How Far Will They Go

photo by Bess Cohen

photo by Bess Cohen

The second community meeting on the proposed closure of Kate S. Buckingham Special Education Center felt more like a PTA meeting than the battle that it might have been. Only about twenty-five of the neon blue seats in Harlan Academy’s echoing auditorium were filled. Few spoke. Buckingham only has thirty-nine students, but even in the grand scheme of the Chicago Public School closings, its concerns are particularly compelling. All Buckingham students have been diagnosed with emotional disorders severe enough to pull them from general education classrooms. Yet if Buckingham is consolidated into Moses Montefiore Special Education Academy, as is proposed, those students will have to move fourteen miles from their old school–the furthest distance out of all schools slated for consolidation. More broadly, the school’s declining population and “underutilized” designation reflects a CPS-wide trend that limits the system’s capacity for students with severe special needs.­­

Since CPS announced the consolidation of 114 schools in late March, affecting approximately 38,718 students, officials have held two community meetings and a public hearing for each school to be closed. At these meetings, three representatives from CPS typically sit patiently in front of a crowd of emotional parents, teachers, administrators, and students, each of whom may speak for a maximum of two minutes. The scene at these meetings is often heated, crowded, and chaotic.

Buckingham’s students, currently all boys, have been diagnosed with emotional disorders. These include, among others, anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and psychotic disorders. These diagnoses are often coupled with ADHD, depression, and learning difficulties. Many students end up at Buckingham after disrupting classes, fighting, and being suspended from their schools.

One such student is Diantha Garcia’s son, an eleven-year-old student at Buckingham. “Before [my son] started to attend Buckingham [three years ago] he was fighting, he was all over the place, he was out of control,” she said at the community meeting. “There was nothing that a school system, in a regular classroom, could do for him.”

Garcia is the president of Buckingham’s Local School Council, and she has been extremely vocal throughout the closure process. At the meeting she explained that her son was born with fetal alcohol syndrome and has been diagnosed with ADHD. Another four of her six adopted children also have special needs. As one of three therapeutic day schools in Chicago that go all the way up to eighth grade–the others are Montefiore and the Near North Special Education Center, in West Town–Buckingham is one of the few places that can provide for her children. Yet all three schools are slated for consolidation into Montefiore.

Dr. Otis Taylor has been the principal at Buckingham for four years, and was formerly the assistant principal at Montefiore. He’s a jovial man who, instead of speaking to me at the community meeting, invited me to visit the school. “Anytime–I’ll be there,” he told me. Buckingham’s five homerooms enable class sizes of about eight students each. That’s five students below CPS’ utilization standard of thirteen per special education classroom, but Dr. Taylor assured me that “if we had sixty-five students, we’d do it the same way.”

The individual attention that students receive at Buckingham enables the school to operate as a small, relatively intimate community. Barbara McBride, a teacher at Buckingham, calls it “a team and a family.” Students have responsibilities, like cleaning the fish tank, and they attend free field trips, like one to Springfield last year. Sports events are scheduled to take place during school hours so that everyone can participate without having to stay late.

The school is located in Calumet Heights, a predominantly middle-class and African-American neighborhood. Tree-lined and full of well-maintained lawns, the location alone is more welcoming than some of the areas its students come from; ninety-five percent of them are from what CPS calls “low-income homes,” and some have parents with similar emotional disabilities. Buckingham provides the kind of stable, supportive environment that students can benefit from, and that some of them need.

Buckingham is a Level 3 school, indicating that it has the lowest academic standing by CPS standards, but because of the special population it serves, the school cannot be evaluated on these numbers alone. Based on the Urban Education Institute’s 5Essentials survey, Buckingham leapt from “weak” to “strong” and “very strong” in the categories of “Supportive environment” and “Ambitious instruction,” respectively, between 2011 and 2012 alone. Nine students are close to being reintegrated into a general education program, as indicated by a school point system that demonstrates students’ readiness to return to a general education setting. If anything can be drawn from these metrics, it is a sign of potential.

One of CPS’s requirements for the school closings is that students be moved to equal, if not better performing schools. While Montefiore meets this requirement, it’s the fourteen miles between the two schools that provoke much of the outcry. Buckingham is located at the corner of East 92nd and South Phillips, and its admission boundaries stretch from 127th to Roosevelt, and from Lake Michigan to Pulaski. The commute to Montefiore, at 13th and Ashland, will undoubtedly be further and longer for many students currently served by Buckingham. Such a change will be especially difficult for these students, many of whom struggle with hyperactivity and attention deficit disorders.

During a public hearing on April 23, parents, teachers, and CTU representatives repeatedly raised these distance concerns, with some citing potential commutes of an hour or more. As Independent Hearing Officer, the Honorable Cheryl A. Starks heard testimony from CPS officials and community members. In her May 2 report, the retired justice based her recommendation against closure primarily on the disruption that the increased travel distance would cause. “Though CPS has the authority to close schools for budgetary reasons,” Starks wrote, “it is unconscionable to require special needs children to travel over fifteen miles in order to get to school.”

