SEA raises OPRF special ed concerns over parent involvement

Parents want monthly meetings kept, school unsure of benefits to all

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By DREW CARTER

Monthly meetings between parent representatives of a special education group and administrators at Oak Park and River Forest High School have stopped, raising concerns among parents that the meetings will not continue in the fall.

"As parents, we understand the challenges associated with educating our children," said Kimberly Werner of Supported Education Association (SEA). "Because we understand these challenges, we know that it is absolutely critical that families and school staff collaborate, engage in open communication, and work together to continually develop solutions and improve educational opportunities for our children."

Werner's comments came at an Aug. 4 hearing on OPRF discipline, special education, and minority achievement, hosted by the state House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee at the James R. Thompson Center in Chicago.

But last week OPRF special education director Linda Cada said she felt the closed-door meetings between her, curriculum chief Phil Prale and SEA representatives were not helpful because the representatives would relate concerns from other parents, which caused a disconnect.

"I want to make sure parents know Linda Cada is here and you can dial her number" with concerns, Cada said.

School and SEA members met monthly for two years. But the school canceled the June meeting because of an administrative reorganization that put special services under Pupil Support Services Asst. Supt. Donna Stevens. Previously it had been overseen by Phil Prale, assistant superintendent for curriculum.

SEA parents later received an e-mail dated June 13 from Stevens stating that she planned to meet with Prale and Cada to "debrief and make a determination if the meetings were productive regarding students; if the purpose was attained and where we should go from here."

Stevens wrote in the e-mail that she would be in touch "later this week," but SEA had not received any word from the high school as of Monday.

Special education parent forums will continue in the fall. Four meetings with different topics have been scheduled, and the meeting time changed in hopes of attracting more people. Cada said the forums will be held on Tuesdays at 7 p.m.

But parents say the forums are more like informational sessions put on by the high school than a place to share concerns.

Werner also said at the hearing that parents of special needs high school students "have been dismayed at the extent to which teachers and staff appear to be genuinely distressed, even frightened and at times angered, by suggestions that current practices may be anything less than perfect.

"As a former teacher, I understand this knee-jerk defensiveness," Werner said. "But as a parent and taxpayer, I find it frustrating and counterproductive."

Werner said that speaking out at the hearing wasn't easy, knowing how school staff members have reacted to previous privately expressed concerns, but that parents and staff need to come together.

"The current situation is not stable," Werner said. "If the relationship between parents and the high school does not improve, it will almost certainly get worse. It is in everyone's best interest to break down the walls and learn how to work together."

Cada agreed that parents and staff need to work together, but said most parents would say their relationships with school staff members are stable. She said the school has taken ideas submitted by parents and worked them into the curriculum. The school's curriculum is considered "innovative" and "cutting edge" by an independent consultant and fellow administrators from schools around the state, Cada said.

"If I have fallen down and not made that public knowledge, I will apologize to my staff," Cada said.

"We're not setting out to say the whole thing is bad," said Rance Clouser, another SEA member, adding that parents have many positive experiences to share with administrators, and parents don't expect the system to be perfect.

"What we are expecting is a district that will acknowledge there are successes and shortcomings and is willing to work on those shortcomings."

Clouser said SEA hopes to establish a relationship with Cada like the one it has with Oak Park elementary schools special ed director Steve Castle, one that Clouser describes as having "a high degree of trust."

Closed-door meetings allow parents to communicate openly with staff, and to help find solutions to problems identified. Clouser said Castle uses parent meetings to hear feedback that begins a process of information gathering on the issue, which he then responds to at the next month's meeting.

Similar concerns are taken personally at the high school, Clouser said.

SEA hoped to establish a standing committee at OPRF as it has at Dist. 97, but the high school board denied that request. Meetings with Cada were in lieu of such a committee. Clouser pointed out that a recent consultant's evaluation of two OPRF special ed programs identified parent involvement as key: "We strongly suggested that a parent advisory committee be formed to work toward PROACTIVE AND COLLABORATIVE future change," the report stated.

CONTACT: dcarter@wjinc.com

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