Head Start at O'Keefe Credit: Catalyst file photo

Rasheed Jackson is one of hundreds of young children who have fallen through the cracks of special education in Chicago Public Schools: His evaluation for services has been severely delayed, far longer than federal law allows.

In his case, three years longer.

“He talks like a baby,” says Rasheed’s mother, Shavon Kalfus. “If he had the help prior to age 6, it wouldn’t be a problem.”

The district is faced with a backlog of up to 1,500 students who were referred for evaluations last year but have yet to undergo them, leaving them without special services at a critical stage in their development. Like Rasheed, most of the youngsters were in federally funded Early Intervention programs, which serve developmentally delayed and at-risk children until they turn 3, or were referred from Head Start, which has new rules meant to identify children who need special services early in their schooling.

CPS is making new efforts to track the progress of evaluations, but hundreds more children are referred every month—making it even tougher to catch up.

The issue came to a head last summer, after a school year when special education referrals for young children increased by 42 percent, putting further strain on a system that was already short-staffed. Some officials say the increase is due to the new federal rules for Head Start.

In June 2010, the watchdog group Equip for Equality complained to the state that 13 children whose Head Start teachers noticed red flags on screenings had not been evaluated by CPS within the 60-day time frame specified by federal law. The group said at the time that hundreds more children were affected.

In late August, the Illinois State Board of Education issued a finding that required CPS to remedy the situation and move forward on the evaluations of the students named in the complaint.
ISBE’s finding on delayed CPS special education evaluations
Lam Ho, staff attorney for Equip for Equality’s Autism Project, says the state also ordered CPS to consider offering the students “compensatory services,” such as additional speech therapy or an extended school year, to help make up for the time they lost.

Ho, who has participated in Individualized Education Plan meetings to help parents advocate for the services, says that in most instances, CPS representatives have maintained that students don’t need them. But Ho has helped persuade IEP teams to change their stance.

About a month after Equip for Equality filed its complaint, a state task force report on the Early Intervention system mentioned Chicago’s difficulties transitioning children out of the program. Federal law requires that school districts evaluate the students and have a plan in place to serve them by their 3rd birthday. For Rasheed, that didn’t happen until after he had turned 6.

The task force report suggested that state lawmakers require school districts to pay for continuing Early Intervention services after children turn 3 if an evaluation and preschool placement haven’t taken place.

Carol Muhammad, a program manager at La Rabida Children’s Hospital (which serves Early Intervention families) says she has seen the problems first-hand. Confused school employees would turn the families away when they tried to register their children in CPS in order to have them evaluated—telling the families, incorrectly, that they had to file a medical exam or that they couldn’t register until their child turned 5. When children needed to transition over the summer months, it was difficult to reach anyone.

“Our families get discouraged, and they don’t return,” Muhammad says. Students went without the services they needed, and sometimes, without even a spot in preschool.

Beginning in fiscal year 2009, Head Start rules stipulated that programs enroll at least 10 percent students with learning disabilities serious enough to require an IEP. To boot, new federal rule changes mean that Head Start programs could lose their funding if they don’t meet the target. School districts are responsible for evaluating children and designing their IEPs.

“It puts a tremendous burden on local school districts,” says Richard Smith, chief of the CPS Office of Special Education and Supports. Districts did not receive any additional funding to hire more staff.  But when evaluations are delayed – reducing the percentage of children with IEPs – funding for Head Start programs is jeopardized.

Here in Chicago, 9 percent of Head Start children had IEPs in August 2009, just 1 percentage point short of the target, according to the city’s Department of Family and Support Services.

At the time the Equip for Equality complaint was filed, Smith had just started his job and began meeting with Head Start centers, the agencies that work with Early Intervention families, and other groups. His first task was identifying students the district had failed to evaluate and lost track of, a process that took months.

Smith’s staff asked preschools and agencies for the names of any students they remembered referring for evaluations. As of mid-December, letters mailed to 1,600 families had yielded over 300 responses. So far, about 100 students have gotten IEPs completed. The district is working with about 200 families to enroll students in CPS and schedule and finish evaluations.

