Extended School Year As A Microcosm Of Special Education Dysfunction

Extended School Year (ESY) services embody the irrationality of special education. From its origin to its implementation, ESY reflects special education’s fundamental flaws.

For the uninitiated, ESY is a set of services for students with IEPs who exhibit skill regression or delayed skill recoupment following scheduled breaks from school. ESY services allow teams to continue working towards IEP goals during the summer for the sake of maintaining progress. Each IEP team determines student eligibility, but students with the most severe disabilities tend to automatically qualify.

Teachers don’t introduce new content or skills during ESY programs. The point is to maintain performance levels through repeated practice. ESY services typically focus on select goals per student rather than on entire IEPs. Although the aims of ESY are limited, related services such as therapy or one-to-one assistance are expected to be in place.

IEP teams must consider ESY services for every student with an IEP. Criteria exist for determining eligibility. If a team finds a student eligible, the team must detail services in the IEP. Goals must be identified, along with the necessary specially designed instruction and related services.

Even if a student is eligible, attendance isn’t mandatory. Parents can send students every day, one day, or no days. The service must be offered regardless of parental intent to send. Some districts ask parents to put their intentions in writing. This helps establish needed resources. The IEP overrides any letter, so parents can rescind and petition for services if the IEP includes them.

Further examination of ESY reveals several ingrained issues. The origin of ESY, the sentiment behind its creation, and the difficulties associated with its implementation encapsulate special education’s ills. In essence, ESY is a complicated service enacted through litigation and allocated for the least capable students. It has questionable effect while opening up districts to legal attacks. That description feels disappointingly similar to special education at large.

ESY emerged from a US District Court case in 1978 named Armstrong v. Kline. This was a class action suit in which several families from southeastern Pennsylvania sued the Department of Education as well as a few school districts. The plaintiffs claimed the Department of Education couldn’t limit the school year to 180 days on the grounds that students who experience a loss of skill might benefit from year-round programming.

The students named in the case had various needs. Armstrong himself was a student who allegedly demonstrated a pattern of regression following breaks from school—by age eight. A few of the students involved attended residential programs. Some had severe emotional disturbances while others had profound intellectual disabilities. As the case proceeded, one of the students aged out of school attendance. The team retroactively sought damages based on previous denial of summer service.

The assumption for these students was ESY would’ve made some worthwhile difference in skill retention. Although the students themselves were named as plaintiffs, clearly the parents were behind the demands. They petitioned to have free special education services continue beyond 180 days. They won. Today, the cluster of disability categories and support types automatically qualifying for ESY is called the Armstrong group.

The case demonstrated how rational people who deal with special education have to sigh, bite their tongues, and cope with the results of what parents demand. These students all had severe cognitive or behavioral disabilities and received the services their IEP teams had deemed necessary. By the virtue of their needs, all received support far beyond general education norms. Many received highly expensive residential services. None of this was enough. The parents demanded more without regard for the relative value versus cost of their demands.

Now, districts have to deal with ESY. Point by point, ESY exemplifies the logistical complexities of special education. For any student thought to be a likely candidate, eligibility meetings have to happen months in advance. The point of holding meetings so early isn’t so districts can make arrangements (although arranging transportation and classroom space can be complicated). The early date is to give parents ample chance to dispute denials through due process.

Costs are substantial. Most teachers aren’t contracted for summer work. ESY forces districts to spend huge sums on teachers. Districts also must pay therapists, assistants, food service workers, and bus drivers who wouldn’t otherwise be working. Summer energy costs are a real issue for some districts. As usual, this disproportionately affects urban districts with aging, inefficient buildings and less money available to cover expenses.

Other logistical issues compound the difficulty for schools. Teachers and therapists might not have previously worked with the students they serve during ESY. They have little time to get to know these students and often have to rely on what information is included in IEPs. Most ESY programs aren’t full day. With many students needing assistance with personal needs, medication, and feeding, scant time remains for instruction. ESY programs serve many students who don’t handle change particularly well. These students have to do something unfamiliar at unusual times with people they might not know in what might be a completely new place. Effectiveness is questionable before the start.

As mentioned, ESY is not mandatory. Despite this, if something is missing, parents can sue. The missing component could be anything from instructional materials to air conditioning. If a building has a maintenance problem or scheduled repair work during the summer that interferes with a cooling system, parents of students who need temperature controlled facilities might be able to seek compensatory education for every non-air conditioned day. Staffing issues in some districts create problems when more one-to-one assistants are needed than the number available. Some parents initiate disputes over their children not being able to attend their regular buildings. Through logistics and compensatory education settlements, ESY drains many districts.

