As the district prepares for the second year of its ambitious High School Transformation project, an important piece is just now getting attention: How to teach special education students and English-language learners the new curricula.

“We should be further along on this than we are,” says Allan Alson, executive director of the project.

Crafting a strategy to help these students is important because they comprise a significant percentage of students in struggling high schools. About half of the 25 participating schools have 25 percent or more of their students with special learning needs.

Only one high school now in the transformation project, Farragut, has a large English language learner population (See chart). Yet there are eight more schools with significant numbers of English language learners that are likely candidates to join the project soon, given that fewer than a quarter of their students are meeting state standards.

Chicago Public Schools has taken at least one step forward: This summer, the district plans to hire seven to nine special education coaches who will work with teachers in the 25 schools come fall.

Advocates for special education students are concerned that the project’s emphasis on rigorous content will leave out those students who can’t keep up, says Rodney Estvan, who works in the education program at Access Living, an organization that advocates for those with disabilities.

“How much are we going to raise the bar, and who is going to be left out of this?” says Estvan.

Principal Juan Gardner of Marshall High in East Garfield Park, which will become part of the transformation project this September, is also concerned that the district has no clear plan for adapting the curricula to meet the needs of those who need special services. A third of his students are in special education, he notes.

Gardner says he has raised the issue with Alson, but not gotten a definitive answer. “I am worried about this because if you don’t involve these students, then it won’t really be able to help the school as a whole,” he says.

Since the project was launched last year, says Alson, special education teachers have been involved in all the professional development provided to regular classroom teachers and are included in common planning sessions. Still, the curricula move at a fast pace, and Alson says some special education teachers have found it difficult to adapt it for those who lag behind.


“The plans have been executed better in some schools than others,” he says.

Though their exact job description is still being worked out, Alson says he wants the special education coaches to help teachers differentiate instruction, to help with literacy and to make appropriate modifications for special education students. (It’s still unclear whether the coaches will be employees of CPS or of the companies that provide the new curricula.)

Alson says the cost of the coaches has been folded into the cost of the entire program, which increased this year to $1,750 per student ,from $1,250. Already high school transformation utilizes coaches in math, science and English; these coaches work for the curriculum companies.

Helping bilingual students

For now, Alson says, the new curricula will not be translated into any of the foreign languages spoken by English language learners, so students in separate bilingual education classes will not be exposed to it.

However, when those students move into regular classes, they will continue to receive support from bilingual teachers who will be familiar with the curricula.

Virginia Martinez, a staff attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, says the issue of how high school transformation works with English language learners has not been on the group’s radar screen. However, the organization is continually concerned with bilingual students’ access to new and special programs.

“We are concerned with fairness,” she says.

Alson says that for a variety of reasons, high schools with large percentages of English language learners chose not to join the transformation project. Clemente High in West Town, for example, is taking part in the EXCELerator program, a high school improvement initiative focused on college readiness that is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, as is the transformation program.

Natividad Loredo, principal of Juarez High on the Lower West Side, says he thought seriously about applying to be part of the transformation project. Only 16 percent of Juarez students meet state standards, making the school a good candidate.

But when he came in as principal two years ago, Loredo instituted his own set of curricula and new programs. Though test scores have not skyrocketed (last year, in fact, they went down a bit), Loredo says he still wants to give his reforms a chance.

One of the new curricula he implemented is Cognitive Tutor, a math program that is one of the options offered under the transformation project. Loredo also bought a computer-based writing program that corrects students’ mistakes, and reading software that requires students to answer questions about passages they read.

“If I use transformation, all that goes out the door,” he says.

Loredo isn’t concerned that the new curricula have not been translated or otherwise adapted for non-English speakers, who make up 15 percent of Juarez students. There’s no shortage of students who can translate for their classmates, he points out, and, in fact, that happens regularly now.

Frank Candioto, retiring principal at Foreman High in Portage Park, notes that his school has large non-English speaking and special education populations—about 20 percent each. But that’s not what dissuaded him from applying to be part of the transformation project.

Instead, it was the cost. Candioto worries that the district won’t be able to sustain the effort. This year, schools have to contribute an additional $300 for each student who is in a class that uses the transformation curricula.

Candioto also says he found the curriculum options too scripted.

“I had a lot of questions and the district didn’t have all the answers,” he says.

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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