The haves and the have nots

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Austin High School and Northside College Preparatory High School are polar opposites in many ways, and special education is no exception. Austin enrolls a higher percentage of special education students than any other high school in the district; Northside has the fewest. CATALYST Senior Editor Elizabeth Duffrin researched both to find out how the lopsided distribution affected each school.

Northside College Prep:

Top of the line

Enrollment

Total 982

Special ed 3%

At Northside College Prep, special education students barely make a ripple. About a third are severely handicapped and, therefore, taught in a classroom by themselves. Most of the rest have learning disabilities but also high test scores.

Between the low special education enrollment and the school’s glowing reputation, Northside had no problem filling all three of its special education teaching slots. Last year, 16 qualified candidates applied for one opening.

“I’ve been fortunate because a lot of teachers want to teach at Northside,” remarks Sue Boeck, the school’s special education coordinator whose own credentials are exceptional. She oncetrained school staff citywide on best practices in special education.

The 10 children with severe or profound mental handicaps study in a bright, spacious first-floor classroom staffed with four aides and a teacher, Christopher Pellikan, who has 18 years experience and a master’s degree with special education certification. He once won a teaching award for the undergraduate education courses he taught at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Pellikan’s classroom is equipped with three computers and an abundance of art supplies, which he solicited from local businesses. A garden lies just outside the window. Students tend it in the warmer months.

As a whole, these students have little interaction with their college-bound peers. The highest-functioning boy joins them for a rock wall-climbing class in the school gym. Some students in the general program eat lunch with Pellikan’s class and earn community service credit.

Northside’s other 22 students with disabilities take courses in one of the school’s three tiers: honors, advanced placement, and college level. Their standardized test scores are above the 70th percentile, with some scoring above the 90th, which is where most Northside students score. Of those 22 students, five have physical problems, three have anxiety or depression, and 14 have learning disabilities.

Those with learning disabilities work closely with teacher Theodora Vosnos, who has a masters degree in special education. Two students see her daily in a resource class. A few who need minimal support see her for 30 minutes a week to get help with problems like organizing class assignments.

Vosnos also team-teaches three English classes and a freshman social studies class with subject-area teachers. Each of those classes enrolls three to five special education students in a class of up to 30.

Difficulty with written expression is the most common learning disability at Northside, reports Vosnos, who coaches disabled and non-disabled students through the writing process—from brainstorming to proofreading.

State monitors praised Northside’s special education program as “exemplary,” but made note of its exceptionally low enrollment. To bring its special education enrollment up to CEO Arne Duncan’s 14 percent mandate, Northside would have to enroll another 22 special education freshmen.

Principal James Lalley says doing so would mean admitting students with average or below average test scores. “It would put them in an awkward position academically,” he says.

Austin High:

Overloaded, understaffed

Enrollment

Total 1,227

Special ed 28%

Austin High is “stretched to the limit.”

That’s what a team of special education program monitors from the state concluded after visiting the school last May. More than one in four Austin students is in special education. Five openings for special education teachers remain unfilled, and one social worker handles the school’s entire caseload.

Students are not getting the help they need, the state monitors determined.

Most special education students at Austin are integrated into regular classes for part of the school day. But last spring, the school lacked enough special education staff to cover team-taught classes, according the state report. General classroom teachers had to cope with a myriad of learning and behavior problems that they were not equipped to handle.

“What makes special education effective is when it’s personal and one-on-one,” observes Steve McIlrath, chair of Austin’s math department. When a class of 28 students has as many as 10 special education students, “it becomes difficult to do the job and do it well,” he says.

The school’s one full-time social worker, William Lively, says he works with 130 special education students and counsels other students who are struggling with personal problems like homelessness, abuse and grief. “It’s like triage,” he says. “You have to prioritize which kids are having the most difficulty.”

Schools like Austin need extra resources, insists Kymara Chase, a DePaul University education professor who works with Austin and other schools on academic probation. When struggling schools can’t attract enough special education teachers, the district could pay for more regular teachers to reduce class size, she suggests. In terms of teacher allocation, “the lowest [performing] school in the city is treated just like Northside Prep,” she remarks. “There’s no equal education here.”