A Hope Institute Learning Academy student works with equipment in a specially designed sensory gym. Students work with occupational therapists on physical skills and use equipment like the tube to create calming body sensations. [Photo by Jason Reblando] Credit: Photo by Jason Reblando

In its first two years, Hope Institute Learning Academy was roiled by the departure of two principals, more than half the school’s first cadre of staff and a private education management company.

The Academy, which aims to be a model for the inclusion of students with special needs, lost a legal complaint filed by parents who accused Hope of failing to provide legally required special education services for their children, raising questions about whether the school can achieve its goal.

Now, the school’s leadership hopes it’s finally stepping off on the right foot. But low test scores and lack of a track record have made it difficult to recruit students for its general education program. And the school is about to undergo another leadership change, with the interim principal set to leave at the end of the school year.

“We are currently in the process of evaluating internal talent before making a decision on a search strategy” for the next principal, Hope spokesman Mark Schmidt says.

Hope Institute Learning Academy is modeled on the private Hope Institute for Children and Families in Springfield, which only serves students with developmental disabilities. Hope Academy, on the other hand, is a public school operated under a contract with CPS.

Most of Hope’s general education students come from the West and South sides, seeking an alternative to their neighborhood schools. In the surrounding Near West Side area, other schools offer attractive options: Suder Montessori, a magnet school; William Brown, which has a magnet cluster program; and Skinner West, which has a gifted program.

Hope’s building, closed in 2004 and then renovated by CPS, is operating at just half its capacity. Hope’s plan is to expand from K-5 to include 6th through 8th grade.

Interim Principal Sandra Morrow says the school’s sibling policy is a draw for many brothers and sisters of students with autism. Otherwise, many families would have to split up general education and special-needs siblings from each other.

The building is designed with the needs of special education students in mind.

There is a “sensory gym” staffed by occupational therapists, where autistic students can use various equipment—swings, a rock-climbing wall, pillows, a ball pit, and foam barrels that hug their bodies—to create calming body sensations and provide a more socially acceptable replacement for the repetitive behaviors that are characteristic of some autism-spectrum disorders. Color-coded stripes in the hallways help students who might otherwise struggle with navigation and directions, to find their way from one room to another.

Some classrooms are self-contained and provide severely disabled students with lots of one-on-one attention. Students in these classes are integrated with other students for gym, music, lunch and media periods, as well as assemblies, field trips and after-school programs.

In transitional classes, students attend at least two core-subject classes with their peers in general education. And an inclusive classroom serves a mix of general education students and students with emotional and behavioral disabilities.

But so far, only two special-needs students out of about 90 are in general education classes full time.

A decline in test scores last year—to 47 percent meeting or exceeding standards on the ISAT, from 59 percent in 2010—has made it harder to attract general education students. Since inclusive classes by law must be at least 70 percent general education students, Hope cannot admit more special-needs students.

Morrow says the school is on the right track though. “Only being three years old, we are moving in the right direction,” she says. She also believes that the school has a strong Response to Intervention program, to quickly catch students who are struggling academically or with behavior.

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Hope was originally discussed as a campus of Chicago International Charter Schools, says Beth Purvis, director of the Chicago International Charter network. But that idea was scrapped when organizers realized they couldn’t afford to run a school for special needs students at current charter school funding levels.

Chicago International, though, provided the contract school with technical assistance and helped it select Victory Education Partners to run the general education side of the school. (Victory currently runs four Chicago International campuses.) But the setup was unwieldy. From 2009 through 2011, the staff reported to different supervisors—some at  Victory, others at  Hope. Victory left at the end of the 2010-2011 school year; Hope officials say the split was amicable and that there were no significant problems.

Jeffrey Naumann, a former teacher at Hope who is now at Pershing East, a magnet elementary school, says he was attracted to Hope’s philosophy of inclusion and teamwork. But having two sets of administrators sometimes caused confusion.

“The weakness was breakdowns in communication and expectations,” Naumann says. “Those weren’t always clear.”

For the first several months, Hope didn’t have a classroom for students with emotional and behavioral disabilities.

Yet many parents whose children could have benefited from such a room—children with unidentified special needs or who just may have needed extra help—gravitated toward the school, Naumann says.

Plus, many teachers were inexperienced. In the 2010-11 school year (the most recent year for which teacher service records are available) one teacher had 25 years of experience, but the rest averaged just over three years.

In fall 2009, two kindergarten teachers quit within a matter of weeks. “It was teachers who didn’t have much experience in urban education,” Naumann says. “They find out it’s more difficult [than they thought].”

A parent who took her son out of the school after its first year (and who asked not to be identified) says that the school couldn’t provide the inclusive environment she expected.

Hope promised that each classroom teacher would have several aides, she says, but that did not happen. A meeting was held to discuss her son’s Individual Education Plan, or IEP, with his kindergarten teacher. But the teacher, who later quit, was “totally unprepared and totally unaware of what his needs would be,” the mother says.

At least twice, she recalls arriving at Hope to pick up her son, only to find him missing. Once, he had wandered off and was playing alone on the school’s stage. She later learned that he had been running and leaving the classroom up to eight times a day, but says no one had called to let her know about the problem. The boy was moved to a self-contained special education room, she recalls, not for academic reasons but because he could not be supervised closely enough in the general education classroom.

On another occasion, her son was found running around a hallway, partially undressed because he had had a bathroom accident. “No one had immediately taken care of him,” she says. “I was promised  a level of inclusion and attention that they simply could not deliver.”

This mother was not the only parent whose child had difficulties related to staffing. During a fall 2011 hearing, the school’s speech therapist admitted that her growing caseload had caused the student involved—and likely others—to miss over a dozen sessions through the spring of 2011.

The hearing officer eventually ruled that the school had failed to properly evaluate the student and provide the legally mandated special education services.

Parent attorney Nelly Aguilar cites under-staffing as the likely cause, and adds that school leadership did a poor job of helping parents participate—for instance, by not calling about a child’s issues—and made conflicts worse. “It seemed like there was a very anti-family stance,” she says.

Naumann, however, has heard praise for interim principal Morrow, who worked at the school before taking the post.

“I’ve heard good things,” Naumann says.

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During a visit to Hope, it’s clear that teachers are working to provide the extra support for students with special needs.

In a kindergarten classroom, students work in groups, cutting out paper to create pictures of different geographical features. There are two teachers, one for general education and one for special education. They use cards worn on a lanyard around their necks to supplement their communication with some students.

Melissa Twarek, a school administrator who helps oversee special education services, explains that the classrooms use a stoplight system to monitor each student’s behavior. Children who need more constant reinforcement have their behavior rated on each task. Some students also have their teachers sign off on individualized point systems.

Down the hall, a 1st-grade class that provides extra support has a board with each student’s schedule in pictures.

“Before the transition [to another classroom], the teacher will put the next step up, because they can’t handle more than one icon at a time,” Twarek says.

Students spend most of their time working one-on-one with teachers in stations, “checking in” at each work station by taking a card with an icon that matches the one on their schedule.

A girl is learning to match real-life objects to those in pictures. The object she’s matching is placed on a red sheet of paper. “The red paper is a trigger,” Twarek explains. “It’s teaching her to respond to the object.”

Lori Vallelunga, the former senior vice president of strategic development for Hope Institute (now at Bethel New Life), says that even during her tenure, the school was doing well with training teachers in how to include special needs students.

But, she adds, a dearth of qualified candidates has made it hard for the school to find the right leader. “We have historically had schools that were either special education focused or general education focused, but not both,” she says. “When you want to put a principal in a school that has both groups of students in large proportions, that’s challenging.”

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