Lives left in limbo

June 19, 2013

Maureen Allen and Gala M. Pierce investigate the impact of Rahm Emanuel's heartless school closings agenda on the most vulnerable children in Chicago schools.

RAMIZ KHAYA'S daughter Crystal is finally making academic progress.

Since she was transferred to Trumbull Elementary, a Chicago school on the North Side that houses a special cluster autism program, the seventh-grader does her homework of her own volition and seeks help when needed--in the past, she would have to be prodded to start assignments. Her behavior is better, her penmanship more polished and her joy of reading increased. She's more likely to be a couple steps ahead in school instead of behind.

But most important, Crystal is happy at Trumbull. "She has improved a lot," Khaya said. "She feels very, very comfortable with the teachers."

But thanks to Rahm Emanuel and his handpicked team running the Chicago Public Schools (CPS), Crystal's progress could be stolen away.

Trumbull is of the 49 schools that the Board of Education voted to close down--taking less time for its decision "than it takes to boil an egg," as the Chicago Sun-Times reported. Students at the 49 schools will be assigned to so-called "receiving schools."

Trumbull parents, students and teachers attend a hearing on the threat to close their school
Trumbull parents, students and teachers attend a hearing on the threat to close their school (Sarah-ji)

Because the staff from Trumbull may or may not follow their students to the receiving school, McCutcheon Elementary, Crystal's needs could go unmet. "I hope the teachers from Trumbull transfer with my daughter because it's hard for a teacher to get a good relationship with the student right away," Khaya said.

Khaya isn't alone in his concern that his special needs child's education will be compromised. Some believe their children's rights are being violated as they are shuffled around to yet another school, which, in some cases, is further away. Others worry that the special education staff at a new school won't have the knowledge, adequate training and expertise to deal with their children's disabilities. There are a range of other concerns: talk of siblings being split up in different schools; teachers getting only a 10-day crash course in sign language; uncertainty about an orchestra program at one school; and other services and programs being curtailed.

On behalf of parents and students at Trumbull, the Chicago-based Legal Assistance Foundation is finalizing a complaint against CPS, arguing in part that the failure to take into account required small class sizes for students in special education constitutes unlawful discrimination.

This comes in the wake of two class-action lawsuits filed in May by parent groups, with the support of the Chicago Teachers Union, against the Board of Education, CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett and the city of Chicago. These suits seek to halt the school closings and charge CPS with violations under the Illinois Civil Rights Act and the American with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Of particular concern is how the school closings will affect 5,000 special-needs students, according to the lawsuit filed by CPS parents Mandi Swan, Denise Burns and Felicia Bradley. They charge that CPS is violating the ADA because the closings have been carried out:

in a manner that does not permit a timely and orderly process, either for the proper review and revision of the individualized education programs (IEPs) for the plaintiff children and...other children in special education programs, or for the extra services and counseling such children require to make the difficult transition to unfamiliar schools and unfamiliar teachers and students.

Additionally, special needs children will suffer "serious emotional and learning setbacks," the suit alleges. Another charge is that CPS hasn't operated in accordance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, because IEPs are no longer centered around a child's needs and devised according to a school's resources and limitations. The lawsuit calls for a postponement of the school closings for one year.

Yet another lawsuit filed in June challenges the board's decision to close 10 schools that independent hearing officers recommended to remain open. In at least one case, Morgan Elementary on the South Side, the hearing officer stated that CPS's "draft transition plan fails to address where special education students...will be assigned and whether the receiving school could address their needs."

Hearings on the lawsuits are expected to begin in July.

SCHOOL CLOSINGS are nothing new for Chicago--at least since the inception of the Renaissance 2010 program under former CPS CEO Arne Duncan, now the Education Secretary under Barack Obama. But this year's closings are historic in two ways--never has the list of affected schools come out so late in the school year, and never in U.S. history has a city shut down so many schools at one time.

Emanuel's handpicked board successfully lobbied the state government to push back by four months a December 1 deadline for announcing recommendations for which schools to close. The final decision to close 49 schools came on May 22, months after the deadline for enrollment in magnet or selective enrollment public schools and charter schools. Parents had only one week to transfer their children. That isn't an easy task for any parent, but it's even more trying for families with special needs children.

One obvious question that CPS hasn't answered is how the individualized education plans, or IEPs, for special-needs students can possibly be reviewed given the scale of the closures.