Ho says it is “not a very good sign and is troubling” that so few families have responded. And the evaluation process “can take quite a bit of time” even after families are in communication with the district, he says.

Smith says his office plans to send out letters again, and is also checking with those who submitted names, to see if they can reach out personally to the families involved.

To avoid roadblocks and speed up the process, CPS has set up three special evaluation sites around the city for new and previously referred Early Intervention students, and has assigned administrators to work temporarily on the evaluations.

But, Smith isn’t sure the three sites will be enough. “We are looking at our options to make sure we don’t have backlogs,” he says. “The preliminary numbers [of Early Intervention students] coming in are very high.”

CPS has also begun centralized tracking of Head Start evaluations being done at local schools, “so a school can’t just put it in a file cabinet,” Smith says. Central tracking also ensures that the district has data on how many evaluations are done within the required 60 days following a referral.

It’s unclear how many of the children who are evaluated will need special services. But the district has enough spots in self-contained special education classrooms to serve the roughly 450 students it expects will need to be placed there this school year, Smith says.

For students who can be taught in regular classes, there are well over 1,200 additional spots available in Head Start and Preschool for All programs, Smith says. He estimates the district will only need to use half of them. (However, not all of those are in classes with special education teachers, and the district may have to hire more.)

There will be some students with IEPs whose classroom teachers don’t have a special education background, Smith says. Where it is a good fit for the students’ needs, the district will use “itinerant consultative” special education teachers. Rather than just pulling students out of classes for one-on-one work, consultative teachers coach classroom teachers on how to tailor instruction for special-needs students (a model Smith says is consistent with best practices).

Other districts around the state have not had such serious problems transitioning students from Early Intervention into pre-kindergarten, Muhammad says.

One reason: In Chicago, the transition meetings happen entirely over the phone. “The school district has not been able to provide the capacity for in-person meetings,” Muhammad says.

Now, though, “they are starting to create some systems and the ability to track the children we are referring,” she notes. To help facilitate the process, La Rabida has started sending CPS a list every month of the children who need an evaluation in order to transition into preschool, she adds. The district evaluates and enrolls them.

Muhammad says she is hopeful about Smith’s efforts to resolve the issues and reach out to other agencies. “After all these years, at least we have a face with a name,” she says. “Historically, we didn’t really have a connection with anyone at CPS that could problem-solve and track down where families were in the system.”

Left without help from CPS for her son, Shavon Kalfus ultimately spent hundreds of dollars getting an evaluation and speech therapy for Rasheed.

Before he became too old for Early Intervention, she contacted Joplin Elementary to set up an evaluation so he could transition into preschool. But she didn’t get a response.

In April 2009, when Rasheed was 4, his pediatrician wrote a letter to the district requesting an evaluation. By the time Kalfus got a response from central office, it was December. Rasheed had turned 5. It was more than two years after he was supposed to have started receiving services and enrolled in preschool.

Shortly thereafter, in January 2010, Kalfus met with school staff, who refused to evaluate her son and told her he would “grow out of it.”

She got the district to set up another evaluation, which finally began in December 2010 but hasn’t been finished. Rasheed is now 6.

This isn’t the way the system is supposed to work, says Amy Zimmerman, director of the Chicago Medical-Legal Partnership for Children at Health and Disability Advocates, which has served Rasheed and other children and families whose transition out of Early Intervention has gotten off track.

“Once the child is kindergarten age, the hope is that many of these kids will have caught up and they’ll never have to access special education services again,” Zimmerman says. But if services are interrupted at age 3 because of school district delays, in some cases, “all those gains are going to be lost.”

Anecdotally, Zimmerman says, she is seeing fewer families seek legal help for problems with the transition from Early Intervention into pre-kindergarten. But because of the district’s previous inability to track evaluations, no one will ever know if CPS has found all the students who are part of the backlog.

“[CPS] will be seeing them again,” she says. “These are kids who will likely need to access services when they become school-age.

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