Balancing the scales for special ed

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Veronica Anderson, editor

Veronica Anderson, editor

Four years ago, special education students, parents and advocates won a civil rights victory when the School Board agreed to stop illegally segregating disabled students into self-contained classrooms and separate schools. A federal court order gave the district until January 2006 to reduce the amount of time that disabled children spend outside regular classrooms and to enroll them more evenly throughout the district.

Now—with only three years left to meet the federal court goals—local researchers have found persistent inequities that show clearly there are more civil rights battles to be won.

According to the Consortium on Chicago School Research, disabled high school students have been increasingly segregated in the most academically troubled schools. Austin High School is at the top of the list. There, 40 percent of this year’s incoming freshmen are in special education. Faculty and other staff at Austin told Catalyst Senior Editor Elizabeth Duffrin that the school’s limited personnel and financial resources make it virtually impossible to serve so many special education students. “It’s like triage—you have to prioritize which kids are having the most difficulty,” says Austin’s one full-time social worker.

At the other end of the list is Northside College Prep, where special education students make up only 3 percent of the student body, and most other selective enrollment high schools. A year ago, CEO Arne Duncan challenged principals at such high schools to accept more disabled freshmen, setting a goal of at least 14 percent. A couple did—King and Jones college preps came within striking distance of 14 percent. But most elite high schools didn’t make it. Whitney Young lost ground with only 4 percent of its incoming freshmen class in special education, down from 8 percent a year ago.

Some adults in the elite schools argue that accepting students who are not prepared academically to handle the curriculum does a disservice to special and regular students alike. However, sending those special education students to schools with overwhelmed and sometimes weaker faculties is far worse.

The fallout has a disproportionate effect on black students, who are more likely to be referred into special education than are whites, Latinos or Asians. (See chart.) Black students are the only group that is overrepresented, comprising 51 percent of all high school students, but 61 percent of special needs teens in 9th through 12th grades. Such inequity has a ripple effect well after high school. A staggering 75 percent of disabled black students are unemployed two years out of high school compared to 47 percent of disabled white students, according to a policy summary for the book “Racial Inequity in Special Education.”

The school system has made a special investment in its elite schools. It gave them special facilities, highly regarded teachers and students who have the parents or motivation to see that they get a first rate education. The least that these schools can do in return is take on their fair share of the hard work of educating students with special needs. If that means modifying their programs, so be it.

But that’s not enough. As Catalyst reporting has shown repeatedly, about a dozen Chicago high schools get saddled with the most difficult-to-reach students and, as a result, have the hardest time maintaining a solid faculty. It’s time for these schools to get the same attention, creativity, leadership and resources that went into Northside and high schools like it.

Kymara Chase, a professor of education at DePaul University, suggests, for example, hiring more general teachers to lower class sizes at low-performing high schools that don’t have the reputation to attract enough special education teachers. Another idea is to admit more disabled children into accelerated elementary school programs. One mother says that’s why her disabled daughter was accepted at Northside.

CEO Duncan and Deborah Lynch, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, have this high school challenge on their agendas. Local school councils and community organizations should take vocal note of whether they meet it.