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Southwest suburban school districts put special ed students at top of priority list

A.E.R.O. Special Education Cooperative has committed to building a $50 million school on the site of the former Queen of Peace High School in Burbank.

An architect’s rendering of a $50 million school building for special ed students served by the southwest suburban A.E.R.O. Special Education Cooperative.
An architect’s rendering of a $50 million school building for special ed students served by the southwest suburban A.E.R.O. Special Education Cooperative.
Provided

Parents of special education students are too often left feeling that their children get second-class treatment from local school systems.

That’s part of what I find so laudable about a planned investment by 11 southwest suburban school districts in a new state-of-the-art facility dedicated solely to serving students with special ed needs.

The A.E.R.O. Special Education Cooperative has committed to building a $50 million school on the site of the former Queen of Peace High School in Burbank.

The cooperative is comprised of Argo, Evergreen Park, Reavis and Oak Lawn high schools, along with seven of the elementary school districts that feed into them.

Special ed co-ops allow adjacent school districts to pool resources to provide the specialized, often costly, services required for students with disabilities.

A.E.R.O. has bought and cleared the land for the proposed new building, and its member districts have already put up $25 million in local funds toward the construction costs.

The other half of the funding is expected to come from an appropriation that was included in the state budget as part of the Rebuild Illinois program.

School officials have been eager for the Pritzker administration to endorse the project and release the funds so construction can begin this fall.

I can’t see any reason to believe the governor won’t give it his OK, but in the meantime, I took school officials up on an invitation to visit the district’s current facility in an overcrowded 1970s-era building adjacent to the Reavis campus.

What I encountered was not unusual in the special ed world: teachers, staff and students doing their best within the physical limitations of their resources.

The conditions are not scandalous by any means, just frustrating for those caring for students ages 3 to 22 whose needs cover a broad spectrum but include many with severe challenges.

One of the problems is congestion in the hallways, which are now crowded with wheelchairs and other equipment because of space limitations. The hectic environment can be a trigger for students with behavioral issues. Classrooms are also too small.

Something I’d never really considered is that the physical layout of a school is even more important for special ed students, who are more likely to need space to find quiet moments while also requiring more outlets to expend physical energy.

“There’s so much more we could do if we had a facility” that could accommodate the students’ needs, Principal Lisa Poe told me.

Teachers work with a student at A.E.R.O. Special Education Cooperative’s outdated facility in Burbank.
Teachers work with a student at A.E.R.O. Special Education Cooperative’s outdated facility in Burbank.
Mark Brown/Sun-Times

One telling example of what the district hopes to gain from a new school is specially designed classrooms with equipment that would better allow aides to hoist severely disabled young adults to change their diapers — and with curtains to afford them more privacy.

Poe showed me the school’s playground, parts of which are cordoned off because she said some students were eating the deteriorating material from which it is made.

Only part of the co-op’s programs can be conducted in the main facility. The district also rents 26 classrooms from its member districts to find space to accommodate an ever-growing number of students with special ed needs.

Many of those students in the satellite classrooms really need the more specialized services offered in the main facility, but there’s no room for them, Poe said.

Dan Riordan, superintendent at Reavis High School District 220, said one of the main goals of the new facility is to consolidate everyone under the same roof.

Officials promise that won’t come at the expense of continuing to emphasize keeping students with special ed needs in regular classrooms where possible.

“The students that we are serving, these are the kids regardless of disability that have the most significant needs,” said A.E.R.O. Executive Director James Gunnell.

The project has been endorsed by 14 state legislators whose districts overlap with the schools served by the co-op.

“Families in our 11 communities will benefit from this new facility for the next 50 years,” Gunnell said.

They really didn’t need to do much to sell me. I’d love to see this become a trend with other school districts investing in their special ed students.

“These students and these parents deserve some top-notch facilities and services,” Riordan argued.

That’s a philosophy deserving of attention.