Two schools team up to form a bridge

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[Photo by John Booz]

[Photo by John Booz]

When Brandon Jackson was in kindergarten, he was easily distracted, couldn’t focus on school work and was often unresponsive. At the end of the year, he was transferred to Buckingham Special Education Center, a Chicago public school that serves about 50 1st- through 8th-graders who have emotional and behavioral disorders. By 3rd grade, he was back in a regular school. Now, seven years later, he is a sophomore at Bogan High School and doing well.

“Transferring to Buckingham was the best thing that ever happened to Brandon because that led him to a regular school,” says his mother, Betty Jackson. “[Now] he’s got a C average. He’s using public transportation back and forth from school, and he’s taking driver’s ed to get his license. I think that if he had stayed in special education, he would not have thrived. Instead, he was given a second chance.”

Brandon Jackson is one of dozens of special education students who have received a second chance through an 8-year-old partnership between Buckingham and Sullivan Elementary, a regular elementary school three miles away in South Chicago. Under the partnership, Buckingham students who have made significant improvement in their behavior are transferred to Sullivan, and the special services they received at Buckingham go with them.

“These kids are usually either very bright or only slightly behind academically,” says Sullivan Principal Robert Esenberg. “What hurts them is their behavior; it impedes them academically and socially. If they can get that together, usually most of them do well.”

Since the program began in 1992, about 90 Buckingham students were transferred to Sullivan, graduated from there and went on to regular high school programs. Only two were sent back to Buckingham.

Unique in the city, the program was created by Buckingham’s former principal, Myron Berger, now principal of Near North Special Education Learning Center.

“I always felt that a special education school was a dead-end situation for kids,” says Berger. “It’s very restrictive. At the same time, it’s often very difficult to re-integrate kids into regular classrooms after they’ve been identified with these kind of problems. They’re labeled troublemakers. But I kept thinking about it, and thought it would be great if we could give students that opportunity, but also give them a safety net if they couldn’t make it.”

Berger took his idea to Thomas Hehir, then head of special education for the Chicago Public Schools. (Hehir went on to direct the special education office of the U.S. Department of Education and is now retired.) Hehir supported the idea. Berger then found another receptive ear in Esenberg.

“To make this program work, you have to develop trusting relationships between people, with another principal and another staff,” stresses Berger. “That’s key.”

Initially, Esenberg’s staff was less than enthusiastic. “They didn’t know if they wanted to take on students who had emotional or behavioral problems,” he recalls.

What eventually won them over was a plan to have two full-time Buckingham staff members work at Sullivan with both transferred and regular students. “I had to remind them that we also had students who exhibited behavioral problems,” notes Esenberg. “They just hadn’t been identified, and we had no one trained to work with them. If they agreed to the program, they’d have help.”

Sullivan staff also received training in inclusion practices through the Chicago Board of Education. “Hehir was big on inclusion, so there were lots of free workshops and conferences for schools, and we took advantage of that,” Berger recalls. “Staff development for the receiving school was crucial. At Buckingham, we already knew what we were faced with.”

Later, when Buckingham received a CPS inclusion grant, Sullivan staff were included in the staff development.

“This is strictly a teacher-driven program,” says Roscoe Beach, Buckingham’s current principal. “If teachers were not willing to make adjustments and work together, this would not happen.”

Who gets to go

Every year, Buckingham has about 45 students, and Sullivan sets aside 16 seats for its transfer students.

“We don’t just throw kids over there,” says Beach. “Our team—the therapists, teachers, social worker, psychologist—does a lot of talking about what we see and if a child is ready for inclusion. Is the student internalizing control, is he getting along better with peers and using human resources before fighting, is he learning not to act impulsively and thinking actions through? This is what we look for.”

Once students are selected, both schools work to make sure the transition is smooth and the students are supported. The team from Buckingham is in frequent communication with Sullivan’s staff. The student’s Buckingham teacher talks to the receiving teacher at Sullivan, and both help write the student’s new individualized education plan (IEP). Parents are part of the process from the start.

Betty Jackson, Brandon’s mom, recalls, “We had an intake meeting. They told me what their goals were for Brandon and what they expected.”

As soon as Buckingham students arrive at Sullivan, they begin seeing Buckingham’s transplanted staff, Michael Litow and his assistant, Earline Williams, who keep track of how they are doing academically and how well they manage their behavior.

A teacher, counselor and former assistant principal, Litow is the founder of The Education Center, a 20-year-old counseling and referral center for children and young adults, ages 4 through 20. The center has offices in Oak Park and Naperville.

“If anyone should get accolades for making this program successful, it’s Michael Litow,” says Berger. “His skills are central to what makes this program great.”

Litow helps teachers modify lessons to accommodate the special needs of the special students, does classroom observations, keeps up with special students’ progress and works one-on-one with students inside and outside the classroom.

“Dr Litow is fantastic,” says Amanda Kernagis, a 5th-grade teacher at Sullivan. “He has given me a lot of support in the classroom and taught me things like how to manage my students’ behaviors and get the best from them.”

In Brandon’s case, Litow helped teachers understand his personality and what they should do when he was distracted or had difficulty moving from one task to another. For instance, because Brandon was artistic and had a flair for decorating, his teachers built an educational program around those interests, which helped keep him focused.

Tricia Cusack, a 5th-grade reading and social studies teacher, recalls Litow’s help with a regular student. “I was having a problem with one of the Sullivan students,” she says. “This child would go off and start swearing. Her mother was up here all the time. She was very difficult until Dr. Litow taught me how to pick my battles. Now, it’s like having a new child in the classroom. She’s much calmer. Her grades were low, but they have come up a little.”

Litow says students typically succeed when two conditions have been met: They want to succeed, and they know there are people who will help them.

“I had one student that Mother Theresa would have slapped,” laughs Litow. “But he was sharp as a pin, and we never stopped working with him. Finally, he decided to improve. In his last year, his reading went from a 6.3 to a 9.1. He is now at Dunbar, in the ROTC and getting A’s and B’s. If that kid hadn’t been in this program, he probably would have remained in special education throughout his educational life.”

The next level

Last year, Sullivan received an Education Connection grant from CPS; it will start an inclusion program for its own special education students next fall. Currently, 35 Sullivan students are in self-contained classes in the primary grades and 18 in the intermediate and upper grades. Their disabilities range from learning and cognitive problems to emotional and behavioral disorders. Many of them already attend one or two regular classes each day.

“We’d like to mimic the program we have with Buckingham, that is, working together as a team and carefully screening students that we think will do well,” says Esenberg. He adds with a chuckle, “and we still plan on using the services of Dr. Litow and Ms. Williams. We think of them as more our staff than Buckingham’s anyway.”

Esenberg is a bit of an evangelist for the Buckingham-Sullivan partnership. “Every region in the system needs a Buckingham and a program like ours,” he says. “I think it would be worth it to the board.”

Beach is optimistic, “With the Corey H lawsuit settlement, schools know they have to create more inclusive programs. I think they will be taking a closer look at programs like ours.”

Berger of Near North says he’s been trying to duplicate the program on the North Side. “I tried one, and it didn’t fly. But I haven’t given up.”