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Chicago special education reforms slow to get off ground, monitor tells state school board

Nearly a year after a damning state report detailed how Chicago students with disabilities were systemically delayed or denied services, an update says the public school district still has a long way to go.

Chicago’s special education program has since been taken over by the state. A progress report given Wednesday to the Illinois State Board of Education said that Chicago administrators are cooperating with the state monitor, Laura Boedeker, and her staff on issues such as student data systems, special education plan meetings, and staff trainings. But it also noted recalcitrant principals and a delay in implementing corrective action. Here are four key takeaways from Wednesday’s meeting.

1. Corrective action could take years. For special education students harmed by Chicago’s failure to provide federally mandated services, the state monitor promised a corrective action plan that would make additional services available. But that plan is still in its initial stages and many questions remain as-of-yet unanswered. Students who could benefit from corrective action are unlikely to see any remedies this school year, the state school board’s general counsel, Stephanie Jones, said on Wednesday. “We’re trying to pull together data points that will allow us to look at the broadest picture.”

A bill working its way through the state legislature would extend the time that families have to file a request for corrective services to two years, from one year, after the state’s plan is finalized.  During the public comment portion of Wednesday’s meeting, a parent said that what her daughter, who is on the autism spectrum, experienced was traumatic, and questioned whether what she endured would ever be made right. “What happens to these children that were harmed and left? What happens to the children that were harmed, like my child?” she asked. “It’s about dignity, and giving these parents a voice for their children.”

2. There are open questions about oversight. CPS has not yet named a replacement for Elizabeth Keenan, the special education chief who announced earlier this month she was leaving Chicago to become superintendent in St. Louis. Keenan had held the job since August 2017, predating the state takeover, and will remain in her position until June.
At Wednesday’s meeting, Jones, the general counsel, said the district has also yet to hire a staff person to field requests for corrective action or a point person for parent and teacher concerns, as it has promised to do. But the district denied that it was hiring for a position like this. 

At the school level, Jones noted that some principals were not following guidelines for making sure students received adequate special education services. Boedeker, the state’s monitor, told Chalkbeat last fall that training principals on their legal requirements to provide services and making sure special education teachers weren’t given other duties at schools with tight staffing was an ongoing challenge.

3. Advocates fear there is still no systemic approach to fixing special education services. Coming out of the state monitor’s investigation, the district was supposed to figure out a way to identify schools most affected by delays in services, and establish an “expedited complaint procedure” for those families through the state Board of Education. But advocates at Wednesday’s meeting described an approach that they said falls short. Barb Cohen, with the Legal Council for Health Justice advocacy group, called it “scattershot.” “There is a dearth of information, of a systemic plan for identifying schools for increased scrutiny,” Cohen said.

4. Amid a statewide teacher shortage, hiring special education teachers has proved especially challenging. Illinois has more than 1,400 vacant teaching positions around the state. More than half of those open spots are for bilingual or special education teachers, according to the advocacy group Advance Illinois.

Those positions are particularly hard to fill because of the high stress and the lack of support when it comes to serving the state’s most vulnerable students, the co-chair of the Chicago Teachers Union’s special education committee, Natasha Carlsen, told state board members Wednesday.

“You’re going to continue to have a vacancy because no one will want to teach in CPS in special education if practices and procedures don’t change,” said Carlsen, a special education teacher who asked the board for more training for teachers. Carlsen said the union, which is in the initial stages of contract negotiations, has been asking for a dedicated case manager to oversee special education services at every school as part of its contract. So far, that request has been denied, she said.