Are Children Learning

How will Chicago schools improve special education after state takeover? Parents haven’t heard.

PHOTO: Elaine Chen / Chalkbeat
Parent members of Community Organizing and Family Issues in Chicago discuss on July 31, 2018, how to advocate for their special-needs children.

Parents of children with special needs say they haven’t heard yet from Chicago Public Schools about how it plans to enact education improvements prompted by a state investigation.

The state takeover of special education at Chicago schools stems from an inquiry launched last fall by the Illinois State Board of Education that found the district’s Diverse Learners program violated students’ rights by routinely delaying and denying services, from speech and occupational therapy to busing and classroom aides.

However, the group Parents 4 Teachers said the school district has yet to inform parents and guardians about the investigation, that the probe surfaced serious problems and that students might be eligible for compensatory services that were stalled or denied. A state-appointed monitor now oversees the program, and has to approve any changes the district proposes to special education policies and procedures for at least three years.

Erica Clark, a founding member of Parents 4 Teachers, said the school district should have already sent out letters and emails to parents keeping them abreast of what’s happening.

“They should have sent it before the end of last school year,” she said. “Now we’re in October. People are already having IEP [Individualized Education Plan] meetings, people are trying to get services for their kids,” Clark said, referring to the plans that identify needs, goals, and services for a student with a disability.

The lack of communication is particularly alarming, Clark said, given that her group is hearing complaints from parents “similar to what we’ve been hearing for the last couple of years: that services aren’t being provided the way they should.” Last week, Parents 4 Teachers began surveying to gauge how widespread the issue is.

Clark said her group would have survey results by the end of the week.

The special education public inquiry was spurred last fall by an open letter from a group of public education advocates, including Parents 4 Teachers, the Chicago Teachers Union, Raise Your Hand, Access Living and others. Their argument that district policies enacted during a 2016 overhaul of special education were violating federal laws was bolstered by investigative reporting from WBEZ, Chicago’s public radio station.

The school district didn’t respond to interview requests for this story, nor did it comment on its lack of communication to parents about the state monitor.

But Illinois State Board Of Education spokeswoman Jackie Matthews said this week that the state is finalizing a letter to notify parents about actions overseen by the monitor that will affect their children, and also about the findings of its investigation and recommended reforms.

The board has already issued many recommendations, such as identifying students whose services were delayed or denied so their parents may seek remedies.

The board also advised that the district provide “training and communications to parents and guardians throughout the year regarding their rights, data-driven decision-making, the ISBE Parent’s Guide, and a list of free and low-cost legal services.”

Matthews said that the monitor is overseeing training by the district to help parents and guardians understand special education services and know their rights. October trainings, through the school district’s Parent University and Office of Diverse Learner Supports and Services, focus on navigating the process for Individualized Education Programs.

Here’s a list of this month’s trainings, all from 10 a.m. to noon:
Oct. 10, Sullivan High School, 6631 N. Bosworth Ave.
Oct. 18, Corliss High School, 821 E. 103rd St.
Oct. 19, Dyett High School, 555 E. 51st St.
Oct. 23, Perez High School, 2001 S. Throop St.
Oct. 25, Avondale/Logandale, 3212 W. George St.
Oct. 30, Bogan High School, 3939 W. 79th St.

About 50 parents attended last month’s trainings about the federal and state laws that protect students with special needs and their caregivers, and dictate how schools are supposed to serve them, Matthews said.

Earlier this week, the Illinois State Board of Education tweeted a link to a presentation about the state monitor, detailed changes anticipated with the state takeover, and provided a “Bill of Rights,” for parents with students in special education.

Parents and community organizations have long helped other parents navigate the school system. In July during a Chalkbeat Listening Tour stop at Community Organizing and Family Issues (COFI) on the Near West Side, reporters spoke with a dozen caregivers about how to best advocate for children with special needs.

You can read their advice here.

making the rounds

Tennessee’s new education chief ‘very confident’ that online testing will be smooth in April

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee's new education commissioner Penny Schwinn (second from left) met with Douglass High School students and Shelby County Schools leaders Friday.

As Tennessee’s new education commissioner wrapped up her second week on the job by visiting four schools in Shelby County, Penny Schwinn said she feels “very confident” the state has learned from its mistakes in online testing.

During the more than three-hour ride to Memphis on Friday, Schwinn said she continued to pore over documents showing evidence that the corrections the state department staff have put in place will work.

“I feel very confident that our team has looked into that,” she told reporters in a press conference after meeting with students. “They’re working with the vendor to ensure that testing is as smooth as possible this year.” Currently the state is working with Questar, who administered TNReady online last year.

She also said the state’s request for proposals from testing vendors, which is already months behind, will be released in about two weeks.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
From left: John Bush, principal of Douglass High School; Penny Schwinn, Tennessee Education Commissioner; and Joris Ray, interim superintendent for Shelby County Schools.

“No later than that,” she said. “We hope and expect to have a vendor in place before the end of the fiscal year,” in late June.

The day Schwinn was hired, she said getting state testing right would be her first priority. Three years of major technical failures have severely damaged the trust educators and parents have in the state’s test, TNReady. It is the main measure of how schools and teachers are doing, but state lawmakers exempted districts from most testing consequences in 2018.

From Schwinn’s first day on the job: Tennessee’s new education chief wants to ‘listen and learn’ with school visits

Prior to talking with reporters, Schwinn said she heard “hard-hitting questions” from several students at Douglass High School in Memphis about what the state can do to improve education. Schwinn has said she will visit Tennessee schools throughout her tenure to ‘listen and learn’ by talking to students and educators.

