Special education entering new era

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On Jan. 16, the School Reform Board settled a lawsuit filed on behalf of 53,000 special education students with a plan that potentially will touch all 428,000 students in the system.

It agreed to redirect as many special education students as possible to their neighborhood schools and to have them spend as much time as possible with non-disabled children, following the standard curriculum. That’s what federal law has required since 1975, but the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) hasn’t followed the law.

“Right now, one of two things is still happening,” says Joy Rogers, a leading Chicago inclusion activist and a Loyola University professor. “One is, disabled kids are being left in regular education without the services they need to be successful or, two, they are being shipped all over the city for unknown reasons to seek out services which are presumably there.”

In 1994, about half of the system’s special education children were spending most of their school day in regular classes, according to Sharon Weitzman Soltman, an attorney for the reform group Designs for Change. Nationwide, the percentage was in the high 70s, she says. In a comparison of states, she adds, Illinois ranked at the bottom.

Designs first documented the illegal segregation of Chicago’s special education students in its 1991 report, “Caught in the Web II.” In 1992, it joined with the Northwestern University Law Center filing Corey H. vs. the city and state boards of education.

State action/inaction

While CPS settled the lawsuit to avert a trial, the Illinois State Board of Education opted for a trial. On Feb. 23, U.S. District Court Judge Robert Gettleman ruled against the state board, saying it had failed in its responsibility to ensure that the state’s school districts meet the federal requirement of educating children with disabilities in the least restrictive environment.

At press time, the state was reworking a remediation plan for a deadline of May 29. Its first plan had been found wanting by both the plaintiffs and attorneys for the CPS. Money is a major issue. State board spokesperson Tom Hernandez said the state would not discuss its plan while the issue is still in litigation. (See story.)

While phasing in “inclusion” at the system’s some 600 school facilities would benefit from additional staff, the district cannot afford it, says Sue Gamm, CPS chief of specialized services. Looking to the state, she says, “Illinois has not only been one of the lowest states in funding general education, but one of the lowest in funding special education as well.”

CPS implementation: Training

In the meantime, Chicago is relying on training to help schools rearrange their budgets and staffs to move toward inclusion. The specifics will be left to each school.

“We don’t want a top-down, imposed remedy at each school,” says Soltman. “Some schools have strengths they really should be building on. They may have a terrific reading program from which kids with disabilities have been excluded because people haven’t started to think about how to include them. If you have a school that embraces the idea of including kids with disabilities and a school that doesn’t, that calls for very different strategies. It’s a slow process, but I hope we’re beginning.”

Under the settlement, it will be an eight-year process. During the first three years, about 100 schools will receive intensive training as part of a program called the Education Connection. Twenty-eight schools that previously were selected for $10,000 inclusion grants became a part of the program automatically, and about 30 will be added in each of the next two years. (See story.) Already, 200 schools have applied, says Gamm.

Central office will supply Education Connection schools with the names and addresses of children with disabilities who reside in their attendance areas but who do not attend their schools; the schools will be expected to follow up with invitations.

The Chicago Teachers Union says even the Education Connection schools don’t have the time and staff to go further with inclusion. “They’re supposed to provide the appropriate services, but they just don’t have the staff to do that,” says Ava Harston, the CTU’s liaison on inclusion.

The Chicago Principals and Administrators Association expressed similar concerns, adding that additional training “is essential.”

Schools do not face any particular inclusion deadlines. “I’m not going to be heavy-handed with schools when they are not getting heavy support and assistance,” explains Gamm. “We’re doing Education Connection because there is a belief that schools change with support and assistance.”

Less intensive training is scheduled for schools that aren’t accepted for the Education Connection. Thirty-six central office administrators assigned to the six regions have been trained in inclusion concepts, such as how to modify the curriculum for a special-needs child, and, in turn, are training school representatives. The school representatives then will train the rest of their faculties. The regional liaisons are expected to return to their assigned schools at least once every two weeks to reinforce the training, provide support and answer questions.

At the same time, Gamm’s office is helping 117 schools learn how to help kids who are failing academically because of the stresses of their environment, such as violence or an unstable family, rather than a personal disability. Called school-based problem solving, the process provides for a team of school staffers to observe the child in class and make recommendations that might range from simple behavioral interventions, to intensive acceleration of a child’s instruction. The recommendations then would be discussed with parents.

