Are Children Learning

How will Chicago schools improve special education after state takeover? Parents haven’t heard.

PHOTO: Elaine Chen / Chalkbeat
Parent members of Community Organizing and Family Issues in Chicago discuss on July 31, 2018, how to advocate for their special-needs children.

Parents of children with special needs say they haven’t heard yet from Chicago Public Schools about how it plans to enact education improvements prompted by a state investigation.

The state takeover of special education at Chicago schools stems from an inquiry launched last fall by the Illinois State Board of Education that found the district’s Diverse Learners program violated students’ rights by routinely delaying and denying services, from speech and occupational therapy to busing and classroom aides.

However, the group Parents 4 Teachers said the school district has yet to inform parents and guardians about the investigation, that the probe surfaced serious problems and that students might be eligible for compensatory services that were stalled or denied. A state-appointed monitor now oversees the program, and has to approve any changes the district proposes to special education policies and procedures for at least three years.

Erica Clark, a founding member of Parents 4 Teachers, said the school district should have already sent out letters and emails to parents keeping them abreast of what’s happening.

“They should have sent it before the end of last school year,” she said. “Now we’re in October. People are already having IEP [Individualized Education Plan] meetings, people are trying to get services for their kids,” Clark said, referring to the plans that identify needs, goals, and services for a student with a disability.

The lack of communication is particularly alarming, Clark said, given that her group is hearing complaints from parents “similar to what we’ve been hearing for the last couple of years: that services aren’t being provided the way they should.” Last week, Parents 4 Teachers began surveying to gauge how widespread the issue is.

Clark said her group would have survey results by the end of the week.

The special education public inquiry was spurred last fall by an open letter from a group of public education advocates, including Parents 4 Teachers, the Chicago Teachers Union, Raise Your Hand, Access Living and others. Their argument that district policies enacted during a 2016 overhaul of special education were violating federal laws was bolstered by investigative reporting from WBEZ, Chicago’s public radio station.

The school district didn’t respond to interview requests for this story, nor did it comment on its lack of communication to parents about the state monitor.

But Illinois State Board Of Education spokeswoman Jackie Matthews said this week that the state is finalizing a letter to notify parents about actions overseen by the monitor that will affect their children, and also about the findings of its investigation and recommended reforms.

The board has already issued many recommendations, such as identifying students whose services were delayed or denied so their parents may seek remedies.

The board also advised that the district provide “training and communications to parents and guardians throughout the year regarding their rights, data-driven decision-making, the ISBE Parent’s Guide, and a list of free and low-cost legal services.”

Matthews said that the monitor is overseeing training by the district to help parents and guardians understand special education services and know their rights. October trainings, through the school district’s Parent University and Office of Diverse Learner Supports and Services, focus on navigating the process for Individualized Education Programs.

Here’s a list of this month’s trainings, all from 10 a.m. to noon:
Oct. 10, Sullivan High School, 6631 N. Bosworth Ave.
Oct. 18, Corliss High School, 821 E. 103rd St.
Oct. 19, Dyett High School, 555 E. 51st St.
Oct. 23, Perez High School, 2001 S. Throop St.
Oct. 25, Avondale/Logandale, 3212 W. George St.
Oct. 30, Bogan High School, 3939 W. 79th St.

About 50 parents attended last month’s trainings about the federal and state laws that protect students with special needs and their caregivers, and dictate how schools are supposed to serve them, Matthews said.

Earlier this week, the Illinois State Board of Education tweeted a link to a presentation about the state monitor, detailed changes anticipated with the state takeover, and provided a “Bill of Rights,” for parents with students in special education.

Parents and community organizations have long helped other parents navigate the school system. In July during a Chalkbeat Listening Tour stop at Community Organizing and Family Issues (COFI) on the Near West Side, reporters spoke with a dozen caregivers about how to best advocate for children with special needs.

You can read their advice here.

Class of 2018

Some Colorado schools see big gains in grad rates. Find yours in our searchable database.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Aurora Public Schools
Aurora West College Preparatory Academy graduates of 2018. The school had a 100 percent graduation rate.

Two metro-area school districts, Westminster and Aurora, recently in the state’s crosshairs for their low-performance, posted significant increases in their graduation rates, according to 2018 numbers released Wednesday.

Westminster, a district that got off the state’s watchlist just last year, had 67.9 percent of its students graduate on time, within four years of starting high school. That was a jump of 10 percentage points from its 57.8 percent graduation rate in 2017.

District officials credit their unique model of competency-based education, which does away with grade levels and requires students prove they mastered content before moving up a level. In previous years, district officials pointed to rising graduation rates that Colorado also tracks for students who take five, six or seven years, but officials say it was bound to impact their 4-year rates as well.

“We saw an upward tick across the board this past year,” said Westminster Superintendent Pam Swanson, referring to state test results and other data also showing achievement increasing. “I think this is one more indicator.”

