The historic closing of 49 elementary schools in Chicago left many parents bitter and feeling left out as they try to get involved in new schools. Yet parent engagement is essential for school improvement, and principals are faced with the challenge of building trust at schools that scored poorly on surveys of parent involvement.
A special push
Marshall has long been a candidate for drastic action, with the percentage of students meeting state testing standards lingering in the single digits for years. But when CPS leaders announced that Marshall would become a turnaround, there was an additional outside push: The state had sanctioned the school because of its poorly run special education program.
One in four students at Marshall is enrolled in special education—more than twice the district average, and more than in all but five other CPS high schools. Nationally, schools like Marshall—in the bottom 5 percent in a state—enroll a disproportionately high number of students in special education.
The impact on a school’s performance is considerable, since students with special needs score lower on tests and are more likely to drop out.
At Marshall, over the past decade, not one special education student has met or exceeded standards on the composite Prairie State exam. If just a third of them had met state standards last year, the school-wide percentage of students passing the exam would have nearly doubled.
Given the potential impact, the quality of education provided to special education students is more than a side note. It is, or at least should be, a central part of a school’s push to make academic strides.
The Illinois State Board of Education sanctioned Marshall for failing to provide students with the services spelled out in their Individual Education Plans (required for all students who are diagnosed with a special need) and having inadequate IEPs. Some were generic. Others lacked information.
Rod Estvan, education policy analyst for Access Living, an advocacy group for people with disabilities, says that such situations often crop up when a school’s staff gets overwhelmed and tries to match available services with students instead of trying to make services meet academic needs.
So far, Marshall has made some strides with its program. The state will no longer closely monitor the school next year, says Ann Horton, the Chicago supervisor of special education for ISBE.
But dramatic progress will take more time. “What we hope will be the outcome is that they will sustain these practices and the educational trajectory will improve for these students,” says Rhonda Marks, who worked with Marshall for ISBE.
Beyond the problems with services and shoddy IEPs is a larger issue, more difficult to correct: Students with learning disabilities (two-thirds of all special-education students at Marshall) spend more time in separate classes than is recommended by experts, and these classes often have watered-down curricula and low expectations. Estvan says teachers in separate classes are often confronted with students in different grade levels and instead of differentiating instruction to meet each student’s need, they teach to the student with the lowest ability.
By law, special education students should be taught in the “least restrictive environment,” which means placing them in separate classes only as a last resort. Research is clear that co-taught classrooms, in which a special education teacher works alongside a regular education teacher, result in better outcomes for students.
Yet in 2009-2010, 57 percent of Marshall students with learning disabilities spent more than 20 percent of the school day in separate classes, according to a Catalyst Chicago analysis of data from CPS.
On average, only a quarter of students in other CPS high schools spent that much time in separate classes. Experts say that only students with severe learning disabilities should be in separate classes for more than 20 percent of the day.
Students with behavioral disabilities also are isolated in separate classes at a higher-than-average rate.
This year, those numbers have barely budged, but there has been a concerted effort to mainstream students into regular classes.
Daniel Mallory is one of the few special education teachers to be hired back by the turnaround team at Marshall.
The year before the turnaround, Mallory, then a brand new teacher, asked his colleagues about their students. Many times, they replied that the student didn’t want to learn, or that his or her emotional troubles prevented it. There was little camaraderie among teachers, Mallory recalls. One teacher warned him to wear a helmet.
Mallory, a young teacher from a small town in Ohio, says these attitudes upset him. “If you are a special education teacher, your job is to understand,” he observes. “So why are you dismissing students as lazy or dumb?”
Mallory says these perceptions are to blame for problems with shoddy IEPs. “It just didn’t click that an IEP should be a function of academic needs.”
The new head of the special education department, Aaron Rucker, says that when staff sat down last summer to look at the IEPs, they were shocked. More than 150 needed to be rewritten.
“It was a little overwhelming for everyone,” Rucker says. “We had to make sure that what an IEP [stated], about the minutes in or out of a separate classroom, or with an aide, matched with what was happening.”
As the special education staff delved into the IEPs and got to know the students, they realized that some of the teens didn’t need to spend so much time in separate classes, called “instructionals.”
So special education teacher Kyle Birch moved five students from all-day instructionals into a few regular, co-taught classes. One young woman, Makayla, was a sophomore who had earned just half a credit but scored on par with other students on standardized tests.
Another student, Jeremiah, had earned a D in math, but was outscoring the general population on benchmark math assessments. (Note: Both students’ names have been changed to protect their privacy.)