Eventually all schools will be required to hold school-based problem-solving conferences before they conduct an evaluation for possible referral to special ed services. Gamm believes this will keep more students out of special education who should not be there and, conversely, identify more students who are not in special education but probably should be.

Within six years, every school in the system is to receive training in school-based problem solving. The first 117 schools volunteered, and another 50 have volunteered for next year, according to Richard Harley, an administrator for the program.

“Common cause and concern”

Judge Joseph Schneider, who came out of retirement to supervise Chicago’s compliance with the settlement’s inclusion plan, is heartened by the number of schools that have volunteered to pioneer various efforts. “It conveys to me that in our system we have a great deal of support from principals, teachers and local school councils. Litigation can be very frustrating, but what we have in this case are people who have a common cause and concern about children. Today, sure there are differences of opinion on the nuances of this, but there is a common cause.”

One area where there is no disagreement is that the effort is being led by the right people.

Joy Rogers, one of the harshest critics of Chicago’s special education program, gives Gamm and her staff an “A-plus” for their efforts to change it.

Charlotte Desjardins, another longtime advocate, says Gamm is doing “an absolutely superb job. She and her top staff have a vision, they understand the rights of people with disabilities and, at the same time, they have a commitment to education. That’s what was missing before, the understanding that kids with disabilities have something to contribute and the schools have an obligation to help them do that.”

Gamm’s vision is grounded in her experience as an attorney in the Office for Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education, where she participated in earlier enforcement actions against Chicago.

Soltman says Chicago is “fortunate” that Schneider took the oversight job. While on the bench, he came to be known as the “father of mental health” in Illinois for his work on laws that help people with disabilities, notes Gamm.

Schneider chose Rod Estvan of Access Living, another critic of the system, to serve as his assistant.

Schneider says the plaintiffs and the CPS are lucky to have Gettleman—”a thoughtful judge who is sensitive to the needs of disabled children”—assigned to the case. Prior to his appointment to the bench, Gettleman worked at a law firm that was widely known in the disability rights movement for its advocacy cases.

But … underlying bureaucratic sluggishness?

Nevertheless, advocates are apprehensive. “Sue Gamm has good intentions and is committed to implementing the court decision, but not a lot of people under her that have that kind of commitment,” contends Desjardins, executive director of the Family Resource Center, which receives 5,000 phone calls a year regarding rights of the disabled. “With a half million kids in the system, 50,000 of which are in special education, this is going to be an extremely difficult process.”

Joe Holzer, executive director of the Council for Disability Rights, agrees, “It’s always the middle-level bureaucrats in every system, and I know that some bureaucrats are fighting this plan tooth and nail. They get hung up in bureaucratic nonsense. I think the schools, parents and LSCs are much more in tune.”

“The concern I have is that [central office] is saying great things, but there will be a real trickle-down effect,” says Sara Mauk, the parent of two children with disabilities and a foster parent for an ongoing stream of other children with disabilities. “I don’t think the teachers know what to do. And I don’t think some teachers will change. That’s the problem with inclusion.

Nonetheless, hope for success

Yvonne Williams, director of special education and a 29-year system employee, counters that veterans can, indeed, change. “I’m certain that I’ve changed,” she says. “What I think is important for us to do, and I’m not saying this isn’t a challenge, is to show principals and teachers how these changes are going to benefit kids. I’ve yet to meet with a group that argues against change that benefits kids. When people are resistant, it’s because they believe that what you’re presenting to them is not better.”

“What I think has to happen, Rogers says, “is there has to be enough commitment in the system that recalcitrant administrators ultimately end up suspended for defiance. Referring to an earlier incident at Marshall High School, she says, “Once word got out that you can’t spend $20,000 to renovate the bathroom in your office, it didn’t happen again. Once word gets out that you cannot throw out a kid because he has a disability, it won’t happen. That’s the carrot and the stick approach. The settlement is full of millions of dollars of carrots, but we need [schools chief] Paul Vallas to commit himself to standing by the stick if necessary.”

However, some parents preferred the old system.

“My daughter was in a cross-categorical, self-contained classroom that had a social worker, a nurse and an aide she could to talk to,” says Mauk. “She had all this support, and now she doesn’t have that.”

“This business of inclusion is beautiful if the children actually function better,” says Pat Villanova, a parent of two children in special education. “But I’m not convinced that’s the best approach.”