Just four months into her role as the powerful independent monitor overseeing efforts to reform special education in Chicago Public Schools, Laura Boedeker already faces angry, public criticism.
The state created the monitor’s office earlier this year after a public inquiry found that Chicago was systematically delaying and denying educational services — guaranteed by federal law — to special-needs students. But on Monday, advocates for special education charged that Boedeker and her superiors at the Illinois State Board of Education have failed on many counts to improve services and to communicate with parents.
At the same time, the advocates released findings of a survey of 800 parents and teachers that backed their charges. The next day, Chicago parents finally received an email from Boedeker and her boss, state board General Counsel Stephanie Jones, that linked to updated special education protocols and parent trainings, and suggested that the state was working on a plan for families who want to file grievances.
In an interview with Chalkbeat on Tuesday afternoon, Boedeker responded to the criticism, described the work she’s done, and outlined what’s ahead.
What exactly is your job?
Being that one person in ISBE who is dedicated to overseeing, correcting, and addressing concerns about special education in Chicago Public Schools.
Do parents know you exist?
I hope so. They seem to. The word is getting out there, I can tell that.
We’re getting more attendance at our parent workshop sessions, and there’s a new topic every month. I’m seeing more parent emails. Not so much in the sense of “I’m complaining about services,” but “I wanted to let you know this is something going on at my school.”
Why did it take several months to introduce yourself to parents and tell them what you’re doing as monitor?
We really wanted to.
But where it got really complicated is we really wanted all the information to be in the letter, including the student-specific corrective action, rather than sending out two letters. We also saw delays in trying to come to an agreement on language along with the advocate groups as well. It was hard to reach an agreement about not just appropriate language, but the level of the language of the letter.
A survey released this week indicated that special education reform in Chicago has been slow and under-resourced. How do you respond to that?
We are talking about very pervasive, systemic issues that were already problematic before the advocates submitted their letter last November [an action that helped put in motion events that led to the state monitor overseeing Chicago schools]. This is going to take a long time. There’s been a lot of broken trust between parents and schools, parents and central office, parents and administrators.
There’s a lot of restoration and repair we need to address even before we can go in and dig really deep into those corrections.
And as far as resources go, we have been wanting to take this first month or two to get a better idea of where I need more assistance. That’s something you’re not going to know until you start the job, when school is in session. We have regional offices that we work with and that I will be partnering with as specific to CPS. As far as my surrounding staff goes, that’s something that I’m discussing with [the office of the general counsel].
How many schools have you visited?
A small handful — less than 10 so far. That’s something we’re just starting to schedule because we’ve been getting a lot of feedback over the first two months of school, so we now have some action items, some investigatory points. I’ve had a lot of district representatives go into schools and do investigations. My plan is to go in and see if I’m seeing the same things they are reporting.
From the schools you’ve been to, what have you seen?
What’s been fascinating is that there’s so many stakeholders in special education. At the center of everything is the student, of course, and then you have the laws that surround special education — federal and state laws. And then you have a group of all these adults that have different understanding of special education. Even if they have the same understanding, they have different interpretations and beliefs about how things should be done.
So it’s really about getting inside of that story. For example: At a school I went to last week, I [received a] lot of staff outreach. And if I’m just going on the staff outreach, then I think the principal is assigning special education teachers to gen ed classrooms when a teacher doesn’t show up. But when we got in there, it was a little different than what was portrayed via the staff.
What was happening?
In this particular instance, four teachers called off that day, so they had four absences they were trying to deal with. It came down to [the principal asking special education teachers] can you please go to this classroom, unless or until we get a substitute who is arriving within the next 10 minutes, so these students aren’t alone without an adult.
What are some other concerns you’ve heard from schools you’ve visited?
Paraprofessionals being assigned to roles that aren’t IEP-based [referring to individualized education programs, which schools must create for each special-education student]. For example, covering lunchroom duty. That’s not a proper use of a paraprofessional.
A lot of scheduling concerns go back to schools being trained to properly schedule their teachers, so if a teacher does call off there can be a better contingency plan for covering those students and classes.
Messaging to IEP teams. Making sure the right people are in an IEP meeting for the duration of the meeting. We’ve been really hammering home the message that the only person that can excuse a member from an IEP meeting is a parent. But sometimes we have reports that the principal directed teachers to go somewhere else. So we have to really train principals on the law, and proper use of the teachers.
In the advocates’ survey, three out of four teachers reported knowing one or more students were not receiving services due to staffing shortages. What can you do about that?
Let’s take the example of a principal taking a special education teacher and sending them to a gen ed class because they need an adult in the room.
As I was telling the principal, that’s when your scheduling needs to be really tight so you have the flexibility to come up with a contingency plan. You know teachers are going to be out. It’s kind of hard to have a contingency plan for four teachers that are out, but one or two, there are ways to get creative. You can split up a gen ed class and integrate them into a few other age-appropriate classes for instruction, or bring them into a large group and do a social emotional learning circle that addresses a current academic issue.
Your first or second solution should not be going to the special ed teacher.
A lot of the inquiry boils down to this: students who have needs being delayed or denied services. Do you see that’s still the case at CPS from what you can tell so far?
Issues of delays and denials of services — such as paraprofessional assistance, separate day school, transportation — those have dissipated some. From the data we’ve pulled and from the feedback from schools and parents, those are not nearly as big an issue as they were before, primarily because those blocks that were put on the electronic system were lifted.
Before, the only way transportation could be added to an IEP was if a district rep was there to approve it, and that’s no longer the case. Most of the power has gone back into the hands of the IEP teams, which is exactly what the public inquiry recommended.
What should the student-specific corrective action process look like, and how does it compare with what’s going on now?
We’ve been discussing this process with an office within the U.S. Department of Education. One thing they have been very clear on is that IEP teams need to be front and center of that decision. They’re the ones on the front lines with these students, so the Education Department is insistent that the IEP teams are involved when we’re talking about sending notices out to families, alerting them that you may have a child affected by the public inquiry.
That leads us to identifying who that class of students is, and then after we have those families and students identified, that’s when the IEP team comes in to say, “Yes, we do know there was a delay or break in services — what was the harm to that student?”
We hope to provide them with a set of instructions, like, “Here are the talking points, and if you find the student was harmed, here’s a menu of remedies that would be appropriate.”
Those are the conversations we’re working through right now with the department of education, CPS, the advocate representatives, and ISBE. As you can imagine, those are some pretty hefty and lengthy conversations. We’re all trying to get on the same page, and all trying to come to an agreement about what that would look like. But also, what’s fiscally responsible?
This is a three-year process. What should parents and students expect to happen between now and the end of the school year?
We’re holding schools more accountable now and we have them on our radar.
There’s going to be a lot more eye-opening information that emerges from this role, and it’s the first time it’s really been done in this way. This is truly a way for one person to explore CPS through the special education lens like nobody has ever done before. I find that really exciting.