SESIS UNDER FIRE

James sues city for not properly tracking services for students with disabilities

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Public Advocate Letitia James

Public Advocate Letitia James has filed a lawsuit against the city education department, alleging that flaws with its special-education data system have resulted in missing support services for some students and the loss of millions of dollars.

The lawsuit centers on the embattled $130 million Special Education Student Information System, or SESIS. That system was designed to allow educators to more easily keep track of the learning plans created for each of the city’s more than 200,000 students with disabilities, and to make sure the students receive their mandated services.

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However, the system came under fire almost immediately after it was rolled out in 2011. Teachers reported that it was glitchy and burdensome, and the city comptroller blamed the system for keeping the city collecting millions of dollars in federal Medicaid reimbursements for low-income students with disabilities.

Now, James is taking those longstanding critiques of the Bloomberg-era system one step further by filing the lawsuit, which claims that problems with SESIS contributed to the city losing out on $356 million in Medicaid dollars over several years.

“The program doesn’t work and it never has,” James said at a press conference Monday. “The failure of the system has been one of the department’s worst-kept secrets.”

When former City Comptroller John Liu made a similar claim in 2013, city officials denied that Medicaid reimbursements are in any way affected by SESIS. On Monday, a city law department spokesman said the city plans to review James’ lawsuit.

The latest attack on SESIS comes on the heels of a U.S. Department of Justice investigation that found the city provides “inexcusable” accommodations for its young students with disabilities and has failed to address the problem for years. On Friday, the city formally rejected the findings that two-year investigation by the office of Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, the New York Times reported.

School staff working with special-education students are required to log information into SESIS about each student’s “Individualized Education Program,” or IEP, including details about initial evaluations, meetings with parents, services provided, and any changes made to the plan. But the system suffered from so many technical problems early on that teachers had to input data on evenings and weekends, which eventually led an arbitrator to order the city to pay $38 million in overtime to more than 30,000 educators.

Advocates have other complaints. Ellen McHugh, a longtime special education advocate and James’s appointee on the citywide council on special education, said parents should be able to access the system to keep tabs on their children’s progress.

“We can’t, as parents, access our child’s IEP,” she said. “We can’t, as parents, find out that our IEPs are being implemented.”

Maggie Moroff, special education policy coordinator for Advocates for Children, said that many students with disabilities do go without their mandated services. While she hesitated to lay the blame completely on SESIS, she said the city needs to make sure that no students fall through the cracks.

“There are lots of kids going on without their services,” she said, “and there doesn’t seem to be a system designed to flag that.”

The public advocate’s office has set its sights on the city’s handling of students with disabilities before. In August, James joined a lawsuit — which is set to start oral arguments in April — that claims the city is violating a local law that requires students with disabilities to be transported in air-conditioned buses when it’s particularly warm outside.

“We go wherever the facts lead us,” James said, “and, unfortunately, a significant number of complaints that we have received are from parents with special needs children.”

An education department spokesman did not comment directly on the lawsuit’s claims about SESIS.

However, he said that more school staffers had been trained to use the system. He also noted that the city has taken other steps to boost its supports for students with special needs, including launching more programs for students with autism and hiring 300 additional occupational therapists.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

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