Josephine Norwood’s children have undergone multiple school closings and forced transfers in their time at Chicago Public Schools. But when Norwood got wind that her autistic son’s current school was on the final list of schools being considered for closure, it was just too much to take.

The program her son is in has already been moved two times because of school actions. Now, it is at McClellan, a small school in Bridgeport.

“I am appalled that he could be displaced again,” Norwood said at a Tuesday press conference organized by Raise Your Hand, a parent advocacy group. “I want to ask this question: Do you understand the repercussions this will have?”

Like other parents with autistic children, she said her son has trouble with transitions and each move causes him to regress. (Norwood is a member of Catalyst Chicago’s editorial board.)

Raise Your Hand’s Wendy Katten said she wanted to call attention to the issues faced by special education students because, just days before the expected announcement of closing recommendations, she doesn’t feel as though they have been adequately addressed.

Katten says that about 6,000 special education students attend the 129 schools still being considered for closure. Three of the schools serve only special education students.

Thirty-nine of these schools have what are called “cluster programs,” for severely disabled students from the neighborhood. Cluster programs were often located in underutilized schools—the schools being targeted for possible closure—because these schools had space.

In a letter sent to parents of special education students last week, CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett promised that, if their child’s school is closed, the new school will be flush with a library, computer and science labs, social workers and air conditioning.  

“I also know that transitioning to a new school may be challenging for some students, especially for those with disabilities,” she said.

She said she will ensure that students go to a school that can serve the special needs child, has supplies and equipment and is accessible.

Proposed change in state law heightens anxiety

Katten noted that Chief Transformation Officer Todd Babbitz admitted to the Chicago Educational Facilities Task Force that the additional space needed for special education students was not taken into account in the district’s official utilization formula, which was used to determine which schools are considered under-utilized and at risk for closing.

Currently, state law dictates that students with mild disabilities must be in pull-out classes with 15 or fewer students, while students with more severe disabilities must be in classes with no more than eight students. The Illinois Legislature is considering a change that would remove these limits—something that advocates are pushing hard against.

CPS has not said whether it supports scrapping these limits. But the prospect of the change is adding to the anxiety of parents whose children have special needs.

After the press conference, which was held in the lobby of CPS headquarters, Katten and parents from 13 schools still on the potential closing list tried to get a meeting with CPS leaders. As she was talking to the staff at front lobby desk, Chief Administrative Officer Tim Cawley was walking out.

Katten turned and asked him if he knew if a decision maker was upstairs and could speak with them. First, Cawley said that he was not the right person to speak to and that the forum to speak with officials was during the many community meetings held in February.

“Those meetings failed,” Katten told him.

Then, Cawley told the group that they should take their concerns to the network offices. After a little more back and forth, Cawley left. Later, Phillip Hampton, who runs the Office of Family and Community Engagement, came down and talked to the parents. 

The parents, however, seemed unsatisfied.

Lasharra Wilson, a parent from Smyth School, said she is tired and overwhelmed by the prospect of having to find a new school for her son. “I am begging you not to close Smyth. It is already hard enough.”

Mary Moore said when her son was three years old and started at McNair Elementary School in Austin, he hid under the table. She said she was told that he would never talk and never walk.

“Now he is going to graduate from 8th grade with honors and go to Wells,” she said. “McNair is a school with love.”

Elizabeth Yarbrough sent her four adopted children to McNair and takes students from her home day care center to and from the school. She says when her oldest son, who is now 19, was there, parents fought for a new building. Now it is renovated and wheelchair- accessible. “Students can just slide in and feel welcomed,” she said.  

Twenty-three percent of McNair’s students are in special education.

“I am standing here for the parents who are not able to speak for their children,” Yarbrough said. “Let McNair stand. Why are you destroying something that should not be destroyed? Find something else to do.”

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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