special education

State investigation: Denver violated federal rules, delayed services to students with disabilities

PHOTO: Courtesy Posthumus family
Olivia Posthumus was one of the students named in the complaint against Denver Public Schools.

The Denver school district violated the rights of some students with disabilities in the way it made decisions about whether they would get support from a teacher’s aide, an investigation by the Colorado Department of Education found.

Instead of allowing a team that includes teachers, specialists, and the students’ parents to make that determination, as is required by federal rules, district officials decided whether students would get paraprofessional support “outside of the team process,” the investigation found.

That slowed things down because it required more layers of approval, often leaving students to “wait weeks and months to receive the service of a paraprofessional,” according to a written decision obtained by Chalkbeat and that is expected to be made public next week.

In addition, the district was too vague when writing students’ “individualized education plans,” or IEPs, the decision says. Instead of specifying that students receive support from a paraprofessional, the district used vague or cryptic phrases such as “adult support” or “line-of-sight supervision.”

“When paraprofessional services are noted, it is in very general terms,” the decision says, “and does not provide sufficient information regarding the frequency, duration, or location.”

The investigation was prompted by a complaint filed with the Colorado Department of Education by the nonprofit organization Advocacy Denver on behalf of five Denver students.

Scotty Sims’s 7-year-old daughter was one of them. Sims’s daughter, who Chalkbeat is not naming at her mother’s request, has a rare genetic disorder. She is non-verbal, and Sims said she needs a paraprofessional who understands the limited sign language she uses to communicate: signs for “eat,” “drink,” “walk.” If her daughter isn’t understood, Sims said, she gets frustrated and acts out.

Her daughter is also prone to eating objects such as chalk and paper clips, Sims said, and she needs a paraprofessional to watch her every minute to make sure she doesn’t. Sims thought that’s what her daughter’s IEP team decided on, but she said the plan was changed without her knowing to say her daughter needed “arm’s-length supervision” instead.

The plan did not specify who was supposed to provide that supervision, Sims said. As a result, her daughter did not have a dedicated paraprofessional for her kindergarten year.

“Because of that, she ate dangerous objects,” Sims said. “She did a lot of self-harming and got hurt. She regressed. … ‘Arm’s-length’ does nothing if somebody’s back is to my daughter and she’s standing right next to them. ‘Arm’s-length’ does not make for a safe day.”

The Colorado Department of Education is requiring Denver Public Schools to submit a proposed corrective action plan by Aug. 15. It must then turn in a more detailed plan for “eliminating the paraprofessional approval process” by Aug. 30, a move meant to ensure that students’ individualized education plans are followed.

By Oct. 30, the district must amend the plans of 113 students who need paraprofessional support to specify the type, amount, frequency, duration and location of those services.

In a statement, Denver Public Schools said it is reviewing the state’s decision “and working to address next steps.” The statement says, “The district is committed to reviewing its processes and documentation and assuring that they are compliant with the law.”

After learning of the decision last week, Sims said she felt validated.

“It’s not just for me,” Sims said, noting that the decision applies to all students. “I felt validated for all the families out there who don’t know that their child’s needs aren’t being met.”

Separate from this complaint, the district came under fire this year from parents and advocates concerned that an impending reorganization of the special education department would negatively affect their children. About 10,000 of the nearly 93,000 students in Denver Public Schools qualify for special education services, but only a small proportion require dedicated support from a paraprofessional.

Pam Bisceglia, the executive director of Advocacy Denver, said she decided to file the complaint after spending years helping families navigate the difficult process of getting appropriate paraprofessional services for their children.

The decision notes that of the 184 student files the state investigator reviewed in response to the complaint, “no files contained an explanation of the approval process.”

Emails reviewed by the investigator shed some light on it. In one email quoted in the decision, a school nurse was inquiring about the status of a one-on-one paraprofessional for a student with a seizure disorder. An administrator then asked the “director of operations” to fund the paraprofessional, implying that it was the director’s decision.

