New special ed policy challenges high school

Print More

Corey H., as a lawsuit that the Chicago Public Schools settled is known, is forcing schools to move their special education students into regular classrooms and out of so-called self-contained classrooms, which are for students with disabilities only. CASE, the acronym for end-of-course tests called Chicago Academic Standards Exams, looms as a hurdle students some day must clear to pass courses, to be promoted and perhaps even to graduate. (See CATALYST, November 1998.)

So far, Amundsen’s new special education plans have left many teachers feeling students were “dumped” in their classrooms. This fall, the school is scrambling to ease the transition.

As for CASE, Amundsen’s rising academic profile still doesn’t meet the Reform Board’s new standards. Citywide, 25 percent of freshmen passed the CASE algebra last spring; at Amundsen, the pass rate was a mere 3 percent. Amundsen also lagged behind the citywide average in biology (28 percent vs. 36 percent). It approached the average in World Studies (40 percent vs. 43 percent) and scored slightly ahead in English (78 percent vs. 76).

Although CASE is still in a pilot phase, the administration has discussed counting scores for 25 percent of students’ grades and requiring that students pass the exams to get into a higher academic track leading to a certificate of mastery as well as a diploma. And teachers are considering substituting CASE for their own semester exams so their students don’t have to take two tests and lose instructional time.

As a result, teachers are taking CASE more seriously than they did last year—perhaps too seriously. In October, Principal Edward Klunk urged teachers to go easy on counting CASE toward semester grades. “The results on this exam shouldn’t be used to determine failure,” he says. “The kinks haven’t been worked out yet.”

SEPT 28 Special ed students, teachers spread out.

Teacher evaluation is the main agenda item at the weekly faculty meeting, but the discussion quickly segues into the inclusion of special education students in regular classes.

Amundsen has identified four areas in which teachers will be evaluated, in addition to those spelled out by the School Board. They are: integrating environmental studies into all classes, incorporating the Chicago Academic Standards into lessons, employing interactive teaching strategies and promptly attending weekly staff development sessions.

Explaining the last of the four, Principal Ed Klunk notes, “It has been brought to our attention that it is unfair when people show up with five minutes left and sign the sheet and get counted as attending that session.”

Continuing, he says that teachers’ performance in incorporating the academic standards and in teaching interactively will be measured by the number of students who pass their courses and their students’ scores on the CASE exams.

“Is there any accommodation for special ed or ESL [English as a second language] on the CASE?” asks one teacher. “If you have a kid who just got to this country, do they have to [score] 50 percent?”

“It mentions no accommodations here,” says Klunk, “but this is not the final word, I’m sure. As for special ed, the IEP [individualized education plan] drives students’ graduation.”

With the mention of special ed, teachers who had been filling out attendance books snap to attention.

Amundsen is among the first schools to participate in Education Connection, a new School Board program that offers schools money and guidance to bring more special education students into the mainstream. The school will receive $10,000 this year to write a plan and another $100,000 over the two following years to help implement it. Amundsen has decided that rather than spend a full year at the drawing board, it will try out some of its ideas first.

Last year, special education students were assigned to three kinds of classes: regular academic classes; “inclusion” classes, which included special and regular students and were co-taught by a regular content-area teacher and a special ed teacher; and “self-contained” classes, which had only special ed students and were taught by a special ed teacher. Special education students could make up as much as a third or more of an inclusion class.

Although some special ed students previously spent all or part of their day in regular academic classes, many more do so now. This year, only about 45 of Amundsen’s nearly 200 special ed students have been assigned to self-contained classes, and inclusion classes have been virtually eliminated.

As a result, special education teachers spend most of their time making the rounds of the regular classes to which special ed students have been assigned. They are responsible for monitoring the progress of special ed students and helping regular teachers adapt to their needs for example, by offering tips on how to defuse confrontations with so-called behavior disordered students.

English teacher Tom Hunter dislikes the reduced interaction between special education students and special ed teachers. “A once-a-week visit is not enough,” he complains.

