Patricia Jones (left), who fought to get her son Darion placed in a therapeutic day school, sits with her daughter Joy. Jones waged a similar battle to find a therapeutic placement for Joy, who is now enrolled in Olive-Harvey College. [Photo by Cristina Rutter] Credit: Photo by Cristina Rutter

After her son, Darion, was attacked by Fenger High School football players who accused him of stealing flip flops, Patricia Jones decided that he could not safely return to the rough school on the far South Side.

Diagnosed with both bipolar and explosive intermittent disorder, Darion was liable to lash out. The players, too, were out to get him again, Jones felt.

Jones told the principal that she wanted Darion transferred, but was stunned when she was told he should go to an alternative school. Most alternative schools in CPS have small budgets and too few social workers, psychologists and psychiatrists to adequately help troubled students. Some of the schools hesitate to take students with a laundry list of problems, like Darion’s.

“When I tried to ask questions, the principal told me she wasn’t going to argue with me,” Jones recalls. “I told her she would be hearing from my attorney.”

“They thought I was a fool,” adds Jones, a short, stocky powerhouse of a mom.

Jones says she knew instinctively that an alternative school was not the right place for Darion. He sat home for more than a month as she pursued legal action on his behalf. It was only after Jones sought the counsel of an attorney that district officials acquiesced and approved a placement for Darion in a therapeutic day school.

Darion was extraordinarily lucky on several fronts. He had an involved mother who had been through similar struggles before with another child and knew about specialty schools that are designed to educate students with severe academic, behavioral and mental health problems.

These days, it is extremely difficult to get a placement in a private special education school.

CPS gets almost half—about $86 million—of the state’s $178 million appropriation for private placements, but it is wrapped in a larger special education block grant. Unlike other districts, CPS can spend the money on other services for special education students, including transportation.

The block grant creates a disincentive for CPS to allow students to attend these private schools, says Bridget Helmholz, a consultant for the Illinois Association of Private Special Education Centers. Helmholz has worked with the association for 30 years. 

CPS officials would not provide information on how much they spend to place special education students in private schools.

“The problem is when you have money not based on the number getting a service,” Helmholz says. “The incentive is to not serve the students and keep the money.”

Nationally, private placements have gone up, but in CPS they have shrunk dramatically even though state money for private placements has increased. Advocates and lawyers for special-needs students say children with multiple and profound disabilities—students who would have been placed in private therapeutic settings in the past—are now not getting the services they need.

Rodney Estvan of Access Living, an advocacy organization for people with disabilities, says keeping more students in regular schools could be a good thing, if the district was creating high-quality, separate classes in-house.  But Estvan, a longtime observer of the district, says there’s no evidence that students are being more effectively educated or that the money saved on private placements is going to make separate classes better.

Rebecca Clark, director of school support for the CPS Office of Special Education and Supports, disagrees. She insists that the district has done, and continues to do, a better job of educating these students by providing more options, including separate classrooms with support staff and teachers. She points out that the federal mandate is to serve students in the least restrictive environment, but sending them off to private schools isolates them.

“The quality is getting better,” she says of self-contained classrooms, which include multi-sensory classrooms for students with severe disabilities.

Michael O’Connor, an attorney who has handled special education cases, says he hears this argument often but, like Estvan, has seen little or no evidence to support it.

“They could [serve students in-house] if the will was there, but they don’t,” he says.

Experts say that the high cost of therapeutic schools is a prime factor that can drive placements up or down. CPS pays $28,000 to $32,000 per student per year for private placements.

“The pendulum swings depending on the economy,” says Sherry Kolbe, executive director of the National Association of Private Special Education Centers. “When there is money, they send the children out. When there isn’t money, they bring them in.”

Clark says CPS officials do not discourage schools from making private placements, nor do they make decisions to save money. In her view, schools sometimes want to make private placements without enough evidence that one is needed.

Meanwhile, without as many students, therapeutic schools are struggling financially, scaling back to more bare-bones programs. CEO Susan Reyna-Guerrero, president and CEO of Beacon Therapeutic, a private school for children with emotional disorders, says that in recent years, the school lost its music program, gym teacher and a re-integration specialist who helped students transition from the therapeutic day school back to a regular school when appropriate.