Swanson said the high school has also focused recently on increasing attendance, now at almost 90 percent, and increasing students’ responsibility for their own learning.

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

In Aurora schools, 76.5 percent of students graduated on time in 2018 — a jump of almost 9 percentage points from the 67.6 percent rate of the class of 2017.

“We’re excited these rates demonstrate momentum in our work,” Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn said.

He attributed the increased graduation rates to “better practice, better pedagogy, and better policy.”

One policy that made a difference for the district is a change in law that now allows districts to count students as graduates the year they complete their high school requirements, even if they are enrolled in one of Colorado’s programs to take college courses while doing a fifth year of high school.

According to a state report two years ago, Aurora had 65 students enrolled in this specific concurrent enrollment program who previously wouldn’t have been counted in four-year graduation rates. Only the Denver district has a larger number of such students. Aurora officials said 147 students are enrolled this year in the program.

Those students are successful, Munn said, and shouldn’t be counted against the district’s on-time graduation rates.

Aurora’s previously rising graduation rates helped it dodge corrective state action. But its improvement this year included a first: One high school, Aurora West College Preparatory Academy, had 100 percent of its seniors graduate in 2018.

The school enrolls students in grades six through 12 in northwest Aurora, the most diverse part of the district. Of the more than 1,000 students, 89 percent qualify for subsidized lunch, a measure of poverty.

“This incredible accomplishment demonstrates the strong student-focused culture we have created at Aurora West,” said Principal Taya Tselolikhina in a written statement. “When you establish high expectations and follow up with high levels of support, every student is able to shape a successful future.”

Statewide, the four-year graduation rate once again inched higher, and gaps between the graduation rate of white students and students of color again decreased. But this time, the gaps narrowed even as all student groups increased their graduation rates.

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

The rising trend wasn’t universal. In some metro area school districts, graduation rates fell in 2018. That includes Adams 14, the district that is now facing outside management after years of low performance.

The tiny school district of Sheridan, just southwest of Denver, saw a significant drop in graduation rates. In 2018, 64.7 percent of students graduated within four years, down from 72.7 percent of the class of 2017.

Look up four-year graduation rates for your individual school or district in our databases below.

Districts here:


School accountability

Concerned with state A-F grading system, Vitti says he’ll lobby for Detroit to keep its own plan

Detroit school district leaders will lobby state leaders to allow for a Detroit-only letter grading system to hold district and charter schools in the city accountable. But if that isn’t successful, the district plans to create its own system.

This plan, announced Tuesday night by Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, comes almost a month after lame-duck lawmakers in the Michigan Legislature passed a controversial A-F letter grading system for the whole state. A Detroit-only system would gives schools far more credit for improvement in test scores than the statewide system does, and it would account for an issue — poverty — that disproportionately affects city schools. 

That state system, which former Gov. Rick Snyder signed into law in late December, halted efforts that had already been underway by district and charter leaders to create an A-F system that takes the specific issues facing Detroit schools into account. That local system had been mandated by a 2016 law and only applied to the city.

Vitti’s announcement comes as state education officials from the Michigan Department of Education have raised concerns that the A-F system OK’d by lawmakers violates federal education law and could potentially cost the state federal money.

Vitti laid out a plan to first lobby new state leaders, including Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the Republican leaders of the House and Senate, to allow for local grade systems.

If successful, Vitti said, that system that had been in the works would be adopted for district and charter schools.

If unsuccessful, Vitti said, the district would go it alone, without charter schools.

“We need to start thinking about our own approach to school accountability,” Vitti said.

The Community Education Commission created the letter grading system and worked for months with district and charter leaders to design a plan that would be specific to Detroit schools. The topic didn’t come up at a commission meeting Monday night until a member of the public urged the commission to move ahead with the local system and one member of the commission agreed. A commission official earlier in the day said they were still exploring how to move forward in light of the statewide system.

The city’s plan was for schools to be rewarded heavily for the amount of improvement seen in test scores. That’s important in a high-poverty community like Detroit, where most of the schools are struggling. City schools also struggle with enrollment instability.

Vitti said the statewide system “doesn’t provide much clarity on individual school performance,” because it will issue a handful of letter grades. Those letter grades will be based on the number of students proficient in reading and math on state exams, the number of students who show an adequate amount of improvement in reading and math on state exams, the number of students still learning English who show improvement in learning the language, graduation rates for high schools, and the overall academic performance of a school and how it compares to other schools in the state with similar demographics.

The Detroit system would issue a single letter grade. Vitti said a system that issues as many grades as the state system would make it “hard to distinguish one school from another.”

Board President Iris Taylor said she would support such a plan by the district, saying “it’s critical if we’re going to achieve the objectives we have laid out in the strategic plan.”

Board member Sonya Mays said one of the advantages of a statewide system is that it allows “parents to better evaluate from school to school, across districts.”

She said it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that the future of the district is to draw back 32,000 students who live in Detroit but opt to go to schools outside the city.