Tina Halliman, the new special education director for Oak Park and River Forest High School, believes too many special needs students are placed in alternative schools.

That’s a philosophy she’s had since starting in special education 13 years ago, and one she’s bringing with her to OPRF starting this fall.

There are those students, she says, who do need special care that their home school may not be able to provide, or where safety is an issue for that child if remaining on campus. But Halliman, who was hired by OPRF in March, is a firm believer in keeping special needs kids with their general ed peers whenever possible.

A second issue Halliman will monitor is the racial and gender makeup of students in special ed programs at the high school. She noted that boys in general-and black boys in particular-are placed in special education and alterative programs more so than other groups of students.

“That’s across the board. It’s not just at Oak Park and River Forest High School, and not just across schools in Illinois. It’s across the nation,” Halliman said. “African American and Hispanics predominantly are higher placed in special education than any other categories. And typically, your boys are higher placed in ED (emotionally disabled) programs.”

Various states, she noted, are closely monitoring such trends. Those placements, she said, are due to various factors, including boys being more physically active and aggressive than girls.

The effort to bring more local students back to their home school will be multi-faceted, said Halliman.

“The key to being successful with that is giving our people in our district the tools they need to service those students,” said Halliman, who was hired from a southern Cook County school district where she was director of pupil personnel services.

District 130 in Blue Island serves about 4,000 students from Blue Island, Alsip, Robbins and Crestwood. Halliman worked at the elementary school district for five years. The Harvey native grew up in that community as well; her mother continues to work in the district.

At the Blue Island district, Halliman oversaw 800 special education students. When she was hired in 2006, Halliman became the first black person to ever hold a district level administrative position. That fact, she said, surprised her.

Concerning the outplacement of students, Halliman recalled the Blue Island district placing 10 to 15 students at alternative locations. That number was down to two students this school year, she said.

Over the years, some parents at OPRF have expressed concern over high numbers of students placed off-campus. Halliman said her previous district has self-contained classrooms where emotionally-disabled students are placed. She was pleased to find that OPRF had a similar program in the works that will launch this fall.

“This is a classroom where we will be bringing some of our off-campus students back into the general education building, so I’m excited about that,” Halliman said. “It’s probably time for them to transition. They were probably doing well at their off-campus placement and are now ready to be acclimated back into the general education setting, and getting the needed services in place so we don’t set them up for failure.

“The goal of special education,” she added, “is to always get children in their least restrictive environment, which is the general ed population, as much as we can.”

A teacher has already been hired for that new classroom, said Halliman, who’ll be interviewing for a paraprofessional to assist in that room later this month.

Halliman acknowledged that students with serious mental health issues usually need off-campus care. Some of those issues start when students are in their pre-teens, particularly when issues like depression start to manifest. Halliman couldn’t speak to what’s taken place prior to her arrival at OPRF, but said she did have questions about off-campus placements during her initial interviews.

“I did notice that they do have quite a bit of students off-campus. That was actually one of my questions. Do we have programs here? Why do we have so many students off campus,” she said.

Since officially starting on July 1, she discovered that those placements typically involved students with mental health issues.

“We’re dealing with a whole other ballgame with that,” Halliman said. “What you don’t want to have is a student on-campus and where we don’t have the necessary services, and then something happens to the child.”

Halliman says she’s going to spend her first few weeks getting acclimated to these and other issues at the high school.

The mother of three actually wasn’t looking to leave her former district, she said, and was recruited for OPRF’s position – former director Linda Cada retired this year.

Halliman, who has a doctorate in education administration, said she never pictured herself as an educator growing up. Her educational background is in psychology and she early on was a social worker and counselor. From there she was encouraged by a friend to apply for the Teachers of Chicago program. Halliman said she knew she always wanted to help people, especially those most in need.

And she recalled as a child always being “the teacher” when playing with her three sisters.

“I guess it was in my destiny,” Halliman said.

Wednesday Journal will have more stories about new school administrators in upcoming issues.

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