“My question is, ‘Where are these children?’” Reyna-Guerrero says. “The thing that pulls on my heart strings is that I think they are dropping out, on the street, in juvenile detention centers. I think they are being lost.” Students with special needs have the lowest graduation rates in CPS, according to CPS data.

*          *          *

In 1996, just as Mayor Richard M. Daley took control of the schools, CPS began getting money from the state in the form of block grants. Until then, CPS, like all other districts, was reimbursed by the state for the number of students in private day schools—a practice that continues outside Chicago.

With the block grant in place, CPS set up a special program for therapeutic day schools: Schools would be paid a lower rate than the rate set by the Illinois State Board of Education—$28,000 to $32,000 per student per year, versus ISBE’s average rate of $38,000. But the district would pay for a student’s seat for the year, regardless of “attendance or enrollment.”

In contrast, the state requires proof of attendance before districts are reimbursed and requires districts to stop payment if the student is absent for five days. Payment will only be reinstated after a meeting that includes a social worker, psychologist and a parent, who can figure out why the child isn’t attending.

Under the administration of CEO Jean-Claude Brizard, the contract for schools is being renegotiated this year, Clark says.

Sara Mauk, an attorney who represents parents in special education cases, is critical of the arrangement and says there’s little incentive for day schools to make sure students attend school and make progress. Mauk says she thinks that several of the schools that refused to be part of the special contract program (because of the lower rate) are of better quality; yet it is often a challenge to get students placed in those schools.

The extent to which CPS monitors the schools in the program is unclear, as is the quality of services they provide.

In its contract, CPS specifies that these schools provide the district with proof that they are achieving certain standards. But when asked for documentation of deliverables and outcomes, CPS officials did not provide it: The data “is not available” because of staff turnover and an office move, according to the district’s response to a Catalyst Chicago Freedom of Information Act request.

If CPS does not know where the information is, it goes without saying that they aren’t using it to monitor the schools that they contract with, says Helmholz. “A good government analyzes outcomes,” she says.

Estvan says that some of the preferred placements are good, while others are lacking.

The question of quality came to the forefront in February, when a student was stabbed and killed by a classmate at Infinity School of Chicago, a private day school that has a contract with CPS.

Questions had already been raised about Infinity. Last May, when the board approved a renewal of its day school contracting program, documents stated “The agreement with Infinity School of Chicago is not being renewed.”
Then in October, the board approved an amended document that added Infinity. Clark offers no explanation for why Infinity was not included in May and said it was “just a mistake.”

Clark, who has been in charge of making private placements for a year, says that she’s sure that these schools have been evaluated in the past, especially as it relates to how many students they re-integrate back into regular schools. However, she notes that she is devising a system to improve monitoring and transparency.

“We want parents to be able to look at these schools and tell which ones are good and which ones are not,” she says. “They’ve never been able to do that before.”

*          *          *

Questioning the quality and worrying that CPS schools are just trying to get rid of their children, some parents fight to keep their children out of private placements, says Rachel Shapiro, an attorney for Equip for Equality, a state disability-rights organization.

But most of the time, parents are looking for an option to get their child more services than their public school provides.

When parents believe the school district is not providing adequate services for their child, they can file a complaint, called a due process case, with the Illinois State Board of Education.

Over the past two years, 20 of 30 due process cases brought against CPS involved parents either making the case that their child should be placed in a therapeutic day school, or asking the district to pay for a placement once they secured a spot for their child.

Inside these case files are emotional stories of parents desperately trying to get help for their children.

In one case that was resolved earlier this year, the file reveals a particularly long and difficult story. The student was diagnosed with an emotional disorder and a cognitive disability when he first started elementary school. For years, he failed classes, even when he was in a separate classroom for special education students.

When he got to high school, his Individual Education Plan only detailed a “moderate cognitive impairment,” but omitted any reference to an emotional disability or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, even though he had been diagnosed with both. The young man was put in separate classes for most of his school day, but was still struggling. In an IEP meeting, one of his teachers noted the following: “Student did not study or complete his assignments, was tardy for class, left his books in his locker, took notes slowly, failed tests and quizzes, was easily distracted and did not focus and stay on task.”

His mother asked for a placement in a therapeutic day school, but was told he could not be placed in one because his teachers had not seen the “off-task behaviors.”

From February through May 2010, the student’s algebra teacher kept anecdotal records of the student’s daily bad behavior, from verbally and physically threatening others to not being prepared for class. The teacher recommended that the student be placed in a smaller, therapeutic setting.

