As special-education costs continue to rise at Oak Park and River Forest High School, reimbursement for those services from the state and federal governments continues to shrink.
That combination is putting a greater squeeze on the high school’s locally captured tax dollars, even as it presents ever more complex questions to staff and administrators about meeting their legal and moral obligations to provide the best education possible for some 600 students with special-ed diagnoses.
A telling number is that this fall, OPRF is funding off-campus alternative educations to 84 students. That’s up from 64 a year back. These are expensive but necessary placements for students with a range of serious educational, physical and mental health challenges.
All of this makes it a good time for the school’s current and thorough-going audit of all aspects of special-education programming. The school board hired a consultant to come in and undertake a complete assessment of its programs, staff, organizational structure and costs.
We would ask, for instance, for a clearer assessment of what leads to a student — particularly a black male student — being categorized as behavior disordered. This is an area where we’ve seen notable run-ups in numbers, and we wonder if it is fully legitimate. We look forward to better understanding that issue.
The special-ed audit will be completed shortly and will then be a baseline assessment used as the district turns in early 2015 to hiring a new director of special-ed services.
Special ed — under the larger Pupil Support Services model at the high school — has been something of an orphan over past years at D200. It has been shuffled from one administrative area to another, and has seen more turnover and instability in leadership than one would like to see, especially in an effort requiring an exceptional ability to build trust with parents, students and its own teachers.
Steven Isoye, the district superintendent, gets credit for slowing down hiring a new special-ed chief last year in order to conduct this audit. There are too many at-risk students who need help and too many dollars at stake not to have the clearest picture possible.