Ten years ago, a school reform group teamed up with a university legal clinic to sue Chicago Public Schools and the state for illegally segregating special education students. Corey H. is one of several children with disabilities named in the lawsuit brought on behalf of all the city’s special education students. In 1998, CPS settled the lawsuit before going to trial, agreeing to send more special needs children back to neighborhood schools and into general education classrooms.
Q. What law did the school boards break?
A. The lawsuit charged the city with violating the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which requires students to be educated in the “least restrictive environment.” The state board of education was sued for failing to enforce those mandates.
Q. What does “least restrictive environment” mean?
A. It means that disabled students must be placed in regular schools or classrooms unless they would be unable to progress academically, even with extra supports.
Special education students are entitled by law to receive support that matches their needs. In a regular classroom, for instance, students who have difficulty understanding spoken instructions may need to see diagrams. Likewise, students with reading disabilities may need help taking notes or extra time to take a test.
In some cases, regular coursework would be supplemented with an extra daily “resource” class for small group instruction, usually in math or reading. Children with more severe disabilities, on the other hand, would remain in a special education class all day, joining peers for music or gym. Some with serious emotional or mental handicaps would be enrolled in special schools, a decision made with input from teachers, specialists and their parents.
Q. So where did the school boards go wrong?
A. For decades, disabled students in Chicago’s public schools were routinely segregated in special education schools and classrooms with little or no consideration for how they would fare in mainstream settings. In 1994, about half of CPS students with disabilities spent most of the day in regular classes, according to attorney Sharon Soltman, who sued the board on behalf of Corey H. and other special ed plaintiffs. Nationally, the percentage was in the high 70s, she reports.
CPS was excluding children with disabilities from regular classes “on a massive scale,” she says. “And the state was not monitoring and enforcing federal law.”
In January 1998, the Chicago Board of Education settled the Corey H. lawsuit and agreed to help schools comply with the law. Under federal court order, the Illinois State Board of Education must monitor the district’s progress.
Q. What do schools need to do now?
A. Schools are expected to include special education students in regular classrooms unless they can justify the need to place them in a more restrictive setting. To accommodate this mandate, special education teachers in many schools are teaming with regular education teachers to “co-teach” integrated classes of disabled and non-disabled students. Ideally, co-teachers plan lessons together and adapt them to meet student needs.
Schools have always been required to keep detailed records of every special education student’s progress and the services—counseling or tutoring, for example—they are receiving.
Q. Are schools getting any help to comply with the law?
A. Each year, an additional 80 schools are eligible to apply for extra money for staff development from either CPS or the state. Much of the training is aimed at raising teachers’ awareness about disabilities.
The state picks 50 schools each year for its program. A team from the state school board spends about three to five days at a school inspecting records and interviewing staff. Afterward, the school must write an improvement plan that addresses shortcomings identified by the state. It receives up to $64,000 over two years for staff development.
CPS selects 30 school applicants a year for its program, called, “Education Connection.” Principals and teachers first assess their schools’ needs, write improvement plans and apply for grants up to $110,000 over three years. Some of the money can be used to buy materials for co-taught classes.
“If you have resistant teachers, the state board is better because it’s mandated change,” explains Kathleen Gibbons, a special education attorney for CPS. “They give you the outline for what had better be in your plan.”
Q. Are schools making progress?
A. Most are behind schedule, and many blame bureaucratic roadblocks. For instance, for a year the state delayed approving 50 school plans, then approved them all in one day, according to Gibbons. Court monitors overseeing Education Connection schools have not been consistent in judging plans acceptable or unacceptable, she adds. Schools get frustrated rewriting plans, she says, and sometimes give up on reapplying for grant money.
Judge Joseph Schneider, the court monitor for Corey H., disagrees. “The reviews by the monitors office are appropriately rigorous,” he says. “The standards for review are the same.”
Schools are also behind on the paperwork, and those put in charge say they can’t keep pace with demands. Figuring out how to spend a $50,000 grant while teaching five classes is an “unrealistic, overwhelming responsibility,” complains one special education coordinator.
Q. Has the Corey H. settlement made any difference?
A. School staff seem to have a clearer understanding of the least restrictive environment mandate, says Christopher Koch, who oversees state board Corey H. monitors. “That doesn’t mean they all accept it,” he adds. In schools the state is monitoring, high school staff is more resistant, he finds, and further behind on meeting the mandate. (See related story)
Some special education schools have initiated partnerships with general schools to comply with the terms of the settlement. General education students at the elite Northside College Prep, for instance, visit Vaughn Occupational High to mentor special needs students in a cooking class. “Children with disabilities do much better when they have non-disabled peers to model,” Gibbons explains. “And non-disabled peers need to learn tolerance and acceptance of people who are different.”
The district has not yet compiled data on whether more special education students are included in regular classes, but Gibbons says she has observed greater inclusion on numerous school visits.
Q. What happens if schools don’t comply with the terms of the settlement?
A. In January 2006, the court will rule on whether CPS has fulfilled its agreement. Attorneys for both sides say they do not know what penalties the court might impose for non-compliance. Gibbons speculates that a school could be subject to further court monitoring until problems are corrected. In extreme instances, a judge could find a principal or other school official in contempt of court and impose fines or even jail time, although that is unlikely, she adds.