An IEP consists of detailed information on a student's level of academic performance and functional abilities, and the effect of their disability on learning. IEPs lay out in detail how a child learns, what supports they need to succeed and what accommodations are guaranteed by law. It is a legal contract between the school district and the family on what a child with a disability will be provided. Teachers and other professionals who work with students with IEPs may spend hours writing the plan, which can run to 20-plus pages.

As Tom Geoghegan, one of several attorneys representing parents in two of the lawsuits, said:

There are thousands of special education students who are being displaced, a far bigger group than last year. These IEPs should be reviewed and advised well in advance of before the start of school, and that's not happening. There should be supportive services over the summer, and that's not happening. There's a lot of work that needs that needs to be done before these kids can be moved.

Lisa Tarr, a special education teacher at Trumbull, said she doesn't see how it's possible to review students' IEPs in time for the next school year, since the average meeting for an IEP team lasts two to three hours. "There is no way," said Tarr, who teaches fifth- and sixth-grade autistic and mentally handicapped students. "Just the math alone on the meetings is virtually impossible."

The logistics of putting together an IEP reveals the scale of what still needs to be done. A team usually consists of a special education teacher, one of the student's general education teachers, the school psychologist, a case manager and parent(s), as well as a social worker and other personnel relevant to a student's plan, such as a speech pathologist or occupational therapist.

The only students who will be prepared are those moving onto the high school level--because the IEP team has been working on those reviews all school year, Tarr said.

According to Jonathan Carroll, a special education advocate whose Northfield-based IEP Experts helps families all over the region navigate the system for their child:

To review 5,000 IEPs is like raising the Titanic. With this massive process, I think the biggest challenge for the district and for families is for it to be done successfully. There's a difference between doing something and doing something well. When you review an IEP, you want to make sure you're really looking at the current situation of the student and make sure it's a working document that is effective.

Typically, a student's IEP is reviewed annually, and a more comprehensive review is conducted every three years. According to the parents' lawsuit, CPS already has a considerable backlog of IEPs that are waiting to be written in the first place.

According to Kristine Mayle, financial secretary of the CTU who taught special education, an additional year would be needed to provide the necessary transition plans and update students' IEPs "to do everything right."

District officials didn't respond to requests for comment on this story, but said in a previously released statement: "These lawsuits demonstrate that union leadership is committed to a status quo that is failing too many of our kids. Thousands of children in underutilized schools are being cheated out of the resources they need to succeed."

ACCORDING TO Mayle, research shows that students lose up to six months of academic progress every time they switch schools--and kids with disabilities would be even more severely affected.

Lisa Tarr, the teacher at Trumbull, agreed. "It's a huge transition for the special ed population," Tarr said. "The biggest impact that's going to happen with my students specifically is the transition and change for my students with autism. It takes autistic kids three to six months just to get a routine, so it's huge."

A case in point is one of Tarr's students: an autistic boy who is a nonverbal English Language Learner with emotional issues. Because he is a survivor of the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia, he was displaced to Malaysia before winding up in Chicago.

Tarr said that if you read his IEP, you wouldn't believe it's the same kid. He was described as a "scratcher" and a "runner" (a student who leaves the area repeatedly). When she first had him in her class, he wouldn't speak at all and exhibited poor behavior. Now, he's a model student who expresses himself verbally, stays seated and completes work.

But with Trumbull slated for closure, the readjustment to a new school might take him backwards. "His behavior alone is going to step back into the dark ages," Tarr said.

It won't be the only difficult transfer either, Tarr said. Most of her students have attended Trumbull since kindergarten and have been taught by the same teacher for two to four years.

According to Mayle, students with Down syndrome also have trouble with change, Kids with emotional issues might not want to go to school at all and just "shut down," she said. Children with learning disabilities will encounter other kinds of difficulty. They may not be as comfortable and confident--and such self-esteem issues might lead to more absences, gang activity and dropouts, Mayle said.

Rousemary Vega, a parent of a child at Lafayette Elementary, said she thought the school is a tolerant and accepting place for students in the cluster program for children with autism. She noted that the kids in this program are constantly making noise and moving. While this may not be tolerated at other schools, Lafayette has an important history in developing an accepting community for all learners.

"For the students, the impact of the closings is going to be huge," Vega said. "For regular kids--they are sad, upset and it's emotionally hard. For special education kids, it's going to be gigantic. It will be a setback and very challenging emotionally. And it's tearing families apart."

Vega reported confusion and chaos for Lafayette families trying to register their children at receiving schools. She said general education students are being directed to Chopin elementary, and special education students are being sent to Lowell. One parent went to register all three of her children at Lowell and was told she could only register her child with an IEP, not her students in general education. If the kids aren't accepted at the same school, parents would have to drop off them off at two schools two miles apart at the same time. That's a huge burden on families with limited resources.

