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An hour before City Council grilling, CPS announces new special ed hires

Chicago Public Schools officials announced some new hires for special education students on Friday about an hour before the City Council was to grill the new CPS CEO about major problems with that department.

Janice Jackson, who oversaw CPS’ academics before her recent and sudden promotion to acting CEO, was set to appear at an education committee hearing at 2:30 p.m., that progressive members of the City Council have long been demanding.

At 1:13 p.m., a press release announced that “56 School-Based Positions and Nine Citywide Positions Will Help Bolster Academic and Social-Emotional Support for Diverse Learners in High-Needs Schools.” CPS will spend $2.6 million at some of CPS’ 500-plus schools that enroll lots of special ed students who are also English language learners, and at those schools needing more help with students’ social and emotional needs.

Thirty schools will get English learner specialists; and 11 schools will get 16 bilingual paraprofessionals. Ten schools with high rates of suspensions and behavioral problems will each get money to pay for extra services provided by a combination of CPS school social workers, counselors and school psychologists. And nine citywide behavioral support aides will fan out as needed to schools that request extra help.

The positions will open on Feb. 5, leaving less than a month to get staff in place.

Some aldermen expressed frustration with the scheduling of the hearing, which was postponed then held before the holiday weekend.

“I just find it a little odd that we’re meeting at Friday at 2:30,” said Ald. Ricardo Muñoz (22nd).”

Parents of CPS students with special education needs also lamented the timing of Friday’s hearing, saying it was scheduled at a difficult time for working parents to attend.

Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th) wanted an explantation of how CPS found the money to make these hires, when just months ago officials insisted there was no room in the budget.

Jackson said the money is coming out of CPS’s general operating budget: “We received additional savings through restructuring debt, so we’re using that money in order to pay for this.”

Problems with special education spending, notably inequality between schools serving white students and minority students, were uncovered by a WBEZ investigation late last year. Previous CEO Forrest Claypool, who had increased district spending on private consultants who were his longtime cronies, directed some of those millions to projects aimed at saving money on special education. He was ousted last month following an unrelated ethics scandal.

“Our goal is to lead the nation in providing the best education to students with special needs, in all communities, and we will continue to work with principals, teachers, special education advocates and families to refine our approach,” Jackson said in the press release. “Providing supplemental resources to high needs schools to support diverse learners will help our most vulnerable students as we continue to improve the way we provide special education.”

Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Jesse Sharkey said the hiring, while welcome, “still falls short on many fronts,” since school still face “dangerous staffing shortages that threaten not just our special education students, but the health and well-being of all students in our schools.” Some existing 100 special ed positions sit vacant, he said.

“We hope that today’s announcement suggests that CPS is finally beginning to listen to teachers, clinicians, parents and students by increasing support staff for our diverse learners and special education students,” he said in a press release.

Also on Friday afternoon, one of two school board vacancies was filled.

Alejandra Garza, a current appointee of Mayor Rahm Emanuel to the Illinois Medical District Commission who runs her own consulting firm. The mayor’s office said she’ll replace Arnaldo Rivera, who just resigned from the Board of Ed to become CPS’ new chief operating officer — if ISBE signs off on a rule change. Still vacant is the position held by the Rev. Michael Garanzini, who announced in July he was leaving Chicago.