Frida Williams,* a petite girl with a pale complexion and high cheekbones, silently reads the first page assigned in a math workbook. Frustrated, she puts her head down on the desk and pulls her sweatshirt’s black hood over her face.

It’s Oct. 3. Technically, the school year began a month ago, but Marshall Metro High School has been plagued with late registrants—like Frida, who registered 10 days into the school year—and a faulty computer system.

Principal Juan Gardner has declared this day the first real day of school at Marshall.

“Get to work,” scolds teacher Raminda Dua, looking in Frida’s direction. She sits up, takes a notebook out of her backpack and writes on an empty page in block printing.

Three times she starts over, each time crossing out words. She finally settles with this: “Mrs. Dua, I do not understand the work and I need help.” But when the bell rings, she balls up all the papers, throwing them in the trash can as she leaves.

Frida then closes her workbook and brings it to the front with the other students. While they’ve completed several pages, she’s finished none.

Over the next few weeks, Frida gets little work done. Once, when Dua pushes her to do something, she argues with her and is later suspended.

A few weeks later, Frida’s records finally arrive from her elementary school, and it becomes immediately obvious why she is struggling so much: She has a severe learning disability. By mid-November, two months into the school year, she is assigned to separate, self-contained classes.

The move should mean that Frida will get the support she needs to understand the new curriculum Marshall rolled out this fall since it joined the district’s High School Transformation project, which ratchets up expectations and instruction so students will be more engaged in core classes and perform better. But mastering the new material has been a strain for some students at Marshall, particularly for special education students like Frida. And so far, there’s little teachers can do about it.

Ignored too long

Last year, teachers from the first group of transformation high schools were invited to training workshops, but they later complained that neither the sessions nor the curriculum addressed how they might help students who were significantly below grade level or who had learning disabilities.

Since then, the district has hired consultants from Landmark College (a college in Vermont for learning disabled students) to come up with ways to adapt the new curriculum for these students. This work has yet to make its way to teachers.

CEO Arne Duncan says the problem is real and difficult. “The district needs to be persistent in helping teachers modify the curriculum,” he says.

The transformation initiative has potential, says Janine Douglas, who, as a programmer, manages students’ schedules. But the lack of attention to students with special needs is a big problem at Marshall, where a disproportionate share (25 percent last year) of students receives services, she explains. More than two-thirds of those students were classified learning-disabled.

About 20 percent of Marshall’s 311 freshmen are currently in a special education class, and there may be others who have not yet been assigned, says Douglas, who has a number of pending requests for special education class placements.

Among the 25 high schools participating in the transformation project, special education enrollment averages 19 percent; the average is 16 percent at high schools that are not in the program. Data show that special-needs students have more absences, fail more classes and are more likely to drop out than students who don’t have disabilities.

Also, high schools in the transformation project are more likely to enroll students who perform below grade level and need extra help, even if they do not have learning disabilities. Marshall’s incoming freshman class has one of the lowest composite test scores districtwide, with nearly 45 percent reading below grade level.

Recently, a 22-year-old Marshall alum told Douglas that he was attending Malcolm X College, and that, for the first time, he was demanding that they teach him to read. “We could have done so much more for him,” Douglas says. “But we have a thousand things to deal with and it doesn’t seem we ever get to helping these kids.”

A double hit

Rod Estvan, who works for the advocacy group Access Living, points out that neighborhood schools like Marshall often have special-needs students with broad and profound learning difficulties that affect their performance in several subjects. In contrast, only 3 percent of students at selective high schools, on average, have learning disabilities, and generally those difficulties are limited to one subject.

The issues are compounded by parents in low-income schools who often are not as savvy about how to be advocates for their children.

Other, systemic issues also come into play. As in Frida’s case, there’s sometimes a delay between when a student registers and when the school gets the records that indicate he or she should be in special education classes.

Tight funding in the district presents another problem. Estvan says that in recent years, to save money, CPS has put the word out that students’ individual education plans should not call for a dedicated teachers aide.

(Duncan denies this claim.) If Frida were assigned an aide in Dua’s math class, for instance, she may have gotten the help she needed to understand what was being taught.

At Marshall, most of the special education teachers and aides work in self-contained classes, where about 32 percent of the school’s learning-disabled students are assigned for most of the day. The rate is much lower elsewhere; 29 percent in other transformation high schools and 16 percent at high schools districtwide.

A snail’s pace

Even in separate classes, however, it is questionable how much benefit special-needs students are receiving from the new curriculum. In two of Frida’s classes, students are moving at a snail’s pace.

In the special education math class, teacher Greg Simms says he has to read questions and problems aloud so his students, most of whom have trouble reading, can do the work. While students like using the laptop computers for math assignments, Simms says he often finds them wandering around the Internet, which slows their progress working through problems.

In Mary Jones’ special education English class, problems with the curriculum are readily apparent. Last fall, while most freshmen were writing an essay about the book “Speak,” Jones’ students can barely get through a three-paragraph summary. She attempts to guide the three boys in attendance on this day—a full class is 12 students, including Frida—through the passage, which tells of a young girl who is raped and has to learn to open up about it.

Many of Jones’ students, at age 14 and 15, still do not recognize so-called “sight words” such as “could” and “beautiful” that are typically learned by 3rd grade. These students need help with basic skills before they can handle reading a novel, Jones says.

Yet these students don’t get this kind of help at home or at school, and particularly not with the new curriculum, Jones adds.

Low attendance is another problem for Jones, who teaches five periods of freshman special education English and reading classes. Reasons for absences vary.

Frida was out today meeting with her case manager. Another student, John, who missed most of the past two weeks to care for his infant daughter, is in class today.

Jones asks him to read the summary aloud.

“At … the … end … of … the…“ John* is stumped.

“Summer,” Jones offers. As John reads, Jones continues to assist, sometimes telling him a difficult word and other times giving him clues. When he is puzzled by the word “assignment,” she asks, “What do you get from teachers?”

Next, Jones calls on Matthew*. He reads even more slowly than John.

By the time they finish reading the summary, there are only 10 minutes left. Jones tells the boys that they should now answer the questions listed below the summary. She does not read the questions to them.

“I will be quiet,” she says, walking around the room picking up papers and other scraps and throwing them away.

None of the boys write anything. They silently stare into space.

A week later, Frida, who can read and write, is not so sure she likes her new classes. “I don’t know if I am learning much,” she says.

*Editor’s note: To protect Frida’s privacy and the privacy of the other students interviewed for this story, Catalyst is not using real names.

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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