Bisceglia said that’s not how it’s supposed to work. The federal law, she said, “is defined in a way that the team who knows the child better than anyone else should be able to come together, identify the child’s strengths and needs, and have the authority to identify the supplementary aids and services that will be given to the child.” The district’s process, Bisceglia said, was “taking that authority away from the IEP team,” and putting it in the hands of an accountant.

The decision also notes the delay in getting services once they’re approved. That’s something 10-year-old Simone, another student included in the complaint, has experienced firsthand, according to her mother, Victoria. (Chalkbeat is not using their last name upon her request.)

Simone was adopted by Victoria at the age of 2 and a half. She spent her early years in an orphanage, and Victoria suspects that neglect, and perhaps abuse, led to a significant cognitive delay. Although Simone is going into fifth grade, she’s at a second-grade level academically.

Simone is very social, loving, and adores animals, Victoria said. But she is also fidgety and needs a lot of repetition and reinforcement to learn a new skill, Victoria said. Having the support of a paraprofessional, she said, helps keep Simone focused on her schoolwork.

For the past two years, Victoria fought to make sure Simone’s individualized education plan specified that she have an aide. But each year, she said, it took until January or February for the school to get the funding, advertise for the position, and hire someone.

Meanwhile, Simone fell behind. At one parent-teacher conference, Victoria recalls the teacher excitedly showing her the solution she came up in the interim: a pair of headphones to play music and a three-ring binder full of worksheets Simone could work on at the back of the classroom. When Victoria opened the binder, she saw every answer was wrong.

“I almost started crying,” she said.

Victoria decided to file a state complaint on her own, and then also to join the systemic complaint filed by Bisceglia. Her relief at learning the state had ruled in their favor was quickly replaced, she said, by sadness and frustration at Denver’s longrunning “systemic apathy.”

“Consistently, the impression was that this is about saving money,” Victoria said.

Jeanne Posthumus’s daughter Olivia was also part of the systemic complaint. Posthumus was told this past winter that funding for Olivia’s paraprofessional could be in jeopardy.

Olivia, who is 13 and has a rare genetic disorder, has thrived with the support of a paraprofessional to help her stay on task, transition smoothly between classes, and complete the modified lessons provided by her special education teacher, her mother said.

When Posthumus learned that could go away, she immediately called Bisceglia.

“That’s what we parents have to do is fight for our kids, day and night,” she said.

Her advocacy paid off: Olivia’s school received ongoing funding for her paraprofessional, Posthumus said. When she thinks about why that matters, she thinks not only about the benefits for Olivia but about the benefits for Olivia’s classmates, who are learning an important lesson in diversity by having students with disabilities included in their classes. That wouldn’t be possible without paraprofessionals, who are “the backbone of special education,” Posthumus said.

At the end of the year, Olivia’s classmates wrote notes to her, as if in a yearbook. Reflecting on the Colorado Department of Education’s decision, Posthumus read some aloud.

“You are the best friend anyone can ever get,” one note said.

“Even though you are so sassy, you are amazing,” said another.

“You are a role model for all of us,” yet another said. “You always express yourself to the fullest.

“Never change.”

School choice

Secret CPS report spotlights big vacancies, lopsided options for students

The school district says the report will help inform how it invests in and engages with communities. Communities groups worry the document will be used to justify more school closings, turnarounds and charters.

An unreleased report by a school choice group backed by the business community paints in stark detail what many Chicagoans have known for years: that top academic schools are clustered in wealthier neighborhoods, and that fewer black and Latino students have access to those schools.

The report highlights startling figures: About 27 percent of black students are in the district’s lowest-rated schools, compared with 8 percent of Latino students and 3 percent of whites. It also says that while Chicago Public Schools has more than 150,000 unfilled seats, 40 percent, or 60,000 of them, are at top-ranked schools. That surplus will grow as enrollment, which has been plummeting for years, is projected to decline further by 5.1 percent over the next three years. What that means is the cash-strapped district is moving toward having nearly one extra seat for every two of its students.

