There are more than 30,000 preschool-aged children with disabilities in the city, and in the 2019-2020 school year, a full third of them didn’t get all of the services they were legally entitled to receive.

And well more than a thousand of them didn’t get a seat in a suitable pre-K classroom at all.

What You Need To Know

  • A new report finds that a third of pre-school students with special needs didn't receive all the services they should have in the 2019-2020 school year

  • And more than a thousand of those students with disabilities were never given an appropriate pre-K placement

  • A new report also digs into racial disparities in what services and educational settings were recommended for children

“Preschool students with disabilities are not getting the special education services that they need and have the legal right to receive, and are being underserved by the city's early childhood education programs,” Betty Baez Melo, projector director for the Early Childhood Project at Advocates for Children, said.

Advocates for Children analyzed new data on the city’s youngest students with Individualized Education Plans, or IEPs. The findings undermine the city’s promise of universal pre-kindergarten.

At the end of the 2019-2022 school year, at least 1,222 students were still waiting on seats in self-contained classrooms — classrooms that serve only children with disabilities.

“It's hard to hear politicians talk knowing that there's a sense that you're discriminating against this segment of children, because you are not providing children with special needs the same resources available to children without — and that's discrimination,” said Jeanne Alter, executive director of Kennedy Children's Center, a pre-K center for special needs children.

In part due to state funding formulas, teachers at pre-K programs for disabled kids are paid less than those working for the education department's pre-k and 3-k programs — even though they work 12 months a year and must have the same certifications.

That makes it hard to keep staff, which makes it hard to offer these kinds of classes — fueling seat shortages.

“Right now, we have two groups of kids waiting to come in, and I can't bring them, those kids on site, because we do not have teachers for them — and that's criminal, to know that little ones are sitting at home waiting to be educated, and you have a school, and I can't bring them in because I don't have enough staff,” Alter said.

Those shortages disproportionately affect certain children. 

The study found that preschool-aged children of color were less likely to be identified as disabled than white children.

But once they were identified and given an IEP, Black and Hispanic children were much more likely to be recommended for the most restrictive educational environment — those hard-to-find self-contained classes — than white students. Federal law requires children to be served in the least restrictive environment. Less restrictive options include integrated classes that serve both children with disabilities and without, or a regular classroom with the student getting extra services, or being visited by a special education teacher for extra help.

“The city recommended more than half of Black and Latinx preschoolers with disabilities for self-contained classes. And that's compared to just recommending 30% of white preschool students,” Baez Melo said. “Unfortunately, even though they were recommending these students for the self-contained classes, as we've addressed, the DOE was then not providing these classes — and at the end of the 2019-2020 school year, more than 1000 preschoolers with IEPs did not have this special class seat that their IEP recommended.”

The city is offering a contract enhancement to schools serving students with disabilities — but advocates and educators say unless it provides for full salary parity with DOE teachers, it won’t be enough to expand these programs.

An education department spokeswoman pointed to a $22 million investment from the prior administration to add more seats.

“Mayor Adams and Chancellor Banks are committed to showing up for every child every day, including our youngest students with disabilities, and providing them with the services they need to thrive," spokeswoman Sarah Casasnovas said. "The current $22 million investment in preschool special education will help us create new special class seats, strengthen delivery of services, and serve more students in high-quality inclusive settings. We know more needs to be done, and will work with Advocates for Children and families to ensure all students have access to a strong start and the services they need."