“I agree,” says Klunk. Later, he tries to reassure the faculty. “We’ve made a big change, largely driven by this Corey H. thing. It doesn’t mean there will never be self-contained [classes].”

Near the end of the meeting, Klunk delivers a small sermon that cuts across issues of student promotion, teacher evaluation and special education. “Many of us like to consider ourselves historians or biologists or whatever,” he says, raising the oft-repeated concern that high school teachers focus on their content rather than their kids’ needs. The key, Klunk insists, is to be “an effective instructor for the students who are in front of you.”

Afterwards, about a dozen teachers approach Klunk individually, many to discuss problems with special education students. After the last has departed, Klunk, special education chair David Goodman and counselor John Barnes review what they heard. “There’s only 11, 15, maybe 20 students we’re hearing about,” says Klunk. “That means the rest of them are doing fine.”

SEPT 30 Jargon: another special education challenge.

Special education grabs the spotlight again at today’s meeting of department chairs. A presentation on Corey H. and what it means for the classroom will be part of an upcoming day of inservice education for teachers. Klunk says that at a recent principals’ meeting, the majority quoted their teachers as asking, “What are we supposed to do with all these special ed kids in all these classes?”

Although Klunk suggests that Amundsen is ahead of the curve on this issue, he acknowledges there’s a lot to be done. “I am still not happy with the communication issues” that have come with the new model, he says. Teachers need to know from the beginning how they should modify their teaching and expectations for students with disabilities. “Accommodations for special ed have to be communicated at the beginning of the semester, not 5 weeks into it.”

And special ed teachers need to drop their jargon and use language regular teachers understand, he adds. “They are putting the technical language of the IEP on [instruction sheets]. They are not putting it into teacher language.”

Some department chairs complain that they have not received any information about their students’ special needs. Science chair Jaime Alvarez says the special ed teacher he works with has merely asked: “Is he here? Is he passing, not passing? What grade?”

The mention of grades raises another sore point—whether teachers may fail students with disabilities. Klunk states the received wisdom among high school teachers and administrators: Assuming the teacher knows the student’s disability and how to accommodate for it, “it’s up to the regular-ed teacher to accommodate by giving them a passing grade.”

Sue Gamm, chief specialized services officer, is tired of hearing this old chestnut. “That may have been a rule 10 or 15 years ago, before my time,” she later tells Catalyst, but not any more. Last May she sent a memo to schools regarding promotion: “There is no categorical rule that prohibits a student with disabilities from receiving a high (“A”) or low (“F”) grade.”

But Gamm cautions that should such a student fail a course, the teacher must prove that all possible accommodations were made to support the student. Teachers Catalyst spoke with say they are reluctant to fail students with disabilities because of the scrutiny they will face.

In the department chair meeting, Sonia Barillas of the Foreign Language Department pleads on a colleague’s behalf for a reduction in the number of special education students in a single class. She shows Klunk the teacher’s class roster, which includes 10. “Ten,” she emphasizes, shaking her head in frustration.

Klunk says teachers should average 14 or 15 special education students across the five classes they teach and have no more than “three or four in a class.” He promises to have programmer Tim Barnette change some of the students’ class schedules.

“Before the teacher quits on us,” suggests Barillas.

OCT 7 Meeting the needs of the extremes.

A.M. Special education students

In a rare moment of rest, special education teacher Joe Shoffner sits down with a reporter in the library. In addition to teaching two self-contained English classes, one primarily for students with behavior disorders and one for students with learning disabilities, he must keep tabs on 45 special education students scattered across multiple classes meeting in the same 3 time periods.

Since he can’t be everywhere at once, he’s forced to perform triage. “I had a period with seven classes [to visit],” he laughs, putting his head on the table in mock exhaustion. “It’s impossible.”