The document effectively shows that, in many areas of the city, students are skipping out on nearby options, with less than half of district students attending their designated neighborhood schools.

In a city still reeling from the largest mass school closure in U.S. history, this report could lay groundwork for another round of  difficult decisions.

The “Annual Regional Analysis” report, compiled by the group Kids First Chicago on CPS’ behalf, has been circulating among select community groups but has not been made public. It comes on the heels of a report showing students’ high school preferences vary with family income level. Students from low-income neighborhoods submit more applications than students from wealthier ones and apply in greater numbers for the district’s charter high schools.

The group behind the latest report has had many iterations: Kids First is a new name, but its origins date back to 2004, when it started as the charter fundraising group Renaissance Schools Fund. That was during the Renaissance 2010 effort, which seeded 100 new schools across the city, including many charters. The group changed its name to New Schools Chicago in 2011 and again rebranded this year as Kids First, with a greater focus on parent engagement and policy advocacy.

The report has caused a stir among some community groups who’ve seen it. Because the school district has used enrollment figures to justify closing schools, some people are worried it could be used to propose more closings, turnarounds, and charter schools.

“To me this is the new reason [for school closings],” said Carolina Gaeta, co-director of community group Blocks Together, which supports neighborhood schools. “Before it was academics, then it was utilization, now it’s going to be access and equity. Numbers can be used any way.”

In a statement on the report, Chicago Teachers Union Spokeswoman Christine Geovanis blasted Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration for policies that she alleged “undermine enrollment at neighborhood schools,” such as the proliferation of charter schools, school budget cuts, and building new schools over the objection of community members.

Reached by phone Thursday, Kids First CEO Daniel Anello confirmed that his organization helped put the report together, but declined to comment on its contents, deferring to the district. CPS Spokeswoman Emily Bolton acknowledged the report’s existence in a statement emailed to Chalkbeat Chicago that said the school district “is having conversations with communities to get input and inform decisions” about where to place particular academic programs. The statement said CPS is still in the process of drafting a final version of the document, but gave no timetable. Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office didn’t grant requests for interviews about the Annual Regional Analysis.

Below is a preview of the report provided to Chalkbeat Chicago.

Gaps in access to arts and IB programs

Data released this week from the district’s GoCPS universal high school application clearly shows what academic programs are most in demand: selective enrollment programs that require children to test in;  arts programs; and career and technical education offerings, or CTE.

The Kids First’s analysis puts those findings into context, however, by detailing how supply is geographically uneven, especially when it comes to arts. Maps in the report divide the city into regions defined by the city’s planning department and show how highly-desirable arts programs are not spread equally throughout the city, and are most concentrated along the northern lakefront and downtown.

PHOTO: Sam Park
This map shows the number of fine & performing arts program seats available per 100 elementary school students in each planning area.

Worse, four regions offer 10 or fewer arts seats per 100 students, including the Bronzeville/South Lakefront region that includes neighborhoods such as South Shore, Woodlawn, Kenwood and Hyde Park. They are also scarce in the West Side region, which includes Austin, North Lawndale, and Humboldt Park and in the Northwest neighborhoods of Belmont Cragin, Dunning, and Portage Park.

The report also shows an imbalance in the number of rigorous International Baccalaureate programs.

This map shows the number of IB program seats per 100 students available to elementary and high school students in each planning area.

The highest number of IB seats are in the wealthy, predominately white Lincoln Park area. In contrast, there are far fewer IB seats in predominantly black communities such as  Englewood and Auburn Gresham, Ashburn and in the predominantly Latino Back of the Yards.

When it comes to selective-enrollment elementary school programs such as gifted centers and classical schools, which require students to pass entrance exams, options tend to be concentrated, too, with fewer choices on the South and West sides of the city. This map shows where selective enrollment high school options are most prevalent:

PHOTO: Sam Park
This map shows the number of selective enrollment high school seats available per 100 students in the city’s planning regions.

