“We have schools for students who perform and schools for students who cannot.”

Kymara Chase professor of education, DePaul University

The problem

Special education students in Chicago are disproportionately enrolled at low-performing high schools on the West and South Sides. These schools are overwhelmed and often unable to provide students with the services they need.

Conversely, selective high schools are admitting relatively few special needs children despite mandates from the district and federal court to do so. In fact, such schools are attracting top performing students away from neighborhood schools, which are then left with a concentration of special education students.

This fall, special education enrollment in CPS high schools ranges from 3 percent to 40 percent of incoming freshmen.


Elite high schools admit the fewest special needs students. Eight percent or fewer of this year’s freshmen at Northside, Whitney Young, Lane, Payton and Brooks are enrolled in special education.

Schools with high concentrations of special education students are more likely to be on academic probation. All general high schools where more than 20 percent of students are in special education are on academic probation, accounting for two-thirds of those on this year’s list, according to a CATALYST analysis.

High school special education students became increasingly segregated during the 1990s, according to a recent study by the Consortium on Chicago School Research.

Between 1993 and 2000, the percentage of incoming freshmen with disabilities at 11 high schools on the South and West sides rose from 16 percent to 30 percent. The schools are Austin, DuSable, Englewood, Gage Park, Manley, Orr, Phillips, Robeson, South Shore, Tilden and Wells.

The Consortium study also contends that the board’s 1996 promotion policy contributed to the concentration of disabled students in those high schools by retaining more general students who failed to meet test score targets. Also, students who repeated a grade were more likely to either be placed into special education programs, or drop out before making it to high school. The policy resulted in a double whammy for neighborhood high schools: More special education students were in the enrollment pipeline, and the number of students in the general program plummeted.

Remedies underway

The district expects elite high schools to actively recruit special education students; many have begun doing so. Also, the School Board created a more flexible admissions policy for students with special needs to make it easier for them to apply to selective high schools.

Most under-performing high schools now have magnet programs and advanced placement courses to help them attract top scoring students. School officials are also working to reduce special education referrals by training elementary school staff to try other strategies to solve learning and behavior problems. Often, poor readers are mistakenly identified as having learning disabilities. The board sees improving early reading instruction as a remedy.


The Consortium’s study, “Changing Special Education Enrollments: Causes and Distribution Among Schools,” by Shazia Rafiullah Miller and Robert M. Gladden, is available online at www.consortium-chicago.org/publications/p54.html. For information call: (773) 702- 5428.

The CPS Office of High School Development will answer questions for parents of special education students who want to apply to selective magnet high schools. Contact Angus Mairs at (773) 553-3540.

Council for Disability Rights, a Chicago non-profit, has an online guide to special education for parents at www.disabilityrights.org.

Designs for Change is a resource for information on disabled students’ rights and best practices for educating them. Call Elliott Marks at (312) 236-7252, ext. 242.

The South Austin Commission recently formed a special education committee to address the concerns of parents, teachers and community members. For information call Theresa Welch at (773) 287-4570.

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