After years of failing to appropriately educate its students with disabilities, Boston Public Schools on Wednesday unveiled a multipart plan that would overhaul its special education system.
The district plans to educate students with disabilities in general education classrooms whenever possible, a practice known as inclusion, in all grades and schools within three years. The district also intends to have all English learners in inclusive settings by the 2025-2026 school year.
“This work is complex. It’s also urgent,” Superintendent Mary Skipper said Wednesday night during a presentation by administrators to the School Committee outlining the changes. “We must confront more than 100 years rooted in systemic racial disparities that historically limited equitable access and outcomes for our historically underserved students.”
The district must overhaul its special education practices under a state-mandated improvement plan the city agreed to in 2022 in order to avoid a state takeover of the district. The agreement came on the heels of a blistering state review of the district, in which state leaders described BPS’s special education services as being in “systemic disarray.”
Later in the year, the state education department found BPS violated the rights of special education students by providing unreliable transportation of students with disabilities, preventing some students from receiving specialized instruction and therapies at school.
In addition, a district-commissioned review of the special education department last year found 29 percent — thousands of students — are taught in “substantially separate” classrooms; it’s a rate more than twice that of state and national averages, with students of color and English learners segregated at particularly high rates. Students with disabilities are also underrepresented in the district’s popular dual-language programs.
Under the new plan, the district will place students with and without disabilities in the same classrooms in pre-K, kindergarten, and grades 7 and 9 at every school next school year. Schools will expand the practice to most grades the following year and to the remainder in the 2026-2027 school year.
The plan also envisions a similar shift in the education of English learners. Beginning next year in grades K-8 and the following year in grades 9-12, students learning English will only be separated from peers as needed for direct English instruction, rather than spending their entire days in separate programs.
John Mudd, a longtime BPS watchdog who sits on the task force that advises the School Committee on services for English learners, however, criticized the plan’s strategy for teaching English learners during the public comment portion of Wednesday’s meeting.
“BPS is planning to double down on an English immersion strategy that state and BPS MCAS evidence shows has failed 90 percent of English learners and English learners with disabilities,” he said.
Multiple committee members also expressed concerns about how the plan would teach English learners and whether there would be adequate multilingual staff available to support them in general education classrooms.
The district sent its special education inclusion plan to the state in early October, a key step in a multiyear process to revamp its system. The district released an initial planning document last fall and last year began planning for inclusive education at 22 K-8 schools and every high school. Those plans went into effect this year.
The plan does not lay out the specific changes each school will make to transition to inclusion but instead defines steps they must take and the outcomes they must achieve. Teams at every school must develop school-level plans this year, including recommendations on shifting resources and ensuring they have the necessary staff.
But the plan does have dozens of action items for the district and schools to undertake, like picking a coordinator at each school to oversee support systems, a process that is underway, and auditing individualized education plans for students with disabilities, which has not yet begun. The district already has released new guidance for moving students from segregated English immersion classes to general education. Schools must form their inclusion planning teams this fall and develop plans to carry them out in the spring.
The plan lays out in great detail the district’s failings in educating students with disabilities and English learners, including the concentration of specialized programs and inclusion in a small number of schools, achievement gaps between students in substantially separate settings and their peers in inclusive classrooms, and a lack of flexibility that often locks students into certain programs even as the needs of the students change. Even basic instruction varies greatly across the district, the plan notes, let alone the processes for identifying students who need additional services.
“We can no longer be a district where students need to travel to a certain school with a certain program in another neighborhood, sometimes far away from home, to get the services they need,” Skipper said. “All Boston Public Schools must be inclusive.”
The document will serve as the road map to provide the least restrictive environment for students with disabilities, Skipper told the School Committee.
“If we want to make lasting change, we must understand the systemic root of the problems and tackle the larger system and practices that lead to our current realities,” she said.
The plan lays out a variety of ways general education classrooms can be redesigned to accommodate all students, many of them depending on pairing classroom teachers with special educators and other specialists to alternate instruction.
Boston has had inclusive schools and programs for decades, including the Mary Lyon, the Henderson K-12 Inclusion School, and the Symphonize program at the former Urban Science Academy in West Roxbury. Those programs have at times served as models nationally and globally for inclusive education, but they have yet to reach many of the district’s students, more than one-fifth of whom have disabilities.
“BPS must take responsibility for the students we have failed,” the plan reads. “There have been strong examples of inclusive practice in BPS’ history, but if that good work is not rooted in a system that sustains it, then the cycle of failure will continue.”