One parent who told a receiving school that her child uses diapers was told, "We can't take her." Other parents were told the school doesn't have an autism program. When these issues were brought to administrators, principals scrambled to correct them--but clearly the transition "plan" hasn't addressed these issues.

Before becoming the CTU's financial secretary, Kristine Mayle taught special ed at De La Cruz Middle School, which closed in 2009. Months before the closure, students were already obviously affected, especially as the district began tagging items to be sent to other schools. Students shed tears and asked questions such as whether a soccer trophy would be thrown away and how they could contact former teachers when the building closes. As Mayle recounted in a 2011 speech published in Substance News, De La Cruz's closure was heartbreaking, not only for special needs students, but all students.

THE BOARD'S decision to close Lafayette and Trumbull means two schools with specialty autism programs are being shut down. Even if the programs are transferred to receiving schools, they will, at a minimum, be altered or compromised by consolidation.

Both programs are currently equipped with a sensory room that is therapeutic for students with impairments and occupational needs. But preparing for this population of students would go beyond duplicating the facilities--"creating an effective cluster program cannot happen overnight," Tarr said. Teachers have to continually adjust the environment for students depending on their needs. One reason the programs at Trumbull and Lafayette have been successful is because there is cohesion and continuity, from kindergarten through middle school.

At Lafayette, parents fundraised and made their own equipment for the sensory room, according to Valerie Nelson, a parent representative on the Local School Council and a parent of a student in the cluster program.

The room and equipment benefitted all students in the school, not just those in the cluster program. Therapy balls, weighted lap pads and blankets and other equipment are known to meet sensory and motor needs for active children, helping to reduce anxiety and decrease challenging behaviors for some children. Nelson is concerned about what will happen to the room and the equipment when the school closes.

The board also plans to close Near North Elementary and Buckingham Elementary, and send the students to Montefiore, which is currently a boys' school. All three buildings are devoted exclusively to special needs children. Some of the students exhibit extreme behaviors and require calming rooms and extra services, such as psychologists and social workers, Mayle said.

"Kids with behavior issues from all over the city will be convening in one school," Mayle said. "I can only imagine the fights and the gang issues that will happen."

Another worry is that consolidation will mean increased class sizes. One of the lawsuits states that the closures will allow the district to "concentrate resources"--which could be interpreted as increasing the class size to 30 or more students, even for children in special education.

Ramiz Khaya attributes his daughter Crystal's success to the small class sizes and the team of special education teachers at Trumbull: "She is in a small class, and that's so important."

At Lafayette, the autism cluster program isn't the only unique program. The school also has daily after-school music instruction and an orchestra, and at least 25 of its participants have IEPs. It was unclear as this article was being written where the orchestra will continue if the current student body is split between different schools.

It's also unclear how students with IEPs would be able to continue to participate in this activity if Lafayette's general education and special education students are divided between two schools. An important way for students with disabilities to be a part of their community--and an important right--is having access to after-school programs that other students enjoy. "They are taking away the only thing that gives them hope," said Vega. "Students feel betrayed."

ANOTHER CHARGE made against CPS is that the 50 school closings leave it in breach of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). According to the parents' lawsuit, "In many cases at Chicago public schools, the IEP is devised and written based on the resources of the particular school or school building, rather than the child's actual needs."

To explain what this means, Kristine Mayle gives the example of a special needs child who requires a self-contained classroom, but the school doesn't have one. The principal will ask the teacher to revise the IEP. Another example is when a child is mainstreamed in a general classroom when it is inappropriate, or vice versa.

Valerie Nelson is concerned about special needs students who are runners or physically aggressive at times. Next year's staff might be unfamiliar with the children's different behaviors, so Nelson worries that the kids will be isolated or segregated from the general school community.

When parent Florence Nuez heard that Trumbull might close, she figured that her son Jake might at least get the opportunity to attend Chappell Elementary, a Level 1 school, meaning that it has a high academic standing. Chappell is known to have one of the best special education programs in the city.

But that's not an option for Nuez's child. Students at Trumbull are being funneled to McPherson in Ravenswood and McCutcheon in Uptown, and because Nuez's son has Down syndrome, he can only attend McCutcheon, said Nuez, who will be a plaintiff in the Trumbull parents' lawsuit. She finds this discriminatory--and thinks it proves that the board's intention with the closures isn't to improve the quality of education.

