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Note: the following letter written by UIC College of Education professor Federico Waitoller was published in the May 21 edition of the Chicago Tribune.
On May 22, the Chicago School Board will decide whether to approve one of the largest mass school closings in U.S. history. The impacts will be felt in different ways by the more than 46,000 mostly black students who’ll be affected. But the action is likely to create a perfect storm in which students of color in special education - more than 2,300 pupils - are hardest hit.
The closings will require a close look at each such students’ Individualized Education Program to ensure that students' learning experiences aren't effected. This is a titanic task, as special education must not be provided in a generic way - per the Individual with Disabilities Education Act - but rather on individual bases. The rush to evaluate thousands of IEPs, communicate with thousands of parents, train teachers, and make sure adequate services are provided within a few months will make maintaining adequate