In his IEP meeting in May 2010, the mother again requested a private therapeutic setting. The case manager said that they needed anecdotal evidence from teachers—despite the account from the algebra teacher—and refused to recommend a change of placement, according to the legal complaint.

During his second year of high school, in 2010-2011, his mother more than once expressed doubts that he was learning anything at school and again asked for a therapeutic placement. Again, she was told no.

By the end of that year, the student had only two credits, and his reading, math and spelling skills were at 2nd-grade level, lower than they had been three years earlier. His mother called the district’s Office of Special Education and Supports and told them she was worried about his behavior and the fact that he couldn’t read.

According to the due process complaint, the special services administrator told the mother that a private therapeutic day school was “too expensive.”

It was at this point that the mother first filed her complaint. Two months later, before the hearing on her complaint, the young man, at age 17, was allowed to transfer to South Central Community School. Records show he is doing well there.

The hearing officer, who ordered additional compensatory services for the student, took the district to task for its failure to provide services. The mother’s “pleas were ignored and the student was allowed to struggle and fail for three years of high school until the parent finally got a lawyer and requested a due process hearing.”

Advocates say due process complaints represent only a fraction of the wealth of problems that parents confront.

Because they usually entail getting an attorney, attending numerous meetings and providing detailed documentation, a good number of parents don’t pursue cases.

Relative to their representation in special education, white students are more likely to have placements in private schools, according to 2009-2010 state data. Data show 22 percent of the students in private placements are white, though they make up only 11 percent of the students in special education. Parents of white students may be more likely to have the resources to hire lawyers and insist on placements, Estvan says.

And in many situations, the student just winds up dropping out. The University of Chicago Consortium on School Research found that fewer than half of students in special education, and fewer than 20 percent of those with emotional disabilities, graduate.

There’s a ripple effect, too. The head of special education for a South Side high school describes a student who she says is “disintegrating before her eyes.” One day in late February, the girl was screaming and cursing so loudly that the classes on the floor above her could hear it. Students in the classes nearby were pressed against the window, trying to see what was going on.

“Learning was disrupted,” says the director, who asked not to be identified.

The young woman has mental health issues and the director says she does not think the school can provide what the student needs. She says she has called her contact in central office numerous times to ask for a placement in a therapeutic day school, but keeps being put off.

“I am worried about the student and the other students here,” she says.

*          *          *

In the end, parents are forced to do the work of fighting for these placements.

If a parent believes that a school is not and cannot meet the needs of their child, they need to somehow find out about private placements, somehow figure out which schools are good and, often, somehow find a lawyer to represent them in a due process complaint.

Patricia Jones became this type of parent after a long journey. In her small home in Roseland, she raised two biological daughters, both of whom excelled in school and went on to college. But her life took some turns, and the story of those turns is told in framed pictures that cover nearly every inch of her living room walls.

In one corner is a poster-sized photo of her late husband in a tan suit. In others, children and teenagers and young adults, some dressed in graduation robes, strike poses in school portraits. They are displayed next to diplomas and certificates.

Jones says this room and these walls are not a shrine, but documentation of her journey. However, the pictures that she finds herself staring at, and swallowing hard, are those of her husband, Curtis, and of her second-oldest daughter. Her husband died of cardiac failure two years ago, years after a car accident left him with a tracheal tube. The daughter, a high school math teacher, was strangled to death by a friend last year.

Jones says it was her husband, who suggested that they take in foster children after watching a commercial about children in desperate need of homes. “He said that God gave him another chance at life and that he needed to do something good with it,” Jones says.

They wound up taking in a set of siblings and two other children. They were small, and besides coming from troubled families, did not seem to have additional problems. But soon, Joy, one of the two little girls, showed signs of having medical problems.

She had Crouzon Syndrome, which is similar to Down Syndrome. Jones says her husband, tracheal tube and all, spent years driving her to the University of Illinois at Chicago for doctor’s appointments.

Joy needed several surgeries to reshape her head; afterward, she had obvious losses in cognitive functioning. When the little girl started at the neighborhood elementary school, she was immediately put into special education. Jones says she was told by teachers and other staff at the school that Joy was making progress.

One day when Joy was in 8th grade, Jones asked her how much money she had in her hand. An easy question for most 13-year-olds—but Joy could not answer. 

