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Autistic Student's Progress at Stake if McClellan School Closes, Mom Says

By Casey Cora | March 5, 2013 6:07am

BRIDGEPORT — There’s a story Josephine Norwood loves to tell about her autistic son, a sixth-grader at McClellan Elementary, one of many schools that could be closed next year.

The silent youngster, Alex, was in the back seat of the family car recently when he reached over and used his finger to scrawl his name into the foggy window.

“We had no idea he could even do that,” she said. “Wrote it good, too, with a capital A. We went crazy.”

Alex, 11, was diagnosed with autism about eight years ago. Since entering the Chicago Public Schools system, he’s changed schools three times — twice because the district closed or consolidated Attucks and Abbott Elementary schools, and another time because his mother took him out of Drake Elementary after he was violently bullied.

Alex’s parents say their boy has hit his stride at McClellan, 3527 W. 35th St.

However, the school is considered underutilized by CPS and remains on list of schools eyed for closure next year, despite protests from parents and faculty and a pair of public pleas from Ald. James Balcer (11th).

“McClellan has been a godsend for me,” Norwood said. “That’s one of the most delicate situations for me, where I place [Alex] and who I place him with. Here I am so satisfied. I can just go along with my day and I know he’s in good hands.”

The Bridgeport school’s enrollment is comprised of roughly 25 percent special education students. Thirty of McClellan’s students are autistic, and they’re taught by three teachers in three small classrooms that are situated more like open spaces than the traditional desk-and-chalkboard setup.

Like Alex, many of McClellan’s autistic students are nonverbal and rely on electronic devices to help them communicate. They’re given speech and occupational therapies and have the option of retreating to a “sensory room,” a converted closet filled with special toys and illuminated by a soft glow.

The room, according to Principal Joseph Shoffner, is an “incentive and a good place to go to calm down.

“Watching the student in there, you see the benefits.”

Norwood, a Bronzeville stay-at-home mom who serves on several volunteer school and parent groups, is worried that closing McClellan would spell another disruption to her son’s routine.

“To uproot him at this point with all of his progress, you’re going to do a lot of damage,” she said.

Like their counterparts across the city, McClellan students, parents and faculty and neighborhood activists have shown up in droves to the recent feedback forums hosted by CPS.  

They’ve worn matching shirts and clutched handmade signs protesting what they say was a miscalculation by CPS of the school’s “utilization” rate, the main criteria the district is using to close buildings.

The district recently bumped up the McClellan's utilization rate to 69 percent, up from 54 percent, Shoffner said.

Still, that leaves the school one percentage point shy of the threshold that would classify the school as “efficient “ and remove it from the list for potential closure.

“You just have to wait and see what’s next,” Shoffner said.

During a recent after-school visit to McClellan by his parents, Alex, a gangly preteen, tickled some piano keys, grabbed a board game and spilled its pieces onto a table. He bounced a ball with his father, Alex Sr. and ran to hug his mother.

He’s shown a lot of progress recently, his mom said. Even made a few buddies.

As the March 31 deadline looms for CPS to release its final list, Josephine said she’s only now starting to think about what she’d do if McClellan closes.

A district spokeswoman has said CPS is "developing a comprehensive plan for transitioning any impacted students with disabilities" but officials have not disclosed the details.

Parents of special education students across the city have decried plans that would disrupt their children's education.

Two of the dozen schools on the Fulton Network's proposed closure/consolidation list, Montefiore, 1310 S. Ashland Ave., and Near North, 739 N. Ada St., are classified as special ed schools, with 100 percent of their enrollment made up of students in special education.

At Near North, 70 percent of students are on medication, some for schizophrenia and other mental illnesses.

“That’s insulting to the situation,” Josephine said. “You’re looking at a real person here. You hear about the numbers and the percentage … [but] behind all that is a real person. Alex has improved so much.”