STEM programs are more evenly distributed across Chicago than both IB and selective enrollment schools, yet whole swaths of the city lack them, especially on the South Side, including the Greater Stony Island. As the other maps show, that region lacks most of the high-demand academic programs the district has to offer.

PHOTO: Sam Park
This map shows the number of STEM program seats available per 100 elementary school students.

Racial disparities in school quality

The analysis also shows disparities in quality of schools, not just variety.

At CPS, 65 percent of students districtwide are enrolled at Level 1-plus or Level 1-rated schools. But only 45 percent of black students and 72 percent of Latino students are in those top-rated seats, compared with 91 percent of white students.

The disparities are even more severe given that the school district is mostly Latino and black, with fewer than one in 10 students identified as white. 

A page from a presentation of the Annual Regional Analysis showed to select community groups.

In the Greater Lincoln Park region, 100 percent of elementary schools have one of the top two ratings — the highest concentration of them in the city.  The highest concentration of top-rated high school seats, 91 percent, is in the Central Area, which includes Downtown and the South Loop.

The lowest concentration of top-rated elementary seats, 35 percent, is in the Near West Side region, and the lowest concentration of high school seats, 14 percent, is in the West Side region.

Long commutes from some neighborhoods

The number of students choosing schools outside their neighborhood boundaries has increased in recent years.

But the report shows that school choice varies by race: 44 percent of black students attend their neighborhood elementary school, compared with 67 percent of Latino students, 69 percent of white students, and 66 percent of Asian students. For high schoolers, only 14 percent of black students attend their neighborhood school, compared with 28 percent of Asians, 30 percent of Latinos, and 32 percent of whites.

More students enrolling outside their neighborhood attendance boundaries means more and more students have longer commutes, but how far they travel depends on their address. 

Again, this is an area where the Greater Stony Island area stands out.

A graphic from the Annual Regional Analysis executive report that shows how far elementary school students in each of the city’s 16 planning regions travel from their homes to school. The data shows that students on the South and West Sides tend to have longer commutes.

The average distance traveled for elementary school students is 1.5 miles — but K-8 students in Greater Stony Island travel an average of 2.6 miles. The average distance to class for high schoolers citywide is 2.6 miles, but students in the Greater Stony Island region travel an average of 5 miles, about twice the city average. 

A graphic from the Annual Regional Analysis executive report that shows how far high school students in each of the city’s 16 planning regions travel from their homes to school. The data shows that students on the South and West Sides tend to have longer commutes.

Looking forward

The introduction to the Annual Regional Analysis describes it as “a common fact base” to understand the school landscape. It clearly states the intent of the report is to assist with district planning, not to provide recommendations.

It still bothers Wendy Katten, founder of Raise Your Hand, who has seen the report and said it tells little about how kids are actually learning at schools.

“It sounds like some data a company would use to reduce inventory at a manufacturing plant,” she said.

Gaete with Blocks Together said the numbers in the report are also missing important context about how the proliferation of charter schools, a lack of transparent and equitable planning, and a lack of support for neighborhood schools in recent decades has exacerbated school quality disparities across race and neighborhoods in Chicago, one of the nation’s most diverse but segregated cities.

It’s unclear when the final study will be published, or how exactly the school district will use its contents to inform its decisions and conversations with communities.

But an event posting on the website for Forefront, a membership association for “nonprofits, grantmakers, public agencies, advisors, and our allies,” mentions a briefing for the report on Oct. 10.

Kids First Chicago CEO Dan Anello and CPS Director of Strategy Sadie Stockdale Jefferson will share the report there, according to the website.

state test results

With accelerated growth in literacy and math, Denver students close in on state averages

Angel Trigueros-Martinez pokes his head from the back of the line as students wait to enter the building on the first day of school at McGlone Academy on Wednesday. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)

Denver elementary and middle school students continued a recent streak of high academic growth this year on state literacy and math tests, results released Thursday show. That growth inched the district’s scores even closer to statewide averages, turning what was once a wide chasm into a narrow gap of 2 percentage points in math and 3 in literacy.