Deciding this was nuts, Shoffner went to the school’s programmer to change the schedules of some of the students. “I took all my special ed kids that were struggling [in regular classes] and put them all in one class with one teacher. It’s an inclusion class.” Now he usually spends 1st period working with the teacher and students in that class, occasionally visiting other classes to monitor the students he thought could handle more independence.

The rest of the day, he says, “I identify the classes with the highest need. I spend more time there than anywhere else.” As for the rest of the classes, he says, “I monitor them. … I check in with every teacher at least once a week.”

Despite the time constraints, Shoffner sees advantages to the new system. Under the old system, special ed students who were taking and passing regular classes received little attention, he says. And some may have gotten passing grades more because teachers feared failing them than because of their achievement. “Now we get to look at those kids who may just be ‘breathing and passing,'” observes Shoffner. “We can see what’s going on.”

Shoffner stresses that the special education arrangement is not yet set in stone and that teachers will be invited to comment. “We expect it to be just copious notes on what isn’t working,” he laughs. “But that’s OK, because everyone is screwing this up. So, as opposed to acting like we know what we’re doing, we’re all on a learning curve.”

P.M. International Baccalaureate students

Over lunch today, sophomores Fredo Montes and Ujwal Surender debate the pros and cons of being guinea pigs in Amundsen’s bid to join the International Baccalaureate program, an intense academic regimen for high-achieving students. Amundsen is one of 12 neighborhood high schools the Reform Board selected last year to shoot for IB recognition as part of its drive to attract better students to the Chicago public schools.

Fredo, who joined the school’s “pre-IB” program in the middle of last year, is considering leaving because of poor grades, especially in math, the bane of many a pre-IB student. “I’m lost in that class,” he complains. “I think I was learning more [before joining IB]. It was easier. I feel bad because there is not a point to be in the IB program if you don’t understand it. You learn less [in regular courses] than the IB kids, but at least you learn something.”

The struggling student says he won’t make a decision until he sees how his first quarter grades turn out.

Ujwal, on the other hand, is completely sold on IB. “We have a really big advantage. They give us the best teachers,” he asserts. Unlike other classes, where “as long as you’re there, you’re going to get an A, our teachers expect something from us.”

He admits his grades are not as high as they were in grammar school, but he says he’s willing to pay the price for better classes. When his mother asked why his grades dropped last year, he told her, “I’m not slipping. It’s that the classes are much harder. I’d rather be in the program with a C than out of the program with A’s, because you’re learning something.”

This year, more than 200 students applied for the 30 freshman openings in Amundsen’s pre-IB program. One scored in the seventh stanine on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, the highest entering test score in 10 years.

Amundsen draws most of its pre-IB students from its feeder elementary schools, says IB coordinator Brian Rogers, but applications from outside the school’s attendance area are up.

This year, the pre-IB freshmen took algebra over the summer and now are studying geometry.

Today, Leonard Evans’ pre-IB World Studies class is reviewing terms and concepts about ancient Greece to prepare for an upcoming test.

Five weeks into the school year, only three of the 30 students are passing the course. “I told them I would give them opportunities to catch up until they got there,” Evans tells a reporter after class. “This class is a lot of writing, a lot of study. They’re young. They’ll learn.” As it turned out, 17 passed in the first quarter.

Earlier, Rogers pointed out that last year’s freshmen learned how to handle high expectations. “They’re back, and they definitely understand their position now. Those early pleas for mercy have subsided.”

Amundsen’s IB application was due in September. However, after Evanston Township High School reeled in physics teacher Mark Vondrasek, Amundsen got an extension to November. Rogers says the science portion was completely retooled to make biology the advanced science course rather than physics. Biology teacher Jaime Alvarez joined the IB team barely in the nick of time to complete required training.

OCT 13 Is it the tests, the students or the teachers?

After reporting students’ dismal performance on the CASE algebra exam, the Chicago Sun-Times asked, “Is it the test, the students or the teachers?”

