With courage, OPRF can reform special ed

Opinion

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Kimberly Werner, One View

For much of the last two years, parents of some students in the Oak Park and River Forest High School Transitional Education with Access to the Mainstream (TEAM) program have been expressing their concerns and discontent with the educational program their children are receiving. Concurrently, members of the Supported Education Association (SEA) have been meeting regularly with the OPRFHS Director of Special Education in an attempt to address issues and concerns relating to various aspects of the services provided to a wide range of students with disabilities.

At first glance it may appear that these events reflect routine Oak Park/River Forest over-involved parental behavior. But the problems are real and the call for solutions is part of a nationwide story.

In 1975, Congress passed Public Law 94-142, now known as IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act). It required states to assure that all children with disabilities receive a free appropriate public education (FAPE). Initially this was often interpreted as a requirement that students with disabilities be allowed into the school and that they receive some educational benefit. However, over time, as standards and expectations for educational outcomes of regular education students rose, so did the expectations for educational outcomes for students with disabilities.

One of the landmarks in this process was the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in the Shannon Carter case. In 1986, Shannon Carter was 16 years old, functionally illiterate and depressed. Her parents had her evaluated and found out that she had average to above average intelligence?#34;and a learning disability and an attention deficit disorder. The school refused to offer anything more that three hours a week of special education programming, with a goal of improving Shannon's reading skills by half a year in the next school year. Her parents placed Shannon at a private special education school and three years later, with litigation still pending, Shannon graduated from that school. Shannon was now reading at the twelfth grade level. But the school district still maintained that the program it had offered, with a goal of increasing Shannon's reading skills by half a year for each school year, was adequate and that, as such, they should not be responsible for the cost of Shannon's education at the special education school. The Supreme Court's decision was in favor of Shannon Carter. This decision, that the school district was responsible for providing not just some form of education, but one that was truly appropriate to Shannon's needs, reverberated throughout the nation.

Another landmark of progress came in 1997, when the language of the reauthorization of IDEA clearly articulated the need for high expectations for students with disabilities and called for measurable goals and documented progress. This was followed a few years later by the No Child Left Behind law which included students with disabilities among those for whom adequate yearly progress is expected and measured.

All of this is to say that a lot has happened in the world of special education in the last 25-30 years. Fortunately the increase in expectations for educational outcomes has been accompanied by many advances in instructional strategies, positive behavior intervention programs, and technological tools. But, as with any form of progress, it sometimes takes a while to get everybody on board.

Some school districts still resist the idea that each student's education should be appropriate to his or her needs and result in measurable progress. In Tennessee, officials in one school district recently spent $2.2 million on lawyers and expert witnesses in an attempt to avoid providing behavioral training to a student with autism. The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit decision sided largely with the parents.

Fortunately, other school districts have moved toward the substantive improvements required to assure that students with disabilities receive a free and appropriate public education. These districts are part of a gradual but steady nationwide transformation.

Two years ago, Oak Park Elementary School District 97 began its transformation with the hiring of Steve Castle as Director of Special Services. Steve has never hesitated to recognize and praise the high quality of staff in District 97. However, with his broad knowledge and experience from outside of Oak Park he also has not hesitated to identify areas for improvement and innovation. He is fiercely student-oriented and is leading the way toward a focus on what each student needs to succeed rather than on the room or service in which the student will be placed. In the process, Steve has strengthened training for teachers, earned the trust and cooperation of parents and even increased the level of reimbursement from the state by several hundred thousands of dollars each year.

D200's decision, also made two years ago, to hire its next Director of Special Education from internal ranks, has had a very different outcome. Nobody can question Director Linda Cada's mastery of the many procedural requirements that seem to be necessary to any and every task at the high school. But her investment in the way things are done may also be a significant weakness. The procedures, techniques, and constructs that were acceptable and perhaps even considered to be innovative in the past are not adequate to take us, or our students, into the future. Refinements will not do. There needs to be a fundamental and objective evaluation of student needs and an open minded consideration of all the means that could be used to meet those needs, followed by data based assessment of progress. This should be done not only for those students in the TEAM program, but for all students with disabilities?#34;including those whose cognitive functioning is at the level of honors and Advanced Placement (AP) classes.

I have participated in most of the meetings that SEA has had with OPRFHS special education staff. We had hoped, as a first step towards improving educational outcomes, to establish the kind of positive and open relationship with the high school that we now have with District 97. Unfortunately, OPRFHS special education staff appears to be more invested in defending current programs and practices than in measuring, evaluating and innovating to improve educational outcomes. No doubt OPRFHS will, someday, embark on the necessary reformation of its approach to educating students with disabilities. How long before that happens and how much strife it will require is an open question, but eventually, the day will come when someone at the high school has the courage to move forward.

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