Jake's case manager told Nuez that the plan is to erect another building on the grounds of McCutcheon. She fears that children with several different disabilities will be clumped together in this building, separated from general education classes.

Nuez hoped that since Jake is high-functioning, he could be mainstreamed for at least part of the day, with a teacher assistant. "I just don't think I'm going to get that opportunity because of the closings," Nuez said.

Under law, children with disabilities have the right to be included in general education to the greatest extent possible. A child's disability should not mean they are segregated from the rest of the student population.

Rod Estvan, an education policy expert at Access Living, a disability rights organization, testified at the school closing hearing for Lafayette earlier this year. He stated that moving 148 students with disabilities was "a very risky maneuver." Despite numerous parents, teachers and community members raising the issue of transition being difficult for children with disabilities, particularly for children with autism, the CPS transition plan fails to address specific plans for the special education program.

CPS posted transition "plans" for all 49 schools on their web site--but they are essentially templates, with the names of the schools changed out. The plan for Lafayette states outright that neither of the receiving schools is accessible to persons with disabilities, under the terms of the ADA. But CPS merely provides a phone number to call "for more information."

As Estvan told the Chicago Tribune about the school closings, "It doesn't make sense--to close down one accessible building and make another accessible is confusing at best."

This isn't the first time CPS was charged with breaking the law. In the early 1990s, the district was sued and found guilty for not integrating enough special needs students. The suit was settled in 1998, but CPS was monitored by the Illinois State Board of Education until two years ago.

Although state board officials say CPS is in compliance now, that doesn't mean Chicago always adhered to the law, says Kristine Mayle. The district got advanced notice of what schools would be monitored. Mayle said that during the one year her school was monitored, the special education department got extra funding and staff. A consultant was even hired to instruct general education teachers on working with the special education population. "It was really like a culture change in the building," Mayle said.

INEVITABLY, THE school closings will mean that special education teachers and staff will be shuffled around--and possibly cut altogether. Some at closing schools might be rehired at a receiving school if children transfer to the one recommended by the district.

But there's no guarantee. For example, families might decide that a private or charter school is more convenient or beneficial. Mayle says that she and other CTU members have heard of families so disgusted by the school closings that they plan to move out of the city altogether.

Teachers won't know if they have position until July, Mayle said. CPS clinicians--nurses and social workers who travel to multiple schools--typically get their assignments for the next school year in mid-May. As of now, they are still awaiting word on where they will be working next school year.

She heard, for example, that kids with hearing impairments are being transferred into schools where faculty members who have never worked with deaf children are being given a 10-day crash course in sign language. "There's a lot of potential for disaster," Mayle said.

Ashur Sadah hopes that Trumbull teachers will retain their positions because they have helped his two children immensely. He described Trumbull as one big happy family. "The staff is great," he said. "Teachers there know how to engage my children. They attend to their needs and go out of their way to make the kids feel welcome."

The massive shuffling of staff might result in a situation where a school will have to scramble if it doesn't employ the right kind of aide for a special needs child. At the very least, a teacher may not have worked with certain kinds of disabilities before, putting both the student and teacher at a disadvantage, Mayle added.

Parents and staff members are unanimous that special needs students need more consideration. As Mayle said:

A big part of what the district doesn't get, what the bureaucrats and the politicians don't get, is that special education is a different kind of subject. Special ed is less about the subject matter. It's more about the relationship with the kids. So before I can teach a kid who is three grades behind, I need to build up trust with that kid. I need him to feel comfortable in my room. Therefore, the environment is not as interchangeable. Special education teachers have a different kind of bond with their kids in order for them to be successful...I don't even think that general education teachers get it.

Florence Nuez believes that the decision to close 49 schools has put the rights of special needs children in jeopardy:

My son is an amazing kid and a high-functioning kid, but I don't think anybody is thinking about him or any of these kids. I don't think CPS really had a plan for kids with special needs. [The attitude is] "let's just close the schools and fix the problem later," and they don't think how much time is needed to put these kids in a certain kind of program that meets their needs.

Nuez understands that there are budget concerns, but that doesn't mean special needs children should be tossed aside. She also feels that these children aren't wanted in many schools, especially those in neighborhoods being gentrified. All in all, Nuez feels like she's being pushed out of her community.

Lisa Tarr agrees that the closings expose CPS's backward priorities. "It's truly a sad day," Tarr said. "Education has become a business. It's very unfortunate that CPS is no longer investing in their neighborhood schools."

And those neighborhood schools are critical, says Ramiz Khaya. He's against any school closing, not just Trumbull--because "the school is the most important thing in the community."

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