Special ed enrollment grows more lopsided

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Northside College Prep

photo by Christine Oliva

Northside College Prep

This fall, 40 percent of the freshmen entering Austin High School on the impoverished far West Side are designated special education students—the highest rate in the city. Further north, Northside College Preparatory High School enrolled only seven disabled students into 9th grade, a mere 3 percent of its freshman class.

It’s a stark contrast illustrating a disturbing trend. As the number of disabled students in Chicago’s public high schools rose in recent years, they became increasingly segregated in the most troubled schools. The district’s efforts to more evenly distribute special education students have fallen short, and its promotion policy contributes to further concentrating disabled teens in certain schools.

Half of the high schools that enrolled more than 20 percent special education students a year ago have an even higher percentage enrolled this year. Every general high school whose special education enrollment exceeds 20 percent is on probation, according to a Catalyst analysis. In many of those schools, special education teachers are in short supply and social workers are overwhelmed with cases.

However, Northside and other selective-enrollment high schools are screening out those special education students who challenge high schools the most, including some whose test scores are high enough for them to apply.

“The disparity is unconscionable,” says Deborah Lynch, president of the Chicago Teachers Union. “It’s a recipe for academic disaster for special ed and regular ed kids.”

Special education covers students with a wide range of physical, emotional or mental disabilities. Among them, most are diagnosed with learning disabilities, which are unrelated to intelligence, but can result in difficulty with reading, writing and calculating.

When special education students make up a large percentage of a class—at Austin, some classrooms have had over 30 percent—they get less help than they need, and their regular-ed classmates suffer a slowed pace of instruction, Lynch observes.

“We have schools for students who perform and schools for students who cannot,” remarks Kymara Chase, director of DePaul University’s School Achievement Structure.

Under a federal court order, the district is required to even out special education enrollment at general high schools, bringing it to within 5 percentage points of the district average—16 percent this year. The order is part of a broader 1998 agreement that settled the Corey H. lawsuit, which accused the school system of illegally segregating disabled kids into separate classrooms and schools.

But by fall 2001, the rate of incoming freshmen in special education still varied widely, ranging from 4 percent to 33 percent. The 9th grade average is 19 percent.

CEO Arne Duncan dispatched a memo to high school principals urging them to accept more special education students. “Principals must take appropriate steps to ensure that the September 2002 entering 9th grade class has an enrollment of at least 14 percent students with disabilities,” he wrote.

The letter was intended to be a mandate, says Sue Gamm, the School Board’s chief of specialized services. But some principals apparently didn’t read it that way. Sixteen high schools, including all eight selective-enrollment schools, failed to meet the minimum.

“We targeted that number; obviously we didn’t meet that number,” says Principal Joyce Kenner of Whitney Young High. Her incoming freshmen class dropped from 8 percent special education a year ago to 4 percent this fall.

‘Inventing the wheel’

Chicago is likely not alone in having a persistent imbalance in the distribution of special education students; Los Angeles is facing a similar lawsuit. But because of the court order, Chicago is the only urban district that’s being forced to fix it, district officials say.

“We’re inventing the wheel,” says Gamm. “There is no city [where] I can look to see how this is done.”

Complicating CPS’s efforts is a decline in high school enrollment while the number of special education students grew through 2001. As a result, the percentage of special education students in high schools rose.

This shift in student populations dramatically impacted 11 South and West side neighborhood high schools, including Austin, according to a study by the Consortium on Chicago School Research. On average, the percentage of incoming freshmen with disabilities at these schools rose from 16 percent in 1993-1994 to 30 percent in 1999-2000.

The study also contends that the board’s 1996 promotion policy contributed to the concentration of disabled students in those high schools by retaining in elementary schools more general students who failed to meet test score targets.

Also, students who repeated a grade were more likely to be placed in special education programs by the time they reached high school, or drop out before making it there.

Screened out

Three selective enrollment schools—Jones, Payton, and Lane—managed to raise their freshmen special education enrollment this year. Lane admitted the most special needs freshmen, a total of 63, while King, a new selective high school with 13 percent disabled freshmen, edged closest to what the court order requires.

