Lower scores, more dropouts

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Special education students attend the worst high schools in Chicago, post dismal scores on standardized tests and drop out more often than their peers, according to an analysis of performance data by Catalyst Chicago.

Twelve high schools have a quarter or more of their students identified as needing special education services. All of them are neighborhood schools that enroll predominantly poor black or Latino students. Only two of the 303 disabled students at these schools who took the Prairie State Achievement Exams in 2005 scored well enough to meet or exceed reading standards.

Systemwide, only 5 percent of high school special education juniors passed the reading test, a rate that has remained relatively stable since the district adopted the Prairie State in 2003.

Overall, nearly half of all special education students attending CPS high schools who were 19 in 2005 had dropped out of school, compared with 39 percent of students without disabilities, according to the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago.

Rodney Estvan of Access Living, an advocacy group for people with disabilities, notes that standardized tests for high schools measure higher level skills than the tests given in elementary schools. Even so, he says, there’s an expectation that more special education students would meet standards by 11th grade when the Prairie State is administered. By then, so many students who are struggling have already dropped out.

“It represents a fantastic failure,” he says.

Teresa Garate, specialized services chief of staff for CPS, says the problem at the high schools is that if a student walks in still struggling with reading, there’s little in place to help him. And without reading, they are quickly lost.

“Teachers in high schools don’t know how to teach reading,” she says. “Now, that student is in a biology class and handed a syllabus and told by the teacher, ‘Here is what I am going to teach you.'”

Garate says that students who have trouble with the printed word should be utilizing technology that reads text to them. That way, even if they are poor readers, they could get biology or history. But many high schools do not stock such equipment and either don’t take the initiative to purchase it or can’t afford to, Garate says.

Also, these days, special education students come to high school less prepared than regular education students, experts say.

In a study released in 2002, the Consortium on Chicago School Research documented a steady increase in the representation of special education students in 9th-grade classes, from 11 percent in 1993 to 16 percent in 2000. Most of them, the reported noted, were concentrated in 11 of the lowest-performing schools.

Four years later, the trends remained unchanged. According to an updated analysis by the Consortium, 17 percent of 9th-graders received special education services last school year, and most were enrolled in the worst schools, mostly because they cannot get into selective college preps or other specialty high schools where performance is considered for admission.

Teachers ‘assumed I knew nothing’

Take Englewood High School, for instance. After years of rock-bottom test scores, the high school, which bears the name of its infamous neighborhood, stopped accepting freshmen in 2005. The remaining classes will be allowed to graduate; one in four students is in special education.

In 2005, only 15 percent of regular education 11th-graders at Englewood passed the Prairie State Exams in reading, and a scant 2 percent passed math; just under 3 percent passed science. Not a single student in special education met the mark in any of these subjects.

Yanika Batey, who has a learning disability, says no one paid much attention to her academic needs when she was a special education student at Englewood two years ago.

“They assumed I knew nothing and kept going over the basics,” she says. “I was bored and then when I got pregnant, I just stopped going.”

Today, Batey is taking a GED class at Blue Gargoyle, an adult learning program housed in an old mansion near the campus of the University of Chicago. Batey says classes there are small and personal and one tutor has become a friend and mentor. Light years different compared to what she experienced at Englewood, Batey says, where so many students were struggling that she felt lost.

The performance demands of the federal No Child Left Behind law are viewed with skepticism by principals whose schools enroll a higher than average share of special education students. They say they shouldn’t be blamed for special education students’ performance when schools do not get all of the resources they need to address those needs.

Kelvyn Park High School admits any student who lives within the schools attendance boundaries, says Principal Sandra Fontanez-Phelan. Some 9th-graders come in reading at a 1st-grade level, she says. “Still, we are not letting our kids vegetate.”

At Kelvyn Park, fewer than 2 percent of the 63 special education students tested in 2005 passed the reading exam.

This year, she says staff will be stretched thin. During the budget process, Kelvyn Park lost five special education teachers and three special education aides. The student population has decreased a bit during the past two years, but the special education population has remained about the same.

The cutbacks mean that aides will only be available to special education students in core subjects, but not in health, Spanish or physical education.

The services will remain appropriate. But, she asks, “Are they optimal? No. They are not.”

Associate Editor Debra Williams contributed to this report.