Today, Amundsen’s math department asks itself the same questions. According to School Board data, only 3 percent of the school’s freshmen passed the exam. But pre-IB math teacher Minh Nguyen suspects his students’ scores were not figured into that calculation. Nguyen administered the test to his freshmen but doubts that the board graded it because they were taking a junior-level course. “They got credit for Advanced Algebra last year, not just Algebra 1,” he tells his colleagues. “It didn’t come up on the board’s computer that they were freshmen.”

Today’s meeting starts slowly: Providing directions to tomorrow’s off-site math conference takes priority. After hunting down the answers to last year’s algebra CASE, department chair Aurora Villegas states the essential problem. “So we need to improve. I don’t know how we do that.”

In response, her colleagues’ gripes come pouring out: CASE and the state IGAP (soon to be ISAT) tests don’t cover the same material. CASE expects too much higher-order thinking from lower-achieving students. Although Amundsen has worked with its feeder elementary schools to expose their students to algebra, entering freshmen are still weak in math.

Julie Khoshaba, who teaches geometry to students in the Global Village school-within-a-school, explodes in frustration over the lack of information on the board’s CASE exams for sophomores, which will be piloted in January. “Now, how are we gonna teach toward the CASE test?” she asks. “Our kids don’t remember information from one day to the next. If I knew the answer, I would write a book. Do they have a sample test for geometry yet?”

Nguyen tells her it’s still being written. Pulling the CASE geometry syllabus from his bag, he says the most important thing is to cover all the topics listed. He warns this may come at the expense of some students’ understanding. “My class is kind of like a train—you just keep moving,” he advises. “If you don’t get it, we’re gonna keep moving.”

“The rate that we teach here, it’s way too slow,” reflects Khoshaba. “We’ve gotta move a little faster.”

She asks how to help students understand the meaning of the words complementarity and supplementarity as they are used in geometry. Nguyen suggests playing a math vocabulary game in the style of the old game show “$20,000 Pyramid:” One student describes the term to a partner without using the word or any of its derivatives. “Do you have a class second or sixth?” he asks, looking for a time when he could visit one of her classes.

She has a second-period class. “I’ll come by one of these days and show you it takes about 15 minutes,” he offers.

Near the end of the meeting, Villegas recalls asking her students to draw a 20-centimeter line with a ruler. The students didn’t know what centimeters were. “We assume,” she says. “We cannot assume.”

“Then they don’t belong in high school,” responds Khoshaba.

OCT 14 Operations manager, a/k/a utility player.

Today is a run-of-the-mill day for school operations manager John Gill. In the morning alone, he attends to choosing new software, troubleshooting computers, recruiting teachers for four open positions and preparing a request to the School Reform Board for approval to buy yearbooks for all students, a nearly $25,000 proposition.

And then there’s Gill’s nemesis: lost purchase orders. Prior to his arrival, school treasurer Diane White handled all purchase orders. But because Gill has one of the few computer terminals that can access the board’s information system, department chairs have taken to asking him for help tracking orders. Today he is constantly interrupted by teachers and department chairs asking about missing back orders, lost purchase order numbers and so forth.

“I assumed too much of that, and now I don’t know how to back out,” he says ruefully.

He faces a constant stream of visitors until around 1 p.m., when he quickly munches a sandwich and then turns to negotiations with a vendor who delivered the wrong furniture yesterday to the attendance office.

At the end of the day, his only regret is that the board report is still unfinished and won’t be ready in time for the board’s October meeting, to be held here at Amundsen in two weeks.

Amundsen hired Gill in spring 1997 after Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas created the operations manager position for high schools on probation. The idea was to free principals from such chores as budgeting and managing building operations so they would have more time to guide the educational program. Central office promised to pay for them for two years. Bert Kouba, director of business management for CPS, says the board will decide by late winter or early spring whether to fund them longer.

Of the 40 high schools originally placed on probation, 27 hired operations managers, and 13 hired business managers, who work in the same areas but have less authority. Fifteen operations managers have had previous education experience; eight inside CPS, the rest from public school systems outside Chicago or in private schools. The others were hired from business or from government agencies such as the Chicago Board of Health. Sixteen hold advanced degrees, including seven who hold a master’s of business administration, the preferred credential when the position was created.

