Chicago Public Schools is asking the public’s input in hiring the next special education chief

The facade of Chicago Public Schools headquarters, with the district’s sign hanging on the wall behind windows with green silhouettes of students.
Chicago Public Schools kicked off search for the chief of the office of diverse learners in September. The position has been vacant since June after the former chief, Stephanie Jones, left amid criticism from the state. (Mauricio Peña / Chalkbeat)

Issalma Franco knows what she wants from the next chief of the Chicago Public Schools’ department that manages special education services. 

The Belmont Cragin resident is the legal guardian of her brother, a high school student with an Individualized Education Program, and said communication will be important in the future.

Her brother is doing well in school because he works with a good special education classroom assistant — something she hopes all students with disabilities have, said Franco.

“I think communication with students and the community, but also hearing what students need is really important,” said Franco. “I’m really thankful he has a SECA that listens to him and knows that he’s capable of achieving all his goals.”

Franco was among a handful of Chicago parents, educators, and community members who attended listening sessions on Thursday and Friday hosted by the Chicago Board of Education’s special education advisory committee to get the public input on a new chief. Those who attended said they want the next head of the Office of Diverse Learners Supports and Services to communicate with them, provide support for students, and offer professional development for current educators.

Asking for the public’s input in the hiring process is an unusual move that comes at a time when the department has faced state investigation and public criticism. The office of diverse learners is one of the largest departments in the district and provides services for nearly 64,000 students between 3 and 21 years old with Individualized Education Programs and 504 plans — about 15% of the district’s 320,000 students. 

The department hasn’t had a leader since June when Stephanie Jones, the former chief, left amid criticism from the Illinois State Board of Education, which found that the district was not tracking restraint and timeout incidents at schools. 

Jones had also come under fire by the Chicago Teachers Union, special education advocates, and parents of students with disabilities for high turnover rates in the department and lack of recovery services for students during the COVID-19 outbreak. 

The next leader of the department will have to ensure that the needs of students with disabilities, many of whom are still recovering from pandemic fallout, are met. They will also confront challenges in making sure students receive services such as therapy and in hiring additional staffing to fill special education teacher and paraprofessional vacancies.

At Friday’s session, Stephanie Anderson, principal of Vaughn Occupational High School located on the city’s North Side, spoke about the need to train and provide professional development for current educators. Anderson’s school on the city’s north side serves only students with disabilities. 

“I think we really need to look at how we have a really supportive structure for training and not just an online webinar here and there or going to one in-person training when you get hired,” said Anderson. “That’s not going to cut it.”

The two meetings this week were the first of four that will be held throughout September. Parents, educators, and community members can attend in person and on Zoom to tell the board what they would like to see from the next chief. 

The board of education posted the job description Thursday. The special education advisory committee plans to provide the board with a finalist for appointment sometime in November or December.

The next two meetings will be at 6 p.m. Sept. 25 at Back of the Yards High School and at 4 p.m. Sept. 26 at Lavizzo Elementary School. There is also an online survey.

Samantha Smylie is the state education reporter for Chalkbeat Chicago, covering school districts across the state, legislation, special education, and the state board of education. Contact Samantha at ssmylie@chalkbeat.org.

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