Special ed referrals ‘discouraging’

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I am a member of Teach for America and I found “CPS Reduces Special Ed Referrals” by Debra Williams (Catalyst March 2003) extremely discouraging. The school where I work has been struggling to implement school-based problem solving for the past two years. There are numerous problems, including no funding for the program, no additional staff to assist in implementing the program, and pressure to reduce the number of referred children, which have lead to fewer children receiving the services they need. When a teacher has tried all of her tricks and techniques to help the child, but still feels the child should be referred, the teacher submits the child for school-based problem solving.

It should not be assumed as Linda Taylor, director of UCLA’s Center for Mental Health in Schools does in your article, that teachers are “taught if you can’t make it with a kid, send him out as opposed to ‘I can’t make it with this kid, give me resources.'” On a day-to-day basis, teachers are confronted with different learning styles, behavior problems, and emotional difficulties. We are experts in differentiation and I am offended by the whole premise that teachers simply want children taken out of their rooms and are unwilling to try the proper strategies. In reality, most teachers would simply like some assistance with the child-an expert’s advice. Evaluating a child doesn’t necessarily mean that they are taken out of class, but that they will receive an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) with modifications and accommodations for the child-and ideally, they will stay in the mainstream classroom.

A long wait follows after submitting the paperwork, and teachers are told the child must go through a five-week to 10-week process, where, in theory, [the child] receives pull-out services and in-class help from trained SBPS teachers or aides, and the teacher learns strategies to help the child. None of these things happen, and after the five- to 10-week period, I have learned that staff members trained in SBPS have left the school or are busy with their normal duties. Then, the child comes up for normal evaluation, if no remediation has been determined.

This is a deterrent for teachers to get their students the help that they deserve. The question to ask is, Why are we trying to reduce the number of referrals? Of course, when you put a school “under a microscope” and pressure it to lower their rates, it will. I believe this is exactly what is happening at my school. The administration blatantly tells teachers that they are under pressure to lower referral rates. Especially, in low-income areas-I work on the South Side in the Auburn-Gresham neighborhood-there is just a higher concentration of students who need help due to poverty, neglect and poor health. There is also continued resistance from school staff to give students additional help. When Williams writes that some schools are above the national average for referral rates, she fails to mention potential causes.

When a parent or guardian comes to me wanting to refer their child, I am forced to explain that this will probably not happen within the school year, and if it does, it will be an uphill battle. Your article does mention this when speaking with Principal Frances Oden of Beethoven Elementary, “We’ve gotten our numbers down, but this year we’ll have to refer some of the same kids we looked at last year.”

Your article failed to provide both perspectives. Among my colleagues at school, and in graduate course work, SBPS is widely disliked and it is a point of confusion and frustration for many. Again, the main question on my mind is, Why are we trying to reduce referrals for special education when the need is so pressing?

Elizabeth Williams

Corps member

Teach for America