Mixed messages over program for deaf students in Chicago cause concern

A man stands at a microphone and speaks in front of a crowd of parents and children outside of a school.
Teachers, parents, students, and elected officials gathered in front of Chase Elementary in June for a press conference organized by the Chicago Teachers Union to advocate for the school’s deaf and hard of hearing program. (Eileen Pomeroy / Chalkbeat)

Sergio Hernandez’s 8-year-old daughter barely spoke before she began attending the program for students who are deaf and hard of hearing at Salmon P. Chase Elementary School. She now excels in school and “can’t stop talking.”

So, when Hernandez heard whispers that the program might be closing, he thought about the challenges his daughter and other students with hearing disabilities had to go through in their childhoods: doctor’s appointments, multiple surgeries, and school changes, including virtual learning during the last two years. 

Forcing them to go through another disruption would be unfair, he said last month at a press conference organized by the Chicago Teachers Union to urge the district to keep the program open.

But after the press conference, Bogdana Chkoumbova, chief education officer of Chicago Public Schools, sent an email to Chase families calling talk of the program’s closure “misinformation.” 

“While there were some very preliminary discussions earlier this spring about the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Program at Chase Elementary and its future, CPS has not closed and is not planning to close or phase out any of the District’s 36 DHH programs,” Chkoumbova wrote.

CPS has not responded to questions from Chalkbeat about why the district considered closing the program at Chase. According to teachers and the CTU, district officials originally cited transportation challenges and later said there was need elsewhere in the city. 

Data obtained by Chalkbeat through an open records request shows enrollment remained stable across the district’s deaf and hard of hearing programs throughout the pandemic, even as some schools gained and lost students. 

Last year, more than 300 deaf and hard of hearing students were enrolled in CPS, according to district records. Federal law dictates that school districts must provide a free, appropriate education to all students with disabilities. 

A data analysis by Chalkbeat found more than two-thirds of deaf and hard of hearing students attend one of 36 deaf and hard of hearing programs in 11 public schools across the city.  Chase Elementary is one of them. 

But as many as 104 students identified as deaf and hard of hearing attend schools that do not have specialized programs for that population.  Those students are typically integrated into general education courses and are provided an aide, according to CPS.

When deaf and hard of hearing programs are closed, students could be transferred to another school with a program or to their neighborhood school. But that shuffling around can be stressful, parents and teachers say. And when there’s a lack of communication and mixed messages, it can cause anguish. 

Tnaisha Ward, whose son attends Chase, said the 9-year-old fell behind before going to Chase. The program helped him get back on track, stay on level academically, and instilled in him a sense of confidence, she told Chalkbeat.

“How are y’all telling us that no kids are left behind?” Ward said at the press conference organized by CTU. “That’s what you’re doing because you’re not communicating with the parents.”

Elba Davila, whose 10-year-old son is in the deaf and hard of hearing program at Chase, said the district needed to realize the importance of stability for children. Parents relied on teachers for information about the future of the program because of the lack of communication from CPS, which Davila called “infuriating.”

This is not the first time CPS has been criticized for its handling of programs for students with disabilities.

The district’s special education program has been under state oversight since 2018, when a report found that it had delayed and denied services to more than 10,000 students with disabilities, in violation of state and federal laws. A state monitor was extended last year and is set to end this fall.

Chase’s program had the fourth largest enrollment in the district in the 2021-2022 school year – about 9% of Chicago’s deaf and hard of hearing students attended programs at Chase.

The program started seven years ago and has grown steadily since that time. Figures obtained by Chalkbeat show the program’s enrollment remained steady between the 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 school years.

Some advocates started worrying that Chase’s program could be phased out by stopping enrollment of younger students after sharp enrollment declines in the deaf and hard of hearing program at Orozco Academy on the Lower West Side. That program dropped from 15 students in 2017 to under 10 before it closed in 2020. It is unclear why enrollment dropped at Orozco. 

Although CPS officials say the program at Chase will continue, parents and teachers remain worried it could be phased out. 

Colleen McKenna, a deaf and hard of hearing teacher at Chase, asked CPS repeatedly to see the data since March, when she first heard the district was considering closing the program. But she never received any information from the district. At the CTU press conference, McKenna said she and other teachers were told by CPS officials that the program would be phased out after the next school year. 

She and teacher Nancy Beaucaire said they have still not seen evidence that kindergarteners or preschoolers have been enrolled for the upcoming year. The school district would not provide Chalkbeat with grade level enrollment data, citing privacy concerns. 

According to CPS, the Office of Diverse Learner Supports and Services continues to manually enroll students in such programs and students are assigned based on their individual needs as outlined in their IEP, a legal document outlining services for students with disabilities. 

Reem Hamad, whose 5-year-old son Zahir attends the deaf and hard of hearing program at Chase, is still concerned and confused over the future of the program. 

“I don’t know what’s gonna happen,” Hamad said. “If there are no new students coming, then it’s a loss.”

Eileen Pomeroy is a reporting intern for Chalkbeat Chicago. Contact Eileen at epomeroy@chalkbeat.org.

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