Schools struggle with federal law

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CPS high schools are falling behind elementary schools in complying with federal special education law, state and local school board officials say.

In 1998, a federal court gave the School Board eight years to get schools on track with the law. At the halfway point this year, “It’s reasonable to be concerned about the lack of progress at the high schools,” says Sharon Soltman, the attorney who sued the district 10 years ago on behalf of special education students.

High schools are more resistant to serving special education students in regular classes, says Christopher Koch, director of teaching and learning at the Illinois State Board of Education. Federal law requires they do so to the extent that a student can benefit.

Some teachers flat-out reject the notion of inclusion, according to reports from state monitors who check on schools’ progress. “I teach gifted students,” sniffs one teacher at Chicago Military Academy, a selective high school in Bronzeville. The gap in student ability levels in high school is larger, notes Kathleen Gibbons, a CPS attorney specializing in special education.

Another problem for high schools, Koch explains, is traditional instruction. High school teachers are more comfortable lecturing to students than they are with other techniques that would help students with learning disabilities. Some of those strategies—presenting material visually or using hands-on activities—can be effective for all students, he points out.

Yet another issue is children with behavior disorders, who are more difficult to deal with in high schools compared to elementary schools. “Students are older, they’re bigger, they’re more threatening,” he notes.

And high school teachers are less likely to have common planning time to collaborate on ways to address students’ behavior and learning problems. State monitors found only one high school had scheduled enough planning time, Northside College Prep, where teachers worked a longer day for no extra pay.

“A culture change is needed,” Koch insists. “I can sit here and tell [schools how to comply], but actually changing the way that teachers interact with students and each other—that’s a big one.”

Koch heads a state team that is monitoring Chicago schools for compliance with Corey H. Koch’s team has visited more than 20 CPS high schools over the last two years. After a preliminary report, schools write improvement plans and have two years to carry them out.

Initial state inspections over the last two years indicate several areas where high schools must improve to pass final state inspections, which begin next spring. The following are some frequently noted problems:

Instructional supports: Classroom teachers must provide special education students with the academic supports outlined in their individual education plans (IEPs), which are crafted by teams of specialists and teachers who consult with a child’s parent. Supports called for in the plan include checking in to make sure students are working on classroom exercises or having students repeat instructions in their own words.

Among the high schools visited by state monitors, most are not providing adequate academic supports for special education students in regular classrooms. In some cases, special education staffers are not sharing IEPs with regular teachers. Other schools are short staffed, and regular teachers were on their own in classes meant to include a special education co-teacher. Co-teachers do not have planning time to discuss student needs. Nearly all faculties request more training.

Behavior Management: A number of schools neglected to write and follow management plans for students with behavior disorders. At Westinghouse High, for instance, such plans were not in place for disruptive special education students, who were frequently suspended instead. Also, Westinghouse teachers seldom conferred with students or parents before students were suspended. Instead, “students were simply escorted from classrooms to ‘the dungeon room,’ where they were required to stand on one 9-by-9 inch tile for the rest of the class period or the school day,” according to school staff interviewed for a May 2002 state monitoring report.

Grading: Under district policy, special education students are graded on how well they have met the goals in their IEPs. For example, a child might be expected to master central concepts but not details. Teachers are often unaware of this policy, however. Some said they graded students on effort instead. At Kelvyn Park High, a teacher told monitors that she gave all her special education students A’s to “boost their egos.” Sampling student files at each high school, monitors found special education students were failing at what they considered to be unacceptably high rates.

Tracking student progress: Schools are required to document academic progress for each student in special education. When students with disabilities fail classes, schools are expected to discuss providing additional support services, but they rarely did so. For instance, 25 percent of special education students at Payton College Prep failed two or more classes in the first marking period of 2001-02, but the school did not document that it considered any change in services.

Parent Communication: Parents were frequently absent at meetings regarding their child’s IEP because schools failed to notify them. By law, parents should receive 10 days advance notice. At Kelvyn Park, the state found some parental notifications dated the same day as the meeting they were expected to attend.

Transition plans: By age 14, each special education student is entitled to a transition plan that outlines goals for work, living arrangements and further schooling after graduation. Plans are supposed to include input from parents and students, but schools frequently neglected to do the plans at all. Special education teachers at one high school told state monitors that transition plans were guidance counselors’ responsibility. Counselors at the same school insisted that they had never heard of transition plans.