Amid big cuts, some schools gain

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In June, the Chicago Public Schools eliminated some 900 special education positions—about 200 teachers and 700 aides—to help plug a gaping budget hole and account for a projected decline in special education enrollment.

Overall, 355 schools saw their special education staffs decline, but 64 saw them increase, the outcome of a district effort to bring more equity to the assignment of special education staff.

For example, McAuliffe Elementary in Logan Square got an additional teacher and an additional aide to accommodate a growing special ed population. Last year, the school had two grades in one classroom, says Assistant Principal Serene Peterson, adding, “We should have had a teacher last January.”

Mahalia Jackson Elementary in Auburn Gresham got another aide and a teacher. Last year, the school had 10 to 11 autistic children in one class—”way more than should be,” says Principal Kimberly McNeal. “But this year, we will make two classes of five to seven students.”

About a mile and a half away, Cook Elementary lost two aides but received two more teachers, which will make it possible for special education students to spend more time in regular classes. “The extra teachers mean we can do more ‘inclusion’ classes, and this helps the students,” says Principal Rebecca McDaniel. “We found that children who are included do better on tests like the ISAT and Learning First.”

The losers included Montefiore Elementary, which serves close to 100 children with severe and profound emotional disabilities. “We are suffering devastating cuts, and no one is listening,” says Principal Mary Ann Pollett. Montefiore lost six of 25 special education teachers but got two more aides, bringing the total to 18.

“To lose this many positions is going to tear the heart out of Montefiore,” says Pollett. Previously, the school offered students woodshop and other special classes. “Our young men don’t learn in traditional ways,” she says. “You have to have the right motivational hook. But these cuts will force us into more traditional classrooms.”

Hanson Park Elementary in Belmont Cragin, where almost 200 of its 1,300 students are in special education, lost five of its 34 special education teachers and six of its 50 aides.

“I have a largely physically disabled population,” says Principal Susan Stoll. Some students cannot use their hands and need aides to get out their books and point to information. “Some of them are severely disabled. It will be a problem.”

These gains and losses were the outcome of an effort by CPS to bring more equity to the assignment of special education staff. Some schools were using special education aides for other purposes but “were not willing to give the positions back because they’d had them for years,” says Gretchen Brumley, the CPS director of finance in specialized services.

This prompted the offices of specialized services and budget to create a new staffing formula for special education teachers and aides that every school would be required to follow. Schools were given a tentative staff allotment based on the formula and then allowed to appeal based on their particular circumstances, such as an expected increase in enrollment.

The appeals saved some 1,500 out of the 2,200 aides and more than 300 of the 500 teachers who would have been cut under the tentative allocation.

Not surprisingly, opinions vary on whether the process was fair. “The appeals process was a sham,” says Pollett of Montefiore. But Peterson, of McAuliffe, applauds the process. “I think the audit was good to make sure everyone got what they needed. Now we have enough staff to provide full services to our special education children.”

Special education advocates say the district should be more concerned about serving students’ needs.

Donald Moore, executive director of the school reform group Designs for Change, acknowledges that some schools may not have used their staff well. “However, we know of many situations where staff was taken away from kids who desperately needed them,” he says.

Moore cites Clemente High School, which received many of Spalding High School’s severely disabled students when that school was shuttered two years ago. Clemente lost five of its 13 aides.

“The whole philosophy behind the federal [special education] law is to provide the services to help children be successful in school,” says Moore. “It is not based on equality among the schools.”

Like total enrollment, the number of special education students has declined in recent years, dropping by about 400 between 2004 and 2005 and another 1,500 between 2005 and 2006.

Meanwhile, Chicago Teachers Union officials say they will be on the lookout to make sure that the cuts have not generated work for remaining staff that is outside their job descriptions. They also urge parents to be vigilant, making sure their children receive required services.

“Parents need to stand up and insist that their children receive the services they are entitled to,” says Mary McGuire, CTU recording secretary. “It is critical that they attend every [Individualized Education Plan] meeting, and that the IEP is driven by the needs of the student.”

To contact Debra Williams, call (312) 673-3873 or send an e-mail to williams@catalyst-chicago.org.