Advocates: CPS, ISBE still failing to ensure special ed kids getting services

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From left, Barb Cohen of Legal Council for Health Justice; Natasha Carlsen, a special ed teacher; and Chris Yun of Access Living are among those calling on CPS to provide better special ed support. | Pat Nabong for the Sun-Times

Chicago Public Schools officials still aren’t providing all special education students with the services they need and are entitled to — and the state monitor tasked six months ago with overseeing CPS isn’t doing enough either, disabilities rights advocates said Monday.

The coalition that prompted state officials to look into widespread special ed problems at CPS released survey responses by 800 parents and teachers showing ongoing staff shortages, poor communication with parents, incomplete training, and still no plans still for making up all the services children didn’t receive while CPS officials made deep cuts, recommended by private consultants, to its special ed services while trying to balance the school system’s budget.

CPS is continuously failing students with disabilities and ISBE also is failing to bring all the changes in time,” said Chris Yun of Access Living. “We are asking Governor-elect J.B. Pritzker and his transition team to recognize the critical need to reform special education in CPS. We also ask him to ensure that the Illinois State Board of Education ramp up its enforcement efforts so students with disabilities no longer miss the educational services they are entitled to.”

ISBE placed a monitor at CPS in May after it found that the state’s largest school system illegally “delayed and denied” services to students, violating state and federal laws. The monitor was tasked with putting CPS back in compliance, and recommending ways for CPS to make up missed services for kids.

But one person isn’t enough, said Matt Cohen, a special ed attorney.

“Whatever the intentions are, unless there is adequate staff available to actually hold them accountable it’s not going to happen,” he said. “There is no way that one person can visit the schools that need to be visited, can review all the policies, can supervise all the training and really make sure that CPS is doing what it needs to be doing.”

Survey results showed that a lack of staffing is the top problem. CPS did budget for more positions to support special education students, but hasn’t yet been able to fill them. Two months into school, substitute teachers are still staffing special ed classrooms even if they aren’t certified to do so, said Natasha Carlsen, a special ed teacher at Camras Elementary School.

Attorney Matt Cohen called for better oversight of the Illinois State Board of Education. | Pat Nabong/For The Sun-Times.

Attorney Matt Cohen called for better oversight of the Illinois State Board of Education. | Pat Nabong/For The Sun-Times.

CPS spokeswoman Emily Bolton wouldn’t say how many positions remained unfilled. She wouldn’t answer any questions, instead emailing a generic statement about how CPS has been working with ISBE to improve services for students.

ISBE spokeswoman Jackie Matthews said the state agency was hiring three more staffers to support CPS.

But providing corrective action for kids who were denied services is “new territory” so it’s taking time.

“We are approaching the student-specific correction action with urgency while ensuring the process we implement meets all legal requirements,” she said.

“Successfully implementing all of the corrective actions and ultimately achieving widespread results will take time, as well as restorative work to rebuild broken trust among CPS, parents and families, and the advocates.”

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