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CPS Cuts Affect Special Needs Students

Image by Sean MacEntee via Flickr

Budget problems are causing the Chicago Public Schools Board of Education to make staffing and administration cuts that could hurt students with special needs.

“My son is falling through the very large holes in this system,” said Mary Kay Feeny at a recent CPS board meeting.

Feeney’s son has been diagnosed with severe attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, a condition called dysgraphia that impairs writing, and a behavior disorder called oppositional defiant disorder. 

Parents and disability advocates fear that budget cuts will lead to even fewer special education classroom aides for children like Feeny’s son who need them.

Of the 1,669 special education classroom aides that the union represents, 165 were laid off, according to Beniamino Capellupo, organizing director of Service Employees International Union Local 73.

They are cutting positions that could “make a difference in these kids lives,” Capellupo said, adding that schools have also laid off security guards, custodians, and bilingual aides.

Feeny told the board that after years of testing and consultation, her son finally began receiving part time assistance last year with a special education instructor named Ryan Rogers.

Her son attends Healy Elementary in the Bridgeport neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago.

“He was improving in the classroom and his behavior also was changing because of the constant redirection and assistance of Mr. Rogers,” Feeny said.

She said that his Individualized Education Program, which assesses special needs children, recommended that he have a full-time aide, but that the request was denied by the school’s principal.

“Depending on the needs, we have to move special education classroom aides around,” said Alfonso Carmona, principal at Healy Elementary.

Carmona said Feeny’s son has an aide in his room, but he would not disclose how many other students that aide accommodates. He said there are 11 teaching assistants in different capacities at his school.

“There’s no law that indicates how many kids can have that aide,” said Rodney Estvan, a policy analyst in education at Access Living, which advocates for people with disabilities in the Chicago area.

He said that the workload is increasing in many cases for both aides and administrators who help children with special needs because of layoffs and cuts.

The workload for special service administrators at the elementary level has increased by 42 percent, he said.

Estvan said whether special education aides can properly handle a certain number of kids depends on the “intensity of the service requirements of the kid in front of them.”

If kids have behaviors that require constant monitoring, or if they have to also do the work that a child welfare attendant usually handles, the shared aide’s possibility will be limited, he said.

In addition to the work they do inside the classroom, some principals may co-opt special education aides for other uses, running the risk of having these positions flagged as unnecessary by CPS and cut.

“We all have to work for the best interest of these kids through this nightmare situation that we’re in,” Estvan said, adding that Access Living is more than willing to work with CPS on cost saving measures that don’t hurt kids.

CPS has 12,000 special education aides and serves 52,000 students with disabilities according to Dr. Richard Smith, the chief officer of the Office of Special Education and Supports.

He said that the budget for special services increased by $18 million this year and that if anything, there is a problem with having too many aides.“If some are being laid off, there are many being constantly hired,” he said.He said that research shows that an over reliance on aides can increase “learned helplessness” and can limit a child’s exposure to the core curriculum.Sharing aides leaves kids with “more opportunities to socialize and be independent,” Smith said.

Beverly King is a special education aide who disagrees. Although she was laid off recently, she said she volunteers in a first grade class with 42 students, 10 of which need one-on-one assistance.

“The number of children requiring special education is not decreasing, but the number of people who can help is,” she told the Chicago Board of Education, adding that TIF money should be used to help improve special education.

“Those children need paraprofessionals because they can identify and find things that the teachers, because they have so many other children, can’t,” said King.

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