Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Battle

Yesterday was the end of a 3-month battle to get G into a therapeutic school within the Chicago Public School system.  Initially, right after J’s death,  I had to gather a panel of experts who could come in to my IEP meeting and make sure that G got the appropriate amount of services through the school system.  Chicago in general is known for corruption, but its system continues to come under fire for favoritism in its magnet school selection, top heavy salaries for management, general incompetence and improper teacher training and worse yet, complete chaos in neighborhoods where children are so at risk, the school system is at a loss to cope with the dysfunction presented to them daily.  But I digress.

Our IEP meeting went wonderfully.  Our case manager was on board with our desire to have G sent to a therapeutic school; our panel backed that up by articulating Gs specific needs.  It’s incredible to watch his strengths grow, but it’s also a crucial juncture for G to transition from pre-school into a much larger and more academically focused environment, while still having his social emotional needs met.

The document from the IEP was submitted electronically to the school system at the end of February and no sooner did I receive a placement: to a school miles away, with one of the largest elementary populations in the school system (1260 kids in K-6) and a 90% Hispanic population.  I’m very happy to have G at a smaller, integrated school, but one so large and with many students coming from Spanish speaking homes, I was immediately concerned that his speech delay would be further enhanced and his social emotional needs might be overwhelmed.  His placement was in an autism room – one I didn’t know how well resourced it would be.  The last blended room G had at Chicago Public Schools, there were 25 kids between 3 and 6 years old; very few had English as a first language, requiring special assistance to get them up to speed; 6 had special needs and there were 2 teachers and a para-professional for the entire room.  Many a time, the teachers would approach myself and J to talk about how overwhelmed they were.  I could see the same scenario happening at this new school.

So I got myself ready for a legal battle and engaged counsel.  I started to go through the motions of documenting what would not work with the placement G was assigned.  I was continually fobbed off by the Office of Special Education and their autism coordinator: phone calls weren’t returned, questions remained unanswered.

When I called yesterday to “check-in” again with the autism coordinator, I caught her off guard.  She told me she wasn’t responsible for placement.  But this was a lie that I also caught her in.

After spending more time finding out about who the placement officer was for autism classrooms, I contacted the therapeutic school and spoke with the principal.  She was the one that informed me of the lie – when we got off the phone, the principal called the Office of Special Education and reamed them.  But even that wasn’t enough.

It wasn’t until the principal informed the Office of Special Education that I work within the media that the placement suddenly was changed.

Friends, we did get our therapeutic school placement, but there’s a lot of dirty tricks going on at Chicago Public Schools that everyone should know about.

Between myself and the principal, we deduced since therapeutic education is far more expensive than autism rooms in neighborhood schools, Chicago Public Schools might be trying to stifle enrollment.  And indeed – the principal told me, out of a vast population of children requiring special education in Chicago, only one student had been referred to the school for the coming year.

If there are any parents in Chicago who want further advice on how to negotiate the special education system or to relate their complicated, weary stories, please don’t hesitate to tell me.  As a member of the media, I’m very happy to try and get these stories placed.  As a new widow with a family in crisis, I shouldn’t have to sue a school system to get appropriate education for my child.  I should have access to review instead of being given vague answers and ultimatums. And you should too.


  1. A Really Concerned MotherApril 22, 2010 at 9:00 PM

    I am a former suburban special education teacher/administrator. When I found out my son required specialized services, I figured getting his needs met appropriately in CPS would be no problem because, after all, that was what I did day in and day out before I stayed home with him. I know what the laws are and what should be done. What a joke. I always thought that people blew it way out of proportion when they talked about the corruption in politics/schools, but once I experienced it first hand, it was quite the eye opener.
    My son's case manager is amazing as are his teachers. They want nothing but the best for him. He is in a blended classroom and has made growth in leaps and bounds since he started four months ago (which was 2 months AFTER he was supposed to start according to the law). It is the people who work in the Office of Special Education that blow my mind. All of my son's growth and progress could come to a crashing halt at the begining of next school year if my son's Pre-School for All Class is slashed from the budget. Right now his class is one of those slated to close at the end of the year. He will then be bussed to some school miles away like you said for your son and no doubt that many of the children there will not speak English as their first language. Like you I am concerned that my son's language explosion will cease and he will be frustrated because he is finally learning how to reach out to a peer and talk to them and now, this peer may have no idea what he is saying because they do not speak the language.
    If it wasn't for my son's large delay in social/emotional skills, I would homeschool him in an instant. But what he desperately needs right now is to learn how to interact approriately with his peers. I would appreciate any insight you may have for me as to how I make sure my son gets everything he needs.

  2. How about Los Angeles? Can you take on the Los Angeles Unified School District?

  3. I'm not in Chicago, and I'm moderately optimistic about my 5yo's placement in kindegarten next year, but I cannot read this and NOT thank you for taking on the battle. It horrifies me that it comes down to threatening the SpEd department with media coverage... Anyway, you're awesome, thank you for taking a stand, and for publishing how you did it so others can do it too.

  4. We are in CA, and I must say we're in a pretty good school district. With the exception of being shuffled between schools more than we wanted to we get good services and well-trained staff. What scares me is how hard WE work to get that. Last fall we had approximately 6 meetings in the space of two months to get all the appropriate measures in place for our IEP (about two months too late by my estimation). This spring I've already had two meetings and will likely have at least two more, plus countless hours preparing and working with my daughter to help her understand the next change in schools...Our "good" school district has made several (honest?) mistakes and cuts procedural corners quite often. Makes me shudder to think what it's like in a "bad" district. We still find our most powerful tools are threats of outside evaluation, due process, or compliance complaints. It's stressful and IMHO unproductive for all concerned to have to pull out those big guns just to arrive at what's best for a child.

  5. Good grief, can I relate to what you just wrote!! I am supposed to hear back tomorrow afternoon whether or not my son is getting his private placement that I have worked to get for nearly two years. I am in Northern California and it is a nightmare here. We moved here two years ago and have watched my son go into a tailspin of regression. I will have no other options left but to hire legal counsel if tomorrow doesn't go as I hope it will...and I am so not a litigious person. The thought of it puts my stomach in knots.
    Congratulations to your family on this victory. I hope that it is a bright spot in such a rough year for you :)

  6. Dear T,
    I came across your entry about the battle with CPS recently, and I am a Chicago parent who desperately needs some advice on how to navigate this cumbersome and awful system. I will be very grateful if you can get in touch with me - my e-mail is dobritsa at