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 Bree Tracey/MEDILL

Access Living's 2010 budget review questions how money for special education teachers in Chicago Public Schools is being allocated.

More money doesn’t promise less violence for special ed students

by Bree Tracey
Dec 03, 2009


 Bree Tracey/MEDILL

The difference between spending and federal and state revenue for special education in CPS. Click for a larger image.


 Bree Tracey/MEDILL

 What an average special education students costs in the overall CPS budget. Click for larger image.


Bree Tracey/MEDILL

How Chicago Public Schools will allocate ARRA dollars for special education. Click for larger image.

Youth violence in Chicago created an alarming statistic for special education students.

About one-quarter of Chicago public school students who were shooting victims over the past year in Chicago were identified as students with disabilities.

“These kids and young adolescents will say and do things that will make them more prone to be in violent situations,” said Rodney Estvan, an outreach coordinator at Access Living, a Chicago-based disability rights group. “They will by their very nature be more confrontational. They will be more likely to be arrested. They will be more likely to be suspended from school. They will be more likely to be expelled from school.”

Jawanda Hairston, the senior manager of Chicago public schools specialized services, said the numbers speak for themselves.

“I think for me, I’m shocked in general at the amount of violence that is going on in our schools,” she said.

Ron Huberman, CEO of Chicago Public Schools, announced 24 percent of shooting victims were registered as special needs students during a presentation on anti-violence efforts earlier this fall, but the statistic was also mentioned in Access Living’s review of the 2010 Chicago Public School budget.

“Some urban kids, the really low-income kids that are from very small pockets of poverty in Chicago, their families are in a various state of disarray,” said Estvan

Chicago schools received about $87.8 million for special education funding and Estvan organized the FY2010 budget review for students with disabilities where he addresses the issue of youth violence.

“It becomes kind of a dumping ground,” said Pauline Lipman, a member of an advocacy group called Teachers for Social Justice. “I think if the voices of parents and students and community members, especially in black and brown communities were in the forefront of the debate around what our education should be, then we’d have different policies.”

Hairston said this statistic relates to social issues involving race and socioeconomic factors since there is an overwhelming number of African-Americans and Latinos from low-income areas placed into special education classes.

According to Access Living’s 2010 budget review, the special education appropriation for 2010 was only 12.2 percent of the overall CPS budget, down from 14 percent in 1995.

“I think everyone’s in a budget crunch,” said Hairston. “So everyone’s had to adjust and become more efficient.”

Chicago public schools need more teachers who are specifically trained in special education, as well as more social workers, said Estvan.

For Howard Falk, a program coordinator at National-Louis University, decreasing class sizes is the best way to reduce youth violence and help special education students perform better in school.

“One of the things about special education is the people,” said Falk. “People are the most expensive part of any budget. If you are going to short-change and not hire enough people then you’ve got a problem.”

Estvan asked Chicago Public Schools about how they account for special education teachers since there has been a 9.7 percent decline in overall teaching positions since 2006.

Estvan said Chicago Public Schools officials told him that three special education teachers were being added, but Estvan disagreed with that number, instead saying that his research showed that 56 were actually being cut.

“They were counting assistant principals as instructors in some cases they were assuming a librarian would be a special education instructor if they were in schools that had big bunches of kids with disabilities or all kids with disabilities,” he said.” We had not seen anything like that before.”

Chicago school districts are unique among school districts in Illinois, said Estvan. Other school districts have a rigid definition of who is a special education teacher to receive money from the state.

Estvan said that since 1995, when the General Assembly passed a law dealing with how Chicago claims reimbursement for special education, the standard of who is a special education teacher has become “amorphous.”

Benalisa Salis, a regular classroom teacher in Chicago, expressed concern over the lack of special education teachers and a lack of attention to special education students in public schools.

“I think one major thing would just be having more staff specialized in special education,” Salais said. “We have two special education teachers and their time is really tight.”

As a 5th grade teacher at Hinton Elementary in Englewood, Salis has three students in her class that require pull-out services, and two of them need assistive technology for help with their school work.

Salis said she does her best to accommodate to a student’s Individualized Education Plan, or IEP, but with no specific training in special education it is hard to keep up.

In September, an Illinois State Board of Education report said only 23 percent of monitored schools statewide provided satisfactory support for students with disabilities, including Chicago schools.

“We’re trying to develop a way to monitor schools appropriately,” said Debbie Duskey, chief specialized service officer of Chicago Public Schools. “We know that we have some work to do.”

Jeanette Perkal, a learning assistant at Sacred Hearts School, a private Roman Catholic school in Chicago, said she has noticed a difference in resources for special education students between private schools and public schools in Chicago.

Perkal teaches with another teacher where she said they work with as few as two special education students at a time for up to 45 minutes.

“That’s a really incredible ratio for those students,” she said.

“Class size becomes a money problem,” said Falk. “Class size is an important thing. Are we just looking at teachers in classrooms to the number of kids that are in that school?”

Of course, many Chicago public schools cannot afford this luxury of one-on-one time with special education students, especially since affording this time comes with a financial budget.

“There’s kind of an accountability breakdown in Chicago,” Estvan said.

Chicago public schools also received $57 million in ARRA special education funds, also known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which is a government funded program meant for innovative change in terms of education for students with disabilities.

A majority of the $57 million went towards teacher salaries to avoid an increase in property taxes, but Estvan thinks Chicago public schools created what he called a funding cliff.

“When these dollars run out you come to the end of the ARRA dollars and you’re using ARRA dollars to pay salaries for existing teachers that you have to have for these kids,” he said.

Estvan also noticed the average cost of a special education student has increased since 2007, but more money for special education students does not guarantee academic improvement or provide a safer environment for students with disabilities.

Catherine Whitcher, an advocate for parents who have children with disabilities, said schools should keep more data on the daily progress of students.

“I don’t feel classrooms are overcrowded. I don’t feel there is a shortage of teachers,” she said. “There is a shortage of staff to help in a general education environment.”

Hairston says the office of specialized services with Chicago Public Schools is, “working with schools on how they instruct all students as well as additional means to instruct the students with disabilities to meet them with their learning styles as well as deficit areas.”

“Statistics can be misused,” said Falk, who thinks the budget is not an appropriate document to measure social and academic solutions for students with disabilities. ““It’s just dollars and cents. Statistics are not going to give you the true story of what’s taking place.”

And while more funding for special education is not necessarily an answer to ending youth violence among students with disabilities, Estvan said Chicago schools are still struggling to close the achievement gap between general education students and special education students.

“If they’re not feeling safe, if they’re feeling teased and things are going on emotionally,” said Salis. “I feel that that can all build up so much tension between students.”