A year after Chicago Public Schools stepped up its efforts to reverse high special education referrals at some elementary schools, referral rates at most of them are down.

In October 2001, central office rounded up 31 schools where special education referral rates were double the citywide average—about 2 percent of enrollment.

It invited principals, special education teachers and support staff to discuss strategies to reduce the numbers and map out a plan. Afterward, representatives from each school met monthly to report on their progress.

“Call it targeted monitoring,” says CPS Specialized Services Chief Officer Sue Gamm. “This was the first time we’d brought schools together as a group to work on this.”

A year under the microscope has made a difference. By fall 2002, referral rates at 27 of the schools had dropped, but most remain above the citywide average. Rates at two others went up. Two schools have been closed.

Gamm, who began tracking referral rates six years ago, notes that some children are mistakenly routed into special education when what they really need is help learning to read or support to overcome problems at home.

According to national research, 80 percent of students who are classified as learning disabled—the fastest-growing category of special education enrollment in CPS—have trouble reading.

“It happens,” says Linda Taylor, co-director of UCLA’s Center for Mental Health in Schools. “We send teachers to do a hard job with so few tools. They’re taught if you can’t make it with a kid, send him out as opposed to ‘I can’t make it with this kid, give me resources.'”

School-based problems

Six years ago, Gamm’s office began to introduce schools to a process that would help tackle high referral rates. Known as school-based problem solving, the process encourages educators to consider a variety of academic and behavioral interventions before recommending that a troubled student be placed in special education.

“School-based problem solving supports kids who are not in special education but not making it,” says Richard Swastek, a CPS program manager who trains school faculty to use the process.

Since then, hundreds of schools have been trained to use school-based problem solving, and Swastek expects all 600 schools in the district will be using it by 2004. Yet at some schools, the referral rates remained above average. That’s why Gamm and her team decided to track more closely a manageable number of schools whose principals, teachers and support staff would be convened monthly to discuss student issues, share solutions and plot referral reduction plans.

To support them, each school had access to a regional specialist in special education and a facilitator for school-based problem solving.

Canty Elementary in the Belmont-Cragin neighborhood received training in school-based problem solving in 2000. But by 2001, staff who had been trained had left the school and special education referral rates were up to 4.5 percent, says case manager Lorraine Ballesh. After participating in the CPS monitored program last year, Canty’s referrals fell to 1 percent. “This time, we really banded together,” Ballesh says. “Everyone got trained and we really committed to the process.”

After a year in the program, referral rates dropped from 5.5 percent to 2.2 at McCorkle Elementary in Grand Boulevard. “We started school-based problem solving four years ago,” admits Principal Janet House. “But we didn’t use it to the degree that we did last year. When we found out our referral rate was high, we took the program to heart and began really implementing it.”

At Libby Elementary in the Back of the Yards, case manager Betty Washington says 3rd-grade students who were retained for low reading scores have been the primary source of special education referrals.

Since being trained in school-based problem solving, Libby’s psychologist regularly visits classrooms to look for students with cognitive deficits that could be easily addressed by teachers. The school also began grouping students by reading level instead of by grade. Every eight weeks, teachers would test them to find out whether they were ready to move up to the next reading group.

Monthly referrals have dropped from five to two, but Libby’s overall rate remains above average at 3.1 percent.

Keeping rates down

Gamm says school-based problem solving can be a long-term solution if schools with above average referral rates continue to use it. “It works more often than it doesn’t,” she says. “If two schools receive the same training, and it works in one school and not in another, then you ask yourself, ‘Is it the program or the implementation?'”

Some principals, though, wonder if they’ll be able to keep referral rates down in the long run.

“We’ve gotten our numbers down, but this year we’ll have to refer some of the same kids we looked at last year,” says Principal Frances Oden of Beethoven Elementary, where referrals fell below one percent from 5.7 percent. “We don’t see them maintaining and increasing progress.”

At McCorkle, Principal House agrees. “We use a volume of social services because emotional problems keep our kids from learning,” she explains. “It’s a constant process—we evaluate, address needs, reorganize and assess again. After awhile, though, it becomes obvious that some kids are still not going to make it.”

“In some cases, this happens,” says Richard Swastek, a CPS program manager who oversees school-based problem solving. “If a kid crashes, then he may really need special education services.”

Referral rates rose at two schools that were monitored last year. One of them, Donoghue Elementary in Oakland, nearly doubled its referral rate to over 10 percent—the highest in the city. The other, Alcott Elementary in Lincoln Park, edged up slightly by a fraction of a percentage point.

“They are small schools so a few referrals will look like a lot,” Gamm explains. “And because of their size, they don’t have the support staff. [Donoghue is] saying, ‘Hey, we have some kids with serious behavior and emotional problems.’ We’ll take a look, keep working with them and see what can be done.”

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