Both were earnest students who attended school regularly but had flown under the radar, their potential untapped. Makayla reads fluently, at a 12th-grade level, but is at only a 6th-grade level on comprehension. Birch says she has more strengths than some of her peers, yet the focus has always been on her deficits.
Jeremiah has trouble expressing himself verbally, and seems to be the quiet kid who was allowed to slide by.
“A lot of the time, the child should not be secluded in special education,” Birch points out. “It is just that we want to put them ‘over there,’ and not think about it.” CPS, in fact, has a disproportionately high percentage of students categorized as learning disabled, and African-American students are more likely to be placed in special education than any other racial or ethnic group, state data show.
Once Birch decided to move Jeremiah and Makayla, he had to convince their mothers. The task proved harder than one might imagine .
Vanessa Risper, Jeremiah’s mother, has two other children who were seniors at Marshall and among the top students at the school.
Both scored above 20 on the ACT and were looking at colleges.
But her youngest, Jeremiah, has always struggled, and gets scared around big groups of people—a remnant, Risper suspects, of times when he was bullied as a young child.
Jeremiah’s guard went up when his old teachers were fired and new ones hired with the turnaround. But once he came back to school in September, he liked it, Risper says. The school had a calm and orderly atmosphere, better suited to his personality.
Yet when Birch approached Jeremiah’s mother about placing him in a regular math class, she hesitated. Risper recalls hearing Jeremiah’s classmates over the years say—about themselves—that they were “just stupid anyway,” and would not try hard. Risper says she has never let Jeremiah think that he isn’t smart, stressing that just because he learns differently, doesn’t mean he can’t learn at all.
Jeremiah had been in separate classes since he was in 3rd grade, and Risper wasn’t sure about forcing a change. He was used to the small classes. Most of the time, it was just him, a teacher and a handful of students. Also, the work was not too difficult.
“I was nervous,” says Risper. “I thought that he is doing good, and we should just leave it alone.”
But Jeremiah’s father thought it would be a good idea to give him a chance. Now, Risper says, the transition has been good, mostly because of Birch’s support. Birch has Risper’s cell phone number, and she has his.
“That was new,” she says. “I like the fact that he will call me.”
Going to a regular class has boosted Jeremiah’s self-esteem. He even joined the chess team. “I love it,” Risper says. “It makes him sharper.”
Makayla’s mother sends text messages to Birch frequently. When she saw him at the end of the school year, she threw her arms around him.
“The problem was that we tended to look at all the things these students can’t do, and not at all the things they can do,” Birch says. “If it is done right, it can be done.”
Rucker says the special education department is trying in other ways to mirror the regular education program. This year, the special education students went on a few college trips, and teachers are told that they need to work with the students on college readiness skills, getting them ready to take the ACT.
“We try to move in the same direction, though sometimes we might crawl whereas the regular class might be running,” Rucker says.
Creating the right curriculum for special education students has been a challenge. There are few high schools that get it right, and the idea that students with learning disabilities need a different curriculum has strong traction.
Crystal Battin, like several teachers who came to the school with the turnaround, had been laid off from a suburban school and was happy to find a job at Marshall. Battin was surprised at the low skills of her new special education students. She had taught in wealthy Barrington schools, where the curriculum was accelerated and special education students who weren’t too far below grade level were nevertheless told that they were way behind.
Every student in Barrington took algebra in 7th grade. “This could send a special education student into a spiral,” Battin says.
In Barrington, Battin usually had one or two students who were reading at a 1st-grade level. “Here, I have half the class,” she says.
Her students span a broad spectrum, from those with behavior disabilities but decent academic skills, to those with profound learning disabilities. Battin, who thinks it doesn’t serve students to push them to learn geometry and science if they can’t write a sentence, has talked to the administration about modifying lesson plans.
Toward the end of the year, Assistant Principal Matt Curtis spearheaded a process to get teachers to develop a more unified curriculum.
The first step was to come up with a list of skills that each student should learn at each grade level and in each subject. The initial reaction of the special education teachers was that they should have a totally separate discussion.
Curtis quickly countered that notion. The school’s data show that special education students are not that far behind students in regular classes.
One day, Birch stops by to talk to Curtis. Even with all his optimism about Makayla and Jeremiah, he, too, is skeptical that special education students can be expected to learn the same skills. Curtis happily pulls up data, pointing to chart after chart of results from benchmark exams that show little difference between the two groups of students.
“Wow,” Birch says.
“If special education teachers want to do their own thing, then they once again are going to end up by themselves,” Curtis says. “They should be in on this discussion, up front, giving their opinions and being heard.”
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