Early detection of disability can make or break a child’s future

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Nicole Roberts graduated from Hyde Park Academy this month. She plans to enroll in college and begin preparing for a career in television. Fairly routine aspirations for an everyday teenager, but Nicole had to overcome a fairly sizable hurdle to get there: a learning disability that made it difficult for her to concentrate and follow directions.

Nicole’s problem was flagged by teachers when she was in 1st grade, and she was referred for a special education evaluation. Despite her struggles through elementary school and into high school, Nicole was fortunate. Her troubles were identified early and her mother’s persistence ensured that an evaluation was completed quickly.

Such timely intervention, though, is unusual in Chicago Public Schools and elsewhere.

Most children with learning disabilities have experiences similar to three students who are now in 6th grade at Casals Elementary. Two were diagnosed in 4th grade, the third was just tested this year. All three began receiving special education services much later than what is optimal to ensure kids don’t lose too much ground academically.

Ideally, children with learning disabilities should be diagnosed and provided with extra support as early as possible. However, this year, only 15 percent of newly identified learning-disabled children were in the youngest age group of 4- to 7-year-olds. The lion’s share—a whopping 74 percent—were 8 to 13 years old. And the rest didn’t get help until they were 14 or older.

This trend is all the more troubling in light of a recent report that the district is artificially limiting the number of children who are evaluated for special education services due to a lack of funds. If true, the lag between the time a parent or teacher asks for help and the time when the child actually receives it could stretch indefinitely. State education officials are investigating the allegations, which have long circulated in Chicago’s education community.

“It’s a huge problem,” says Elliott Marks of Designs for Change, a school reform group, who notes some parents complain that it can take a year or longer for schools to begin the evaluation process.

District officials want schools to buy into a new approach that is designed to get extra support to children when they first begin to struggle in primary grades. (Under the current method, special education evaluation and support kicks in after a child scores more than two years below grade level on standardized tests, a gap that typically shows up in 3rd grade or later.) The early intervention model, which is endorsed by the revamped Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act, focuses on reading supports and requires that teachers use proven, research-based programs before referring the child for special education. But teachers will need additional training to use those programs, and training costs money that the district, in one of its tightest financial years ever, doesn’t have to spare.

Meanwhile, the number of learning-disabled children who are already in the system creeps up—by March there were 31,000—and special education teachers themselves are in short supply.

More than 70 percent of the 412 vacancies for special education teachers a year ago were for those who were skilled and certified in learning disabilities. (The other slots were for teachers who work with kids who have physical, cognitive or behavioral disabilities.)

Obviously, schools need more money to hire special education teachers and train them in new techniques. Just this month, Congressional Democrats unveiled an education agenda that calls, once again, for full funding for mandates stemming from IDEA and No Child Left Behind. It’s unlikely to happen.

If CPS is going to have more good outcomes like Nicole and fewer like the three students at Casals, it will have to figure out better ways to use resources that are already on hand. Waiting for a financial windfall that may never come is no solution at all.