

The DoE piloted the model in one District 9 school in 2021-22 with a grant through the Fund for Public Schools. In 2022-23, the DoE opened four Path classrooms in three District 9 neighborhood schools: three kindergartens and one first grade class. Three more kindergarten classes will open this year in three other districts in Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn, with the goal to eventually have Path programs in most NYC neighborhoods.

Path and Nest are two examples of the DoE’s “specialized programs,” differentiated program models for different disability categories. So far, the DoE has created specialized programs for students with autism (Nest and Horizon), emotional disabilities (Path), and intellectual disabilities (ACES). Importantly, all specialized programs – and their students — are fully integrated into their neighborhood school communities.

Over time, the ASD Nest Program has proven to be the program of choice for many, if not most, parents of autistic students, even those with the means to go to private school. The main admission requirement for Nest is an autism classification.

Similarly, Path is intended to level the playing field for Black and Brown students at risk of an emotional disability who don’t come from advantaged backgrounds. It is commendable that the DOE has chosen to invest in this research-based model – in some of the poorest community school districts in the city – to create inclusive pathways to school and life success.

With the chancellor’s commitment to the expansion of the ASD Nest and Path programs, the future looks much brighter for New York City’s students with significant disabilities.

Dorothy Siegel, Co-founder, ASD Nest Program

Elise Cappella, Professor of Applied Psychology, PI of NYU Path Program, NYU Steinhardt School

Kristie Patten, Professor, Department of Occupational Therapy,PI of NYU ASD Nest Support Project, Co-Investigator of NYU Path Program, NYU Steinhardt School