Amundsen got off probation more than a year ago, but got to keep Gill, a former Catholic elementary principal and suburban school administrator. Technology is one of his primary responsibilities. In addition to mundane tasks, he is supervising development of a new computer technology training lab. Amundsen and five other schools are getting these labs as part of a partnership between the School Board and CISCO Systems, which will train students in computer networking technology. Over the summer, Gill worked with TNM Associates to plan the lab.

Principal Klunk also relies on Gill for recruiting and helping interview teachers. Though Klunk continues to make final decisions on all new hires, Gill answers their questions as applicants and helps orient new teachers.

“He’s really nice,” says recent hire Shane Hageny, a graduate of Northeastern Illinois University who did his student teaching in math at Senn High. “It was a lot different than other people I’ve dealt with. It makes you real comfortable to come in and ask questions.”

In contrast to other schools’ brief phone inquiries, says Hageny, “Mr. Gill will call and talk to you about the position.”

Klunk is delighted to have an operations manager around. “Do you know how much time it takes to do all those purchase orders, requisitioning, board reports?” he rhetorically asks a reporter.

OCT 15 Breaking new ground inside and out.

This morning, Klunk, Chappell Elementary Principal Margaret Niedermayer, Ald. Gene Schulter (47th Ward) and the Chicago Park District’s Rodger Konow take shovels in hand for a groundbreaking ceremony in Winnemac Park, which adjoins both schools. Park improvements will be completed in two phases; the first is expected to end in January, the second in June. The Park District, Public Building Commission and CPS are splitting the $600,000 tab three ways.

The foursome dig their shovels into the asphalt of Winnemac Avenue, which is being torn up between Damen and Leavitt to add green space to the park. In addition, the park will receive a plethora of goodies, including three Little League baseball diamonds, new tennis courts, a soccer field and new walkways paved with century-old cobblestones salvaged from the alley behind Lake View High.

Inside, teachers are less than enthusiastic about breaking new ground in special education. “I don’t think it’s working very well,” says English teacher Tanya Baxter. “I still don’t have modification sheets for all my students, so I don’t even know …” Her voice trails off. Resuming her reflections, she says, “I have to use my intuition to figure out what I can do to help them. It’s working in some cases, not in others.”

Baxter acknowledges that teachers face this challenge with all kinds of students, but she reminds a reporter that the pressure on teachers to ensure special education students pass their courses is much higher.

Colleague Elaine Sullivan says she has received modification sheets for some of her students but she echoes Klunk’s concern about jargon. She describes them as “helpful, but kind of generic.” For example, she received a checklist which included the suggestion: “use multi-sensory approach.”

Sullivan says that as a matter of course she tries to use a multi-sensory approach. “Do I make it extra multi-sensory?” she asks, laughing.

“Use ESP—read my mind,” jokes Baxter.

Like most teachers, Sullivan and Baxter want appropriate materials for students with weaker skills and to learn better ways to help them build those skills. “You try reading ‘Beowulf’ or ‘The Canterbury Tales’ with a kid who’s reading at the 3rd-grade level,” Sullivan challenges.

Baxter suggests it would help if teachers had easy access to photocopies of a simplified version of “Beowulf.” She also would like special education teachers to come to English Department meetings to share skill-building strategies, but she knows how pressed they are for time. “I don’t envy them their job,” she says. Sullivan agrees.

OCT 24 ‘Activist’ school takes easily to service learning.

“Service learning” has become a catchphrase this year, with the Reform Board’s new requirement that students perform 40 hours of service to graduate. But at Amundsen, it is old hat.

