Brown: Unsinkable mom fights CPS special ed cuts

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Laurie Viets (right) with her three children (left to right) Canyon, River and Raven. | Provided photo.

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CPS parent Laurie Viets caught everyone’s attention with a short speech at this week’s Chicago Board of Education meeting.

Members of the public sign up for the chance to address the board for two minutes on a topic of their choice.

A pair of digital timers, Board Secretary Estela Beltran and a security guard hovering nearby in a windbreaker are all employed to strictly enforce the time limit.

It can be an intimidating setting that causes many speakers to stumble.

But these remarks about cuts to special education funding hit their mark on all counts:

“My name is Laurie Viets. I am the parent of three children who attend Beard Elementary, a Chicago specialty school for children with special needs.”

“My oldest child, Canyon, is autistic and is OBSESSED with shipwrecks, particularly the Titanic. In our world, it is Titanic all the time.”

“So when I was able to get a coveted speaking spot for today the word ‘shipwreck’ immediately came to mind.”

“CPS is the Titanic. And Beard Elementary is the First Class section of special education. I have always felt privileged and blessed to be at such an amazing school.”

OPINION

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“Canyon was thriving, learning at a pace I would not have thought possible when I first heard the word ‘autism’ come out of the doctor’s mouth. I often felt guilty being in first class when so many other children were stuck in steerage. There needed to be more room up in first class.”

“Chicago is a world-class city, and it should have a world-class school system. It should be unsinkable. But here comes the iceberg. Budget shortfall. You should have seen it coming. It should have been avoidable. But here we are.

“We. Are. Sinking.”

“Beard lost teachers, staff, classrooms, services. Our class sizes are up to ten, which seems small compared to general education, but for our children with special needs it is huge.”

“But again, I feel like I shouldn’t complain because we are still in first class. We are in the lifeboats with teachers and staff who are working hard to make sure our IEP minutes are met and that our kids are still getting what they need.”

“We are safe. We have our lifejackets on while others have what? Garbage bags? If we are hanging on, I worry what the other schools are like. I am afraid they are in the water.”

“So we need to go back for them. We need to send more boats. We need to fill up our available classrooms with the kids who need the kind of education that Beard can offer. We need you to stop pulling funds. Help us keep afloat.”

“Let’s avoid a special education disaster. S.O.S. Thank you.”

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Laurie Viets speaking to the Chicago School Board meeting at CPS Headquarters on Tuesday. (Brian Jackson/ For the Chicago Sun-Times)

I wouldn’t normally quote somebody at such length, but it didn’t seem fair to just pull out a few lines from such a well-crafted talk.

I cornered Viets after the meeting and followed up with a phone call Wednesday while she was filling in for a shift as a disc jockey on WNUR, Northwestern’s campus radio station.

Viets, 43, told me she has a theater background and formerly was company manager for Blue Man Group, which accounts for her stage presence.

Even so, the substance of what she said is the product of being a highly involved parent and member of the local school council at Beard.

Canyon, her Titanic-obsessed 6-year-old, suffers from a severe verbal delay and sensory issues that require the use of headphones, Viets said. Although very smart, he is also easily distracted.

Canyon used to be obsessed with ceiling fans before advancing to the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald and ultimately Titanic, mom said.

His four-year-old brother, Raven, who attends pre-school at Beard, was diagnosed with a language delay and now also has an individualized education program, or IEP, that commits the school district to a plan to meet his special needs.

Viets is confident her children will get the necessary help, at least until the third grade, which is as far as Beard goes.

Then it’s back into the icy waters with the rest—and no Leonardo DiCaprio in sight.

Think of this as her distress signal.

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