Special-needs students protest proposed cuts

Members of the New York Institute for Special Education protest Gov. Cuomo's proposed budget cuts on Friday, March 25, 2011 (John Hernandez)

March 25, 2011 5:06:30 PM PDT
Students from the New York Institute for Special Education rallied against Governor Andrew Cuomo's proposed budget cuts on Friday.

The crowd of passionate protesters chanted loudly, "We will be seen. We will be heard. We are here today and we are not going away."

Protesters claim that the Governor's proposed budget would force disabled students like Amanie Riley to be "main-streamed" and sent to public schools that lack the resources and funds to meet their needs.

In most ways, Amanie is like any other senior in high school. She is driven, passionate, and excited about embarking on her journey to college. However, in one big way Amanie is different - she was born blind. The visually impaired teen is a student at the New York Institute for Special Education.

She entered NYI as a timid freshman, insecure about her disabilities after an emotional draining experience in her public school. Four years later, Amanie is a product of a system that celebrates disabled students strengths. She has transformed into a leader in her school community.

"You can really see how she has grown into a competent, self-assured, young woman," Dr. Bernadette Kappen, executive director of the institute, said.

Amanie's teachers are highly specialized to meet her needs. School officials say students' benefit from the intimacy of their low student to teacher ratio. This enabled Amanie's teacher, Maria Hayda, to help her learn how to commute from her home in Yonkers to her school in the Bronx. However, independently navigating Amanie's 45 minute commute seems like a small obstacle compared to the challenge she faces today.

Governor Cuomo has proposed ending direct state funding of 11 schools that serve students like her, shifting the $98-million dollars in funding to public schools instead. It would be up the public schools to pay the "4201 schools" (a reference to a section of state law). However, advocates fear that won't happen and the special needs students will wind up in public schools instead.

The students at Friday's demonstration are determined to prove to legislators that their education is worthy of every state dollar spent. Disabled students like Amanie are marching to drum up support for their cause. They will continue to fight for their schools until the budget deadline on April 1st.