WEST RIDGE — Despite pleas from Mather High School's administration to keep special education positions that were on the chopping block, Chicago Public Schools has denied an appeal that would keep at least one "irreplaceable" teacher in the classroom.
What's more, teachers at the school said they feared the cuts could put them out of compliance with state and federal laws regarding special education teaching and time requirements — an issue they said they were already dealing with before the latest round of cuts.
Kevin Conway, a special education teacher at the 5835 N. Lincoln Ave. school, said he was told last week that his last day at the school would be Friday.
"The neediest of kids don't get to have the services they deserve to have, and that's awful," Conway said. "Legally, they're not receiving them either, which is another issue."
The West Ridge high school houses about 1,559 students, 10.2 percent of whom are considered part of the "diverse learner," or special education, population, according to CPS.
With two teachers and three aides being cut, the school now has 13 special education positions.
Conway said at least two of those left aren't teachers — one regularly manages case files and student plans, while another is a reading specialist.
Zach Alukos, a fellow special education teacher at Mather who also sits on the Local School Council, said this year alone at least five classes that had a mix of general and diverse learners were not being taught or co-taught by special education personnel — a violation of the law.
"It's like one of those things where we're actually short a teacher, but then they say we have too many," Conway said. "And you just get used to hearing the ... ideas from them that just don't make sense."
In a Nov. 25 statement from CPS, the district said it had realigned "special education resources following a thorough review of diverse learner programs across the district to ensure resources are in place to meet the needs of every student with an Individualized Education Program (IEP)" — meaning they were within the law.
CPS said schools gained or lost positions based on need.
"The goal of the District’s funding review process was to ensure every student with an IEP receives the services outlined in their plans. As a result of this review, some schools gained positions while other schools lost positions as allocations were modified based on need," CPS said.
Alukos explained that during the appeals process, the school was asked to fill out a spreadsheet making its case for why the positions were needed.
Their main argument was simple: any additional cuts would put the school further out of compliance, and be a detriment to students who needed help the most.
In November, another West Ridge school, Stone Scholastic Elementary, appealed the loss of four positions and won. But Alukos said when Mather's administration heard back from CPS, the district argued the school would still be in compliance with the law and went ahead with the staff cuts.
Conway, who taught and co-taught five classes at Mather over the last four years, said he's not sure how the school will cope with the losses. In the past, he's turned to teacher crowdfunding websites like Donors Choose to help pay for basic classroom textbooks.
"Being a teacher ... you want to focus on the kids, you want to focus on helping them learn and achieve their goals and set them up for the future," he said. "It's just, there are some days you don't even have the supplies to offer to your kids."
Without Conway, Alukos said his students would either be thrust into other classrooms where they had already learned the material, or they'll be placed into teaching environments without special education teachers — putting the school further from compliance.
Conway, who in addition to being the boy's cross country coach oversees the school's volunteer club and sits on a number of behavioral and academic committees at the school, is more than "just a teacher," Alukos said.
"Kevin's just a stand-up guy, what we would be losing is much bigger than just a teacher," Alukos said. "He would be a really difficult person to replace because of what he brings to the classroom environment."
Alukos said students are drawn to Conway because of his calm and relaxed, yet "goofy" demeanor that helps both learners and staff feel at ease.
He said he knows it sounds "cliche," but Conway really does have the "best interests of the students in mind."
Conway said he loves his school and his students and wishes he didn't have to give up his position. He loves the many cultures represented at Mather, his running team, colleagues and the bustling ideas and creativity he sees from students.
With these cuts, he worries not only about the students academically, but socially and emotionally — how they will cope with the loss of additional resources and a sense of stability.
Conway said Mather remains his first choice for teaching, but is also prepared to move on. He has two interviews with CPS schools this week.
Despite the personal and professional hardships, he said he's never considered moving out of CPS. Still, he hopes he sees positive changes made that work to strengthen the district's schools rather than harm them, he said.
"If teaching was just being able to teach and learn from the kids as well, that would be amazing," Conway said. "But there are a lot of other outside influences that are affecting the way teachers are trying to change [students'] lives, and the way they teach."
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