To be fair, selective high schools have a relatively small pool of high achieving special education students to draw from. To be eligible to take an entrance test, students must have 7th-grade math and reading test scores that are near or above average. General education students are more likely to meet this requirement. Only 16 percent of mildly disabled 7th graders scored average or better in reading last spring compared to half of their non-disabled peers.

Still, selective schools are rejecting some special education students who qualified for the admissions test. Students who are admitted generally score far above average. “Would it be fair to take a child who is at a regular level or a remedial level into an honors program for which they’re ill-prepared to succeed?” says Sue Boeck, Northside’s special education coordinator.

Already, the School Board has taken a number of additional steps to boost the percentages at selective-enrollment schools.

Beginning this fall, special education students who score below the cutoff in math or reading to be eligible to take entrance exams will be allowed to take those tests if one score is high enough to make up the difference. (A wide variance in achievement in two subject areas is a mark of learning disabilities, says Gamm. “There’s less to accommodate for when you’re at least proficient in one of the two areas.”)

Also, for the first time, special education applicants who are rejected may appeal to principals and the CPS Office of High School Development. But the schools themselves will have the final say about admitting a special education student. Yvonne Williams, CPS’s special education director, says the system decided not to force students on schools because schools do a better job serving special needs students they have chosen.

To entice more special education students to apply to selective enrollment high schools, CPS will mail applications for those schools to every parent whose special education student has qualifying test scores. Selective schools have been directed to beef up their own recruiting efforts as well.

Some of them—namely Northside, Lane, Jones and Brooks—have already begun to do so. Catalyst checked in with guidance counselors at a dozen high-achieving elementary schools last month and found that four had been contacted by these high schools and encouraged to refer their better scoring special education students.

“I do sense an effort,” observes counselor Dana Fairchild of Sheridan Magnet in Bridgeport. “There is more of a push this year to get special ed students.”

A numbers game

Much of the effort is aimed at students with high test scores or those with such severe disabilities that they can legally be taught in separate classes, which avoids the challenges of mixed classrooms, which are abundant in lower performing high schools.

Each selective high school has at least one of the so-called self-contained classrooms. Lane Tech and Northside admit students with severe-profound mental handicaps. Payton enrolls a few austistic children and Brooks has one classroom for students diagnosed as trainable mentally handicapped.

It’s easier for schools with accelerated curriculum to enroll special education students who don’t have to be integrated, says Williams.

Meanwhile, general high schools are left to cope with the challenges of tailoring their curriculum for students of widely varying abilities. “Many of our classrooms have such a variety of learners, we need extra support already, even without special needs students,” says DuSable High Principal Carol Briggs.

Selective high schools are now more likely to consider admitting special needs children with high test scores. Dawn Boers says in 1998 she got the runaround from Lane Tech once school officials learned that her son, whose 90th percentile test scores got him admitted, has a learning disability. “There were a 101 reasons not to send your child to Lane,” she recalls being told.

With the Corey H. settlement, gifted special education students were suddenly “hot commodities,” she says. “If you have to take a child who has a disability, wouldn’t you rather take one that’s gifted?”

One LSC member reports that his principal has no intention of complying with the court mandate to admit more disabled students. Several months ago, Principal Keith Foley told Lane’s local school council that he intended to keep special education enrollment at 5 percent, says LSC Chair Michael Ulreich.

Ulreich, whose learning disabled daughter is enrolled there, worries that admitting more disabled students “would change [Lane] from a magnet school to an ordinary school.”

Foley denies that he has capped special education enrollment at 5 percent and declines to discuss his recruiting goals. “I’m not going to answer that right now,” he says.

Leveling the field

Meanwhile, the district is helping neighborhood high schools attract more high achievers, who usually enroll in better schools elsewhere in the city, leaving special education students behind.

