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Public School Closings Could Harm Special Education Students, Critics Say

By Adeshina Emmanuel | February 21, 2013 6:17am | Updated on February 21, 2013 9:09am
 Maria and Sylvana Galivanes.
Maria and Sylvana Galivanes.
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Family Photo

ANDERSONVILLE — Parents rallying in support of schools eyed for closure in Uptown and Andersonville accuse officials of neglecting a looming question: What will happen to special education students displaced by school closings?

Officials acknowledged that they have no answer to that yet — but said they are formulating a plan now.

Chicago Public Schools is "developing a comprehensive plan for transitioning any impacted students with disabilities" who now attend schools on the list of 129 still eligible for closure, CPS spokeswoman Robyn Ziegler said.

About 400 special education students attend the four Ravenswood-Ridge network schools on the list that have been deemed "underutilized" by CPS.

Lyman Trumbull Elementary School in Andersonville has about 140 special ed students, 36 percent of its student body.

Trumbull special education teacher Michele Van Pelt said she can't fathom how officials "are going to place kids in the appropriate schools," if they are just now getting around to formulating a plan.

"I don't know how they expect these kids to transition in the time that they are going to get," said Van Pelt. "I foresee it being a big mess."

Trumbull staff often spend about a year in advance discussing transitions for children moving between classes and grade levels, she added.

Ziegler did not have specifics on the plan yet, and said potential relocation processes will be clearer around March 31, when a list of school-closing recommendations is finalized.

But CPS "has not discussed relocations enough," when it comes to children with disabilities in the area schools, said Jim Morgan, Trumbull parent and Local School Council chair.

At a presentation officials attempted to give at the first Ravenswood-Ridge public hearing on school closings last month, officials did not mention special education.

"If they close Trumbull," Morgan wanted to know, "where are our special education kids going to go?"

Maria Galivanes wondered the same thing.

Five years ago, the Albany Park mother enrolled her autistic, bilingual daughter, Sylvana Galivanes, at Trumbull — and saw her make strides in improving her motor skills, concentration, communication and sociability, she said.

The shift was apparent at a family gathering six months after she enrolled.

Sylvana was more talkative and made more eye contact with her relatives than usual — whereas before she was more prone to look toward people but "just off to the side."

The 13-year-old is now "turning on light switches," "opening doors," and accomplishing other feats like typing and solving fractions that Galivanes said she "never thought she would do."

Maria Galivanes credits teachers and programs at Trumbull for providing Sylvana, now in seventh grade, with the social and academic environment to thrive. And she is "praying to God" that Sylvana's eighth-grade year won't include a destabilizing change at a time when she needs to focus on another daunting transition: high school.

"I don't know how that would impact her progress," she worried. "I'm very concerned it will affect her development — in all areas — academically and socially."

"I'm praying that this is not going to happen," she said.

Trumbull special education teacher Michele Van Pelt said she worried that Sylvana and children like her also will lose important emotional and social bonds if their schools close. She has "a real concern for my students here that any transition is going to be extremely difficult for them," she said. Not knowing CPS' plan is "extremely stressful" for parents, she said.

 Lyman Trumbull Elementary School, 5200 N. Ashland Ave., has about 140 special education students.
Lyman Trumbull Elementary School, 5200 N. Ashland Ave., has about 140 special education students.
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Trumbull School

Critics at a Saturday school-closing hearing, including Trumbull Principal Venus Shannon and Ald. Patrick O'Connor (40th), questioned the math CPS used to designate Trumbull and other schools as "underutilized," the primary justification for closing schools. O'Connor, speaking on behalf of Trumbull, told CPS officials "we think that your count is an undercount."

He also asked CPS to weigh "qualitative factors," and not just data, in its decisions — a notion echoed by Shannon.

The CPS space calculations "will not give you the right numbers," Shannon said.

The formula, for one, assumes that all classrooms have a maximum capacity of 30 students.

But classes where students receive special education services for more than 60 percent of the school day, such as in the eight classes devoted to special education at Trumbull, are allowed eight students per teacher, or a maximum of 13 students if a qualified assistant is there, according to the Illinois State Board of Education.

School utilization is determined by "a straightforward calculation," formulated the same way for every school in the district, Ziegler acknowledged.

The calculation itself does not account for the specific space needs of special education classrooms, but "CPS considers other factors," too, Ziegler said.

"We are taking a much deeper look at these special education programs and how the students impact space use," Ziegler said.