‘Perfect fit’ for special education

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Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences

Photo by John Booz

Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences

In the food science lab at the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences, teacher Jane Klunk puts her hand over the hand of a severely disabled student to help him scoop sugar into a clear plastic jar.

She counts the scoops, pauses and asks him what number she’s on. He stares blankly. Klunk is not fazed.

“Chicago Ag is a perfect fit for these students,” Klunk says. “What we try to do is give them as many opportunities as we can to experience things so that when they get out in the real world, they will be prepared.”

Chicago Ag, a racially mixed magnet school with some 600 students, is one of six urban schools featured in a recent university report on high-performing, primarily low-income high schools. The school’s special education program got a special mention.

The high school report was prepared for the U.S. Department of Education by University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center on Education and Work. James Frasier, the project’s director, says that all eight schools had high expectations for their special education students.

For example, from freshman year on, Chicago Ag students with less profound disabilities receive guidance on getting ready for and choosing a college.

With unusual resources that include a full woodshop, a greenhouse, a working farm and a store—as well as a food science lab—Chicago Ag challenges its special education students with a variety of hands-on activities. It is a unique environment for Chicago schools, Klunk acknowledges.

As a magnet school, Chicago Ag draws better-than-average students for a city high school. It uses a lottery for enrollment, but students, including the moderately disabled, must perform at grade level to get into it. For students who are severely disabled, administrators choose those they determine are a good fit for the program.

The test scores of Chicago Ag’s special education students are among the highest for Chicago high schools—45 percent met or exceeded grade-level standards in reading in 2005, compared to 5.1 percent citywide. But they trail far behind the scores of regular students at the school, 70 percent of whom met or exceeded state reading standards. Special education students at other magnet and selective high schools also tend to score higher than those in schools that must enroll whoever comes to the door.

Like other schools in the University of Wisconsin study, Chicago Ag fell short of special education testing standards under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. However, Principal David Gilligan believes special ed students should take regular tests. He notes, for example, that learning-disabled students will have to compete with regular students when they leave school. “We want them to be able to do the same as anyone else out there.”

For severely disabled students, who are not required to take the tests, Klunk also worries about how they will fare once they leave school. Illinois does not provide adequate funding for programs that serve severely disabled adults, she says. “The future is really bleak for them.”