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photo by Bess Cohen

photo by Bess Cohen

Dr. Taylor is careful to point out that the proposed closing of Buckingham stands out even amidst the wider closures proposed by CPS. “We’re not underutilized,” he says. “We’re unutilized.” Therapeutic day schools, unlike other CPS schools, work on a referral basis. If a parent, teacher, or administrator suspects that a child has “special needs,” an umbrella designation that includes emotional disorders, he or she must go through a referral process that takes three months in the most expedient cases. If CPS determines that the student is eligible for a special education program, only then is an Individualized Education Program drawn up for them to determine the extent of school services they will receive.

According to Dr. Taylor, parents frequently call him directly to ask about placement in Buckingham, but he has to refer them to CPS for processing. He rarely hears from those parents again. Where are these students going?

On its website, CPS’s Office of Special Education and Supports affirms a commitment to educating children in the “least restrictive environment” possible, in accordance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This means that every effort is made to incorporate students into general education environments wherever possible. Perhaps this is the reason why, for now, of 681 public schools in the city of Chicago, Buckingham, Montefiore, and Near North are the only schools that exclusively serve special needs students through eighth grade.

Beyond these schools, the options are limited for emotionally troubled students with special needs. In fact, there are currently no public high schools for students with emotional disorders to even matriculate to. Victoria Jackson, a seventh- and eighth-grade science teacher at Buckingham, explained that after eighth grade at Buckingham, students matriculate to private therapeutic high schools, a process organized by CPS, not the school. “It seems like they’re trying to privatize this thing.” Dr. Taylor told me. “If that’s the case, just say it!”

But overall, private placement has almost halved in recent years. According to a 2012 article in Catalyst, CPS receives a grant from the state of Illinois to fund services and programs for students with special needs, to be spent as CPS sees fit. Placement in private day schools costs approximately $28,000 to $32,000 per student, per year, and CPS reports that funding for these placements decreases every year. As placements have declined, the real trend has been toward incorporating students with special needs into general education settings. In these classrooms, however, teachers are not always able to address the needs of students with emotional disorders, given the many other difficulties posed by a large classroom.

“There are a lot of questions that need to be answered, and these closings are adding complexity to the issues that already exist for students with disabilities,” says Dr. Federico Waitoller, a professor in the Special Education department at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s College of Education.

When asked in mid-April what plans were underway for the transition, Dr. Anthony Chalmers, the principal of Montefiore, said, “We really haven’t started. It’s quite unformalized until the May board meeting.” Despite that, Dr. Chalmers was optimistic, saying that the Montefiore building had once held 200 students–forty-eight more than the 152 expected to enroll for 2013-2014. He expected his staff to remain the same and the services for students from Near North and Buckingham to follow them to Montefiore. The hiring of teachers from the schools that were being closed, he said, would be based on tenure and seniority. Yet it is unclear just how many will be kept on.

At the community meeting, a group of teachers expressed a feeling of resignation. “It’s a done deal,” one whispered to me between speakers, as her co-workers nodded their heads. She said that CPS officials had recently visited the school to take inventory, as if to make sure teachers didn’t steal supplies. She insisted that CPS already has their plan and that the meetings were a sham. The principal’s clerk, Mrs. McNeil, on the other hand, scolded me for asking about when Buckingham closes. She saw it as an if, if at all. “All we can be is hopeful,” she said.

Over the phone in early May, LSC President Garcia said that she too is “holding out hope that Buckingham does not close,” but intends on touring the private schools closer to her home in order to determine which might be the best fit for her son. Traveling the long distance to Montefiore simply isn’t an option for him, she said.

Sitting in the hallway during April’s community meeting, scribbling in a Sudoku book, Garcia’s son asked her, “What is gonna happen to the kids who don’t want to go to school?” His mother, so forceful when speaking to the public, didn’t have an answer.

This story has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: May 9, 2013

Due to an editing error, the print version of this story incorrectly referred to Dr. Federico Waitoller as “Dr. Federico Wallace.”

2 comments for “How Far Will They Go

  1. Anonymous
    May 12, 2013 at 11:56 pm

    Great article. Hoping for updates in the future.

  2. Dr. Mary Ann Pollett
    May 14, 2013 at 2:23 pm

    It’s absolutely criminal what CPS/the Office of Specialized Services has done–and is continuing to do–to special needs children, especially children with emotional and behavioral issues. There are numerous children in our schools who should be provided with the services our special schools provide–special schools like Buckingham, which has a courageous leader in Dr. Taylor. If our special schools are “underutilized,” it’s because CPS/OSS continues to fail to provide services to our critically at-risk children. Our special schools should be filled–and with a waiting list–if we are serious about curbing youth violence and delinquency.

    Hopefully, our political and educational officials will reconsider and keep the special schools open and insist that a continuum of services be provided to Chicago’s critically at-risk children. Otherwise, our special needs children–especially those who have black or brown skins–will continue to be fodder for the prison system or continue to fuel our gang strife and their eventual death.
    Mary Ann Pollett, Ed.D. Montefiore Special School 1972-2010 (Principal – 1993-2010)

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