Most such schools have been outfitted with the kinds of selective magnet programs that top students demand. Yet such programs don’t bring in nearly enough students to balance the outflow. Austin’s one magnet program, International Baccalaureate, attracted 58 freshmen this fall, but the school would have needed another 352 general-ed students to bring its 9th-grade special education percentage down to the district average.

Each selective high school has at least one of the so-called self-contained classrooms. Lane Tech and Northside admit students with severe-profound mental handicaps. Payton enrolls a few austistic children and Brooks has one classroom for students diagnosed as trainable mentally handicapped.

It’s easier for schools with accelerated curriculum to enroll special education students who don’t have to be integrated, says Williams.

Meanwhile, general high schools are left to cope with the challenges of tailoring their curriculum for students of widely varying abilities. “Many of our classrooms have such a variety of learners, we need extra support already, even without special needs students,” says DuSable High Principal Carol Briggs.

Selective high schools are now more likely to consider admitting special needs children with high test scores. Dawn Boers says in 1998 she got the runaround from Lane Tech once school officials learned that her son, whose 90th percentile test scores got him admitted, has a learning disability. “There were a 101 reasons not to send your child to Lane,” she recalls being told.

With the Corey H. settlement, gifted special education students were suddenly “hot commodities,” she says. “If you have to take a child who has a disability, wouldn’t you rather take one that’s gifted?”One LSC member reports that his principal has no intention of complying with the court mandate to admit more disabled students. Several months ago, Principal Keith Foley told Lane’s local school council that he intended to keep special education enrollment at 5 percent, says LSC Chair Michael Ulreich.

Ulreich, whose learning disabled daughter is enrolled there, worries that admitting more disabled students “would change [Lane] from a magnet school to an ordinary school.”

Foley denies that he has capped special education enrollment at 5 percent and declines to discuss his recruiting goals. “I’m not going to answer that right now,” he says.

Leveling the field

Meanwhile, the district is helping neighborhood high schools attract more high achievers, who usually enroll in better schools elsewhere in the city, leaving special education students behind.

Most such schools have been outfitted with the kinds of selective magnet programs that top students demand. Yet such programs don’t bring in nearly enough students to balance the outflow. Austin’s one magnet program, International Baccalaureate, attracted 58 freshmen this fall, but the school would have needed another 352 general-ed students to bring its 9th-grade special education percentage down to the district average.

The district has also attempted to persuade parents of special education children in high-concentration schools to send their children to schools elsewhere. In recent years, CPS has dispatched a team to discuss high school options with parents of 8th-grade special education students. They learned that parents of special needs students often did not want them to leave the neighborhood.

Fixing the problem

Long-term, CPS is looking to reduce the number of students needing special education by dealing with their problems sooner. Students are often mistakenly diagnosed as having a learning disability when they are just poor readers, experts say. CPS sees its efforts to improve early reading instruction as a remedy.

Experts say that sometimes, a simple academic or other adjustment could alleviate the need for special education referral. In this regard, CPS is convening groups of schools to teach them strategies that can solve some learning and behavior problems.

Even now, though, CTU President Lynch believes that Duncan should better enforce his own mandate for minimum special education enrollments. “If a number of principals didn’t follow that directive, what is Arne Duncan going to do about it? He’s their boss.”

Dave Peterson of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association suggests tackling the problem by providing overburdened schools with extra resources. “Are the kids getting the services they need? That’s the first thing you need to ask. It doesn’t matter where the kid [attends school].”

One parent suggests that the district require accelerated elementary programs to take more special needs students. That would expand the pipeline of disabled children who are qualified to apply to selective enrollment schools, says Anne Sullivan, whose disabled daughter attended a classical elementary school and later enrolled at Northside College Prep.

One reform advocate believes radical change is in order. Magnet high schools should scrap academic criteria and admit students on the basis of a lottery, says Donald Moore of Designs for Change. Such schools would then be forced to provide a wider variety of programs that would more easily integrate special education students, he explains.

Moore points to the basic inequity between Northside and Austin high schools. “The problem is that the best teachers and the most resources are focused on the students who already have the most going for them.”

Intern Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz contributed to this story.