Still, fewer than half of Denver students in grades three through eight met state expectations in literacy, and only about a third met them in math.

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Look up your elementary or middle school’s test scores in Chalkbeat’s database here. Look up your high school’s test results here.

Denver’s high schoolers lagged in academic growth, especially ninth-graders who took the PSAT for the first time. Their test scores were lower than statewide averages.

“We are absolutely concerned about that,” Superintendent Tom Boasberg said Thursday of the ninth-grade scores, “and that is data we need to dig in on and understand.”

Students across Colorado took standardized literacy and math tests this past spring. Third- through eighth-graders took the Colorado Measures of Academic Success, or CMAS, tests, which are also known as the PARCC tests. High school students took college entrance exams: Ninth- and 10th-graders took the PSAT, a preparatory test, and 11th-graders took the SAT.

On CMAS, 42 percent of Denver students in grades three through eight met or exceeded state expectations in literacy. Statewide, 45 percent of students did. In math, 32 percent of Denver students met expectations, compared with 34 percent statewide.

While Denver’s overall performance improved in both subjects, third-grade literacy scores were flat. That’s noteworthy because the district has invested heavily in early literacy training for teachers and has seen progress on tests taken by students in kindergarten through third grade. That wasn’t reflected on the third-grade CMAS test, though Boasberg said he’s hopeful it will be as more students meant to benefit from the training take that test.

On the PSAT tests, Denver ninth-graders earned a mean score of 860, which was below the statewide mean score of 902. The mean PSAT score for Denver 10th-graders was 912, compared with the statewide mean score of 944. And on the SAT, Denver 11th-graders had a mean score of 975. Statewide, the mean score for 11th-graders was 1014.

White students in Denver continued to score higher, and make more academic progress year to year, than black and Hispanic students. The same was true for students from high- and middle-income families compared with students from low-income families.

For example, 69 percent of Denver students from high- and middle-income families met expectations on the CMAS literacy tests, compared with just 27 percent of students from low-income families – which equates to a 42 percentage-point gap. That especially matters in Denver because two-thirds of the district’s 92,600 students are from low-income families.

Boasberg acknowledged those gaps, and said it is the district’s core mission to close them. But he also pointed out that Denver’s students of color and those from low-income families show more academic growth than their peers statewide. That means they’re making faster progress and are more likely to reach or surpass grade-level in reading, writing, and math.

Denver Public Schools pays a lot of attention to annual academic growth, as measured by a state calculation known as a “median growth percentile.”

The calculation assigns students a score from 1 to 99 that reflects how much they improved compared with other students with similar score histories. A score of 99 means a student did better on the test than 99 percent of students who scored similarly to him the year before.

Students who score above 50 are considered to have made more than a year’s worth of academic progress in a year’s time, whereas students who score below 50 are considered to have made less than a year’s worth of progress.

The state also calculates overall growth scores for districts and schools. Denver Public Schools earned a growth score of 55 on the CMAS literacy tests and 54 on the CMAS math tests. Combined, those scores were the highest among Colorado’s 12 largest districts.

Other bright spots in the district’s data: Denver’s students learning English as a second language – who make up more than a third of the population – continued to outpace statewide averages in achievement. For example, 29 percent of Denver’s English language learners met expectations in literacy, while only 22 percent statewide did, according to the district.

Denver eighth-graders also surpassed statewide averages in literacy for the first time this year: 45 percent met or exceeded expectations, as opposed to 44 percent statewide. That increase is reflected in the high growth scores for Denver eighth-graders: 52 in math and 57 in literacy.

Those contrast sharply with the ninth-grade growth scores: 47 in math and an especially low 37 in literacy. That same group of students had higher growth scores last year, Boasberg said; why their progress dropped so precipitously is part of what district officials hope to figure out.