Last school year, whenever Christine Palmieri would hear an ambulance siren near her home, she worried that her son had wandered away from his neighborhood elementary school and been injured.
Miles Palmieri, a third-grader last year at the North Side’s Blaine Elementary School, has autism and sometimes walks out of his classroom if he isn’t watched closely, his mother says.
For months last school year, Miles didn’t have the one-on-one help he needed, which, his mother and other activists say, is part of a widespread problem with special education funding at Chicago Public Schools.
Palmieri, other parents, teachers and their supporters are eagerly awaiting the findings of a state investigation into the matter. A final report is expected to be released Wednesday morning.
“I think they will find CPS was in violation of students’ rights, that they systematically delayed and denied services for students who needed them — in order to save money, that it was budget-driven …,” said Mary Fahey Hughes, a CPS parents who has a 17-year-old son living with autism.
Among other things, Hughes, Palmieri and their supporters hope the Illinois State Board of Education, which launched the probe, will appoint an “independent monitor” to oversee changes with special education at CPS.
The state probe comes on the heels of a WBEZ investigation, which found that CPS had overhauled special education two years ago — an overhaul that resulted in savings for the district but major service cuts for students. The investigation also found that those in charge of the overhaul had no expertise in special education.
Schools CEO Janice Jackson earlier this year, testifying before a state education committee, said the special education cuts were made at a time when the district was “in crisis,” WBEZ reported. At the time of the cuts, Jackson, who was chief education officer, said she told then-CPS CEO Forrest Claypool that some of the reforms were wrong. She said her concerns weren’t heeded.
Hughes says, despite what’s come to light, CPS has done little to address the problems with special education.
“They have made minor adjustments along the way, but still refuse to take responsibility for how much damage has already been done to these kids,” Hughes said.
Palmieri said she’d been trying for two years to convince administrators at Blaine that her son needed one-on-one help. They finally agreed in the fall of 2016, she said. But that was only the start of the battle.
It was six months into the 2016-17 school year before the school district approved an aide for Miles, his mother said.
“We called it a cumbersome paperwork process that caused delay and denials,” Palmieri said. “It took months to fill out the forms.”
Palmieri was later told there wasn’t money in the special education budget. Blaine’s local school council finally found the funds in another district budget, Palmieri said.
“Luckily, [Miles] was never in danger, but he could have been,” she said. “I sent him to school with a GPS watch.”