Today, about 400 people, mostly students, turn out for an anti-violence march that marks the school’s fifth year of activities for national Make A Difference Day. After marching the perimeter of Winnemac Park, the group fills the auditorium for a rally featuring sportscaster Tim Weigel, columnist Mary Mitchell and Amundsen friend Father John Smyth, executive director of Maryville Academy. The rally is followed by workshops on such topics as gangs, domestic violence and anger management. All in all, 345 students will earn four hours of credit toward the new service requirement.

A couple of weeks before the big day, Catalyst caught up with service learning coach Leonard Evans as he circled the building, posting flyers for the event. Evans is paid a coaching stipend of $2,100 to manage the program. “You just do it because you love it, really,” he says.

“I’m very fortunate that I’m in an activist school,” he continues. “I’ve had teachers come up to me who I never thought would want to do something, who want to do it.” Even before Make A Difference Day, 400 students had earned several hours toward the requirement by taking part in two environmental cleanup projects, he reports.

Evans is less impressed with central office’s support for the program. He fears the board has underestimated the magnitude of the work involved. He attended an informational meeting for service learning coaches where it was assumed that school projects would involve 50 to 100 students a year. “If you’ve got at least 600 freshmen, you’d be short 200 by graduation,” he notes. Amundsen started the year with about 550 entering freshmen.

In addition to practical worries, Evans has philosophical differences with what he’s seen so far. “They said they did not want volunteerism, but every idea I’ve had from the board was that,” he observes. “What the board is giving me is a few leads” on ideas for service projects, not ways to make the projects part of the curriculum, which makes service learning different from merely volunteering, he argues.

NOV 5 Los Angeles contingent checks out accountability, Chicago style.

While parents and students pick up report cards, a contingent of about 20 parents, teachers and school board members from the Los Angeles Unified School District meets with about 15 Amundsen teachers in the auditorium. The Los Angeles district is investigating ways to increase accountability for educational performance. Amundsen is on the tour today; Lewis Elementary, tomorrow.

“Ours was not a top-down approach,” science teacher James Doyiakos tells the group. “We did it in teams, ourselves. We assessed things constantly. If [something] didn’t work, we’d stop it before June and say, ‘Let’s try this instead.'”

Victoria Castro, a member of LA Unified’s elected school board, asks about the politics of an appointed board and its relationship with the teachers union.

“Having the multi-year contract has eliminated the threat of strikes,” notes Chicago Teachers Union delegate David Goodman. “The majority of teachers have ratified these contracts. The majority of teachers will ratify this contract.” But, he adds, “Not everyone will be happy.”

Teachers do most of the talking, but when the subject of external partners comes up, Principal Klunk can’t resist making one of his favorite points. “The critical factor with external partners is we told them what we wanted. They did not tell us what they would give us. The professionals in the building need to do the improvements inside the building.”

A Los Angeles visitor asks what the Amundsen folks think about school board members who are not trained educators. “Who needs them?” Doyiakos responds. “I don’t want someone at Pershing Road telling me what to teach today.”

English department chair Gloria Henllan-Jones follows up by praising the board for its willingness to stand corrected when educational policies misfire. “They have made policy that has affected us, and they have rescinded it gracefully,” she says. While she offers no examples, she speculates that the board will ease the requirement that all students take math through advanced algebra and trigonometry. “They’re gonna learn,” she predicts.

After the discussion, LA parent Kathleen Dixon reflects on what she heard. “What happened here is very different,” she observes. “It’s a very different political climate. Much of [Chicago’s reform] is unique to the mayor’s position. We work with an elected board, all educators.”

She approaches increased accountability with caution. After raising the graduation requirement in math two years ago, LA is faced with “a bubble of students who won’t graduate,” she explains. Dixon hopes the LA school board will “admit their mistake” and “not jump the gun” as it considers other ways to push for academic achievement.

She is hopeful about the fact-finding process the board launched. “We’re looking at best practices around the country,” she says, adding that the group has come across some questionable practices as well. “You guys have one indicator here,” she notes, meaning the district’s total reliance on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills and its high school counterpart. “We’re gonna have more than one indicator.”