“My poor baby could not count money,” Jones says. “I was crying big tears.”

Like many parents, Jones says she did not know that there was an alternative to her neighborhood schools’ special education department. And no one at the school suggested that Joy needed anything more than what they were providing.

But Jones served on the local school council and had gone to a training on special education put on by the advocacy organization Designs for Change. A friend at the organization told her about specialty schools that could help Joy, but to get a placement she would probably need a lawyer. They gave Jones Michael O’Connor’s name and number.

After months of meetings that eventually led to a due process hearing, Jones finally won a placement for her daughter at Acacia Academy, housed in a former church in LaGrange Highlands, a southwestern suburb.

Thirty years ago, Acacia’s founder Kathryn Fouks opened a clinic to teach struggling readers. Realizing that some children needed more support, she later opened a school that would look at each individual child’s needs and use the approach best suited for him or her.

Acacia Academy is a small, nurturing environment that offers plenty of hands-on learning. In back of the school is a nature center, where math lessons and writing lessons are sometimes taught. The math teacher also teaches guitar. And during breaks, students can play on the basketball hoop out front. The staff includes social workers, psychiatrists, occupational therapists and physical therapists.

For many years, staff from CPS regularly placed children at Acacia. “They would drive them up here with their files, rather than wait for the mail,” she says.

But that stopped when she refused to be part of the private contracting program. These days, she says, 95 percent of the placements from CPS are the result of a successful due process complaint. She even has some working-class parents from Chicago who are so desperate for their children to get help that they pay Acacia out of pocket. The cost is $1,925 a month.

Students who come to Acacia as a result of a due process complaint often have experienced prolonged years of failure and have major problems that spurred their parents to search for an alternative, Fouks says.

O’Connor says that one problem is that he can only bring a legal case once the damage has been done.

“They have to languish forever, and then we can push for compensatory services,” he says.

Districts outside of Chicago are much more likely to place students without their parents having to fight for it. One day in January, Fouks takes a call from a caseworker at Proviso Township High School in Maywood, who has a parent in her office. The caseworker thinks Acacia might help the woman’s son, who is intelligent but has moved around a lot, has not quite mastered reading and is experiencing a high level of anxiety.

On a speaker phone, Fouks tells the mother about Acacia’s tiny class sizes, the opportunities for apprenticeships and the arrangements they have for the students to participate in sports.

“We look to see what the student is interested in,” Fouks tells her.

The mother wants to know if they have art.

“Art is integrated into everything,” Fouks says. “We paint walls and learn landscape design and study patterns in nature.” Fouks suggests the mother comes for a visit before deciding, and sets it up.

*          *          *

Jones says Acacia Academy really helped her daughter, who is now a student at Olive-Harvey College. The young woman, with a round, welcoming face that Jones’ notes is as “pretty as a peach,” will likely endure challenges her whole life. “I just want her to be able to function with some assistance,” Jones says.

What’s scarier to Jones right now, though, is how Darion will fare. He was 2 when he joined the family, and wouldn’t talk. At the time, a doctor told Jones it was because she wasn’t talking about what he wanted to talk about.

She let that sit for a while. But once Darion got to school, he started to act out. To make matters worse, Darion was born legally blind in one eye and that eye has a blue pigment. “Kids would laugh at him,” she said.

Darion is a good reader, Jones says, pulling out a trophy he got in preschool for reading 400 books. He has some deficits in math, but Jones says the real problem is his behavior. “It overshadows the academics.”

Given that Darion’s father and sister died recently, and he was having more emotional problems, Fenger put him into a group therapy program for children who had experienced trauma. But Jones said she was told he wouldn’t cooperate in that group, and he stopped attending.

At South Central, the therapeutic day school where he was finally placed, Jones says he seems to be doing well. But she’s not sure what the future holds for Darion. Mental illness is difficult to overcome, she says with a heavy sigh.

One thing that Jones knows is that as long as she can, she will keep fighting, not only for her children but for others who need someone. She has served as a surrogate parent in IEP meetings for foster children, and readily gives advice to mothers she knows who also are battling for their children.

“I think parents do not know,” Jones says. “Teachers want to mainstream all kids and some kids do not fit well in the mainstream. Why do we do it to these kids? Why do we set them up for failure?”

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Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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