Administrators wrestle with how to provide ESY. Some special education supervisors and directors want to expand eligibility to fend against denial lawsuits. Other administrators want to limit enrollment because of the obscene costs. For various reasons, many principals don’t want their buildings to host ESY. School officials largely regard it as an unfortunate headache, again echoing prevailing sentiments about special education.

The “E” in ESY is telling. From the original case, the point has been to get more from schools. That case demonstrated how a few parents can produce a massive effect on schools nationwide. It was an allegory for special education. ESY continues to be this. The extra expenditures districts have to make during the regular school year aren’t enough. Parents demand more.

Completing the analogy is how ESY services are reserved for the least capable students who might not benefit significantly from them. The efforts and costs associated with ESY are meant to ensure that a few extraordinarily disabled students won’t forget which coin is a quarter. Schools are expected to measure the effects of ESY at the beginning of the following school year. The skills being measured are often so rudimentary that discerning growth can be difficult as responses might be nearly independent of instruction. Effects become suspect.

Questioning value isn’t popular in special education circles. One does have to wonder about the relative worth of ESY, though. Significant effort is expended to achieve gains so minimal that a rational person could declare those demanding it to be selfish or daft. At least some parents get a summer placement for their children while some professionals get to pad their salaries. Comparisons with the whole of special education make each enterprise feel grim.

(jeffreymhartman.com is now featured at http://education.alltop.com/)

Extended School Year As A Microcosm Of Special Education Dysfunction

7 thoughts on “Extended School Year As A Microcosm Of Special Education Dysfunction

  1. behaviortalk says:

    This is all (sadly) spot on – thank you for posting. ESY, like much in the world of special education, is one of those things that looks and sounds good, but doesn’t actually do anything meaningful. And people tend to love things that look and sound good, regardless of the outcome. In theory, ESY is great and makes sense. But it doesn’t function properly, so it’s more or less worthless. Also, schools are supposed to have data to support their claims that the student in question definitely regresses after breaks. But in my experience that never happens. The decision is solely made based on people’s opinions and wishes – not based on true need. And if there is any data, it’s spotty at best. All in all, a broken system in need of many repairs!


    1. While working as a special education liaison, coping with the logistics of ESY for my building was one of the most complicated and fruitless endeavors I faced. The effect of ESY programming for students would’ve been laughable if not for the expenditures involved. Opportunistic parents (and their attorneys) could use the district’s inability to provide accommodations during the summer as compensatory education leverage. It was like a buffet.

      If you think about, all students likely exhibit some regression during breaks. The students who might gain the most from something akin to ESY often aren’t eligible. They partake in other summer opportunities and turn out just fine. Eligibility determinations are highly questionable. How is regression truly evident in students who are severely and profoundly disabled? The service is reserved for students who are difficult to place in summer camps or similar programs and who have the loudest, most persistent parents.

      Thank you for the comment, by the way. Your blog looks great and I look forward to reading more of your articles.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. My son shows regression during the school year, too, if he is not interested in the subject matter. This year they offered me ESY, and I turned them down. Last summer my son taught himself to read during his stress free summer, I am looking forward to what he accomplishes this year. I didn’t know what ESY was until the offer a few days ago, and now after reading your post, I am glad I declined.


    1. Other than in districts with ample budgets and relatively small special needs populations, ESY isn’t likely to be as effective other types of summer enrichment opportunities. The attempt to replicate services in a limited summer program often falls short. Some students truly benefit from a break. I’m delighted that your son was able to make such strides independently. ESY may have done more to interfere with that than help it.

      Thank you for the comment and for following. I hope you and your son have a refreshing and productive summer of 2015!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. k diaz says:

    Wow. As a parent of a girl with classic autism who is nonverbal I have to share that I am appalled by this article. Two things are evident from it. 1. The author is not the parent of a child who would qualify for esy. 2. It is a biased load of crap. How dare anyone judge the motives of parents of children with significant special needs; truly disgusting.


    1. Thank you for your comment. Extended School Year services are an appropriate placement for some students, provided a school actually has the resources to make the services work. When they don’t, special education law allows parents, advocates, and attorneys to collect compensatory education for a service that is mandatory for schools to provide, but optional for parents to accept. It is wonderful when it works and helps promote student gains. It can an expensive disaster when it doesn’t.

      I hope your experiences with ESY (and everything else your daughter needs) turn out to be much more positive than my experiences with trying to makes sure services were in place in a grossly underfunded district.


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