Reporters were not allowed to attend the student discussion with Schwinn and some Shelby County Schools leaders.

Douglass High entered Shelby County Schools’ turnaround program, known as the iZone, in 2016 and saw high academic growth in its first year. But test scores fell this past year as the state wrestled with online malfunctions.

Timmy Becton Jr., a senior at Douglass High, said he hopes for fewer tests and more projects to demonstrate what a student has learned. Those kind of assessments, he said, can help a student connect what they are learning to their daily life.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee’s new education commissioner met with students at Douglass High School and Shelby County Schools leaders.

“We figured it would be a different way to measure and see how much knowledge a student really has on a specific subject,” he told Chalkbeat after meeting with Schwinn during a student roundtable session. “It’s a good alternative to taking tests.”

He said he was “surprised and happy” to see Schwinn actively seek student perspectives.

“I really think that’s the most important part because students are the ones going to school every day,” Becton said. “So, if you want to find a good perspective on how to solve a problem, it’s really great to talk to the people who are actively involved in it and the people who are actually experiencing these problems directly.”

The state’s annual testing window runs from April 15 to May 3.

School discipline

Michigan schools have expelled fewer students, but that may not be cause for celebration

PHOTO: Getty Images

Michigan schools have expelled far fewer students since the state enacted laws aimed at cutting back on expulsions. But an advocate who’s pushed for an end to zero-tolerance policies pointed out persistent problems and told elected state education leaders this week that, “We shouldn’t start celebrating yet.”

This is why: Peri Stone-Palmquist, executive director of the Ypsilanti-based Student Advocacy Center, told State Board of Education members that in the 18 months since the new laws took effect in 2017, expulsions have dropped 12 percent. But she’s concerned that too many school leaders don’t understand the law or are ignoring its requirements. And she believes some schools are finding other ways of kicking kids out of school without expelling them.

Michigan did away with zero-tolerance policies that had earned it a reputation for having some of the toughest disciplinary rules in the nation. In their place, lawmakers instituted new rules, such as requiring schools to consider seven factors — including a student’s age, disciplinary record, disability and seriousness of the incident — in making expulsion decisions.

“We have had districts and charters tell advocates that they would not consider the seven factors at all,” Stone-Palmquist said. Others aren’t sharing with parents and students how those seven factors were used. And she said there’s a general “lack of understanding of lesser interventions and the persistent belief that lengthy removals remain necessary.”

That’s a problem, she and others say, because of the negative consequences of kicking students out of school. Studies have shown that students kicked out of school are often missing out on an education and are more likely to get into trouble. Advocates also worry that expulsion exacerbates what they describe as a “school-to-prison” pipeline.

She said advocates are noticing that more students are receiving long suspensions, an indication that some schools are suspending students rather than expelling them. Hiding students in suspension data won’t work much longer, though. Michigan now requires schools to collect such data, which soon will be public.

Stone-Palmquist also said that some schools aren’t even going through the expulsion process, but simply referring students with discipline issues to “understaffed virtual settings.”

“Once again, the students who need the most get the least, and no one has to report it as an expulsion.”

Stone-Palmquist gave an example of a ninth-grader involved in a verbal altercation who was expelled for a long time for persistent disobedience, “despite our team lining up extensive community resources for him and despite the district never trying positive interventions with him.”

In another case, a fifth-grader was expelled for 180 days for spitting at another student who had done the same to them first. Stone-Palmquist said the seven factors weren’t considered.

“We were told at the appeal hearing that the student’s behaviors were too dangerous to consider lesser interventions.”

She and Kristin Totten, an education lawyer for the ACLU of Michigan, provided board members with statistics that some members found alarming. Totten noted that an ACLU review of data collected by the federal government shows that for every 100 students in Michigan, 38 days are lost due to suspension. In Oakland County, 26 days are lost for every 100 students. In Macomb County, it’s 35 days and in Wayne County, it’s 55 days.

One child who’s experienced trauma for years was repeatedly suspended from multiple schools. The 11-year-old has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. This school year, she’s been suspended for 94 days.

“Never once were the seven factors mentioned to her mother,” Totten said.

Stone-Palmquist asked board members to consider recommendations, including developing a model student code of conduct that incorporates the new rules, partnering with the advocacy center to request an attorney general’s opinion on what districts are required to do, and expanding data collection.

Tom McMillin, a member of the state board, asked whether the state should consider financial penalties, such as withholding some state aid.

“I’m a fierce advocate for local control. But in areas where the incentives might not be there to do what’s right … I’m fine with the state stepping in,” McMillin said.

Board member Pamela Pugh said she appreciated the push for the board to “move with great speed.” She said the data and stories provided are “compelling, as well as convincing.”

Stone-Palmquist said that despite her concerns, there have been some successes.

“Districts that used to automatically expel 180 days for fights, for instance, have partnered with us to dramatically reduce those removals with great outcomes,” she said. “We know alternatives are possible and that they actually help get to the root of the problem, prevent future wrongdoing and repair the harm.”

The Detroit school district didn’t come up during the hearing. But on the same day Stone-Palmquist presented to the state board, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti gave a presentation to his local board of education about what’s happened in the months since the district embarked on an effort to improve school culture by revising the student code of conduct, hiring deans for each school, and providing training on alternative discipline methods.

The bottom line: Vitti said that schools are booting out dramatically fewer students and greatly increasing alternative methods of discipline. In-school suspensions are up, given the push against out-of-school suspensions.

But the changes have also raised concerns. Some school staff have said the new rules are tying their hands. Vitti said it will take time for the changes to take hold, and he outlined some areas that need to improve, including more training.