When Chicago Public Schools dispatched the first round of special education staff cuts earlier this year, Blair Early Childhood Center was slated to lose six of its 28 special education aides. School leaders were incensed. The school serves about 100 preschoolers who have disabilities, most in wheelchairs and many with feeding devices.
So staff decided to use a routine fire drill to make a point, asking six aides to stay on the sidelines while the rest of the faculty assisted children in evacuating the building. According to Assistant Principal Suzann Gorham, it was a disaster.
"It took forever to get these kids out of the building," she says. "The fire lieutenant almost had a heart attack."
Using the fire drill to bolster its case, Blair appealed the proposed cuts and won. But then Gorham and the school's principal retired, and those six special education aide positions were retired as well. (District officials relay a different story, but the end result is the same.)
Amid this year's tight budget climate, the district "saved" some $26 million by trimming special education teachers and aides by 900 positions. To be fair, the process by which these positions were eliminated grew out of an effort to distribute resources more equitably. In fact, after the dust settled, 64 schools gained staff.
"We did this because it was the right thing to do," says Gretchen Brumley, who oversees finance in the CPS Office of Specialized Services.
Still, the episode left many educators baffled. Principal Gwendolyn Mims of Southside Occupational, a high school that did not lose any staff and serves only students who require special education services, wonders whether it was necessary for any school to lose staff. "With special education," she says, "we always need as many eyes as possible."
The so-called savings do not mean that taxpayers are spending less money on special education-the department's budget is up three percent-but that they are spending $26 million less than the district anticipated this year. If that is the case, why was it necessary to cut instructional resources for special education? Surely there are other ways to contain expenses, especially when student performance is being monitored nationally.
A Catalyst Chicago analysis of special education test scores found that the district has made little progress since the federal No Child Left Behind law was passed. Only 16 percent of special education elementary students passed reading tests in 2005; 18 percent passed in math. (2006 scores for special education were not available, but are expected to show gains.)
Meanwhile, a debate continues over whether children with special needs should be assessed and how best to do so.
There are no easy answers. But it doesn't make sense for special education to bear the brunt of the district's cost containment.
Catalyst Chicago is a monthly newsmagazine published by the Community Renewal Society that covers the progress, problems and politics of school reform in Chicago Public Schools. Editor Veronica Anderson can be reached at (312) 673-3847 or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Q. I'm a physical education teacher at two Chicago public schools with limited equipment and money. My students need exposure to a variety of activities to keep them fit. Are there grants that might help? Anonymous teacher
A. Yes. You can apply for a grant of up to $6,000 from the Illinois Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance. Recipients have used the money to buy a variety of equipment, says David Thomas, a professor in the School of Kinesiology & Recreation at Illinois State University in Normal, who helps select the grant winners. Most applicants get some money, though Thomas says, "It may not be all they want." The only catch: You must join the association for $45. (See www.iahperd.org.) In addition, any teacher can solicit small donations for special projects at www.donorschoose.org or research grant opportunities at the Donors Forum of Chicago (www.donorsforum.org). The district received funding from the U.S. Department of Education through the physical education program grant initiative during the last two fiscal years, but was turned down this year, says Alyson Cooke, Chicago Public Schools' director of external resources. According to the Department of Education Web site, funding for the program was cut.