“Ann,” a Wicker Park 7th-grader with a learning disability, represents the past and the promise of the future of special education in Chicago.
For most of her schooling, Ann was assigned to segregated, small classes with other disabled children; she made little academic progress. In 1994, her mother enrolled her in Sabin Magnet School, which places some special education students in regular classes
But that didn’t work either. By 5th grade, she had virtually stopped reading. Believing she was too far behind to benefit from an integrated classroom, her parents transferred her to a school nearby that had a good reputation in the community for its self-contained class for children with learning disabilities.
There, things got only worse for Ann. Her mother, Batya Hernandez, tried to volunteer to monitor her daughter’s progress but was rebuffed. She then asked for a new Individual Education Plan for her daughter, a requirement for all children in special education, and the school refused.
When she finally received a meeting with the principal to talk about her daughter’s situation, Hernandez says she was “ambushed” by the principal and several of her staff members. They showed Hernandez standardized test scores for children who are considered developmentally retarded, then showed her Ann’s test scores, which were only three points higher.
“They told me I was in denial and that she was retarded,” Hernandez says. “And that was based on standardized tests she took, not on her real intelligence. That’s how they keep you in your place, test scores.”
Finally, Hernandez retained an attorney and threatened the school with a lawsuit. As a result, the School Board’s Office of Monitoring and Compliance brought in a special education expert, Loyola University Prof. Joy Rogers, who observed Ann in her segregated, basement classroom for an entire school day. “Everything the parents said was true, and then some,” Rogers reports. “They had her essentially repeating 1st grade over and over again. She was in a classroom full of children much younger than her. Her teacher was concerned, but she didn’t know what else to do. She wasn’t trained to do it any other way.”
Rogers suggested that Ann might fair much better with “assistive technology,” namely a laptop computer, to help her communicate her thoughts better and with a full-time aide, who could help her catch up in a regular classroom.
All the while, Sabin had been fighting to bring Ann back. “They wanted to be successful with her,” Hernandez says. “They loved her.”
Sabin found the resources to carry out Rogers’s suggestion. It also developed a highly individualized IEP that Ann’s parents could understand and found new ways to test Ann’s knowledge. For example, instead of requiring her to write a story with paper and pencil—which typically came out as gibberish—the teacher had Ann tell the story and simultaneously type it into her laptop. With that change, gibberish turned into heartfelt prose.
Within a year, Ann’s reading level jumped four grade levels. With support from the entire school and new relationships with non-disabled peers, Ann blossomed socially as well.
“I often wonder that if she had gotten all this starting in 1st grade, who knows?” says Hernandez. “Maybe she would be further along. Maybe she wouldn’t need all this remediation. We lost five years of her life. Last year, she was a little girl who hung out with kids who were 7 and 8 years old. Now she’s with kids her own age. She has a crush on a boy, she has girlfriends calling her all the time. She’s more social and goes to movies with her friends.”
Terrie Rymer, the Jewish Federation attorney who took Ann’s case, says she has handled “dozens” of similar cases in the past eight years across CPS.
“The schools frequently do not do a sophisticated assessment of these kids to begin with, and even when they do mediocre assessments, they don’t even meet the needs stated in those,” Rymer says. “In many cases, they just don’t get it when it comes to kids with emotional problems. Sometimes those kids are depressed, not learning disabled. I think that’s rampant in the system, and I’ve been all over the city.
‘Some great schools’
She adds: “I have seen some great schools, some real bright spots, though, schools that do a great job. Some schools do evaluations very well, and they have talented teachers. On the other hand, you just look at others and you know they don’t have a clue. If it wasn’t for the Office of Monitoring and Compliance, I don’t know how many of these cases would get solved, but even the people in Monitoring and Compliance are spread too thin. They have too many cases.”
Sabin Principal Edward Peacock says his school has been doing inclusion for years. “We try to be like Rousseau,” he says, elaborating on the ideas of the 18th century French philosopher. Jean Jacques Rousseau believed that humans are by nature good, that society corrupts them and that the goal of education is to draw out their goodness.
“It does help that there are these big suits,” he says. “It means the administration is backing us up. We’ve basically been doing inclusion under the table. It was somewhat difficult initially to get teachers to understand you can’t segregate kids, but you just keep banging away. Most difficult for them was knowing what a modified curriculum would look like. What it boiled down to, after we argued about it was, essentially, they just wanted permission from me [to do inclusion]. They wanted to know that I would be willing to take the heat.”
Even without extra resources, Sabin has been able to include about 16 of its 44 special education students in regular classes for at least part of every day. The school’s total enrollment is 540.
Scott Allman, Sabin’s special education case manager and counselor, doesn’t see how it can do more without more staffing. “We did an IEP yesterday on a new child who would have been perfect for inclusion,” he says, “but we just couldn’t do it. If we had another teacher, we could.”
If the School Board wants schools to reallocate staff to accomplish inclusion, he says, Sabin has done it. “There are not people doing nothing around here. Everybody is working hard.”
Hernandez says parents must “get involved in their disabled kids’ education and their IEPs. Insist that you be part of your child’s education. Visit the school often and document everything you can. Involvement is really the key to seeing that your child is getting the services that he or she needs.”
“We are urging parents to press for their children to be educated in least restrictive environment settings,” says Sharon Weitzman Soltman, an attorney for Designs for Change, a plaintiff in the lawsuit that is forcing systemwide change in Chicago.
“There is a lot of good will out there and in the central administration, but it’s still going to be a struggle for [parents] sometimes,” Soltman says. “You still have to press and look for support from other parents and people within the CPS. You are entitled to that support. Take advantage of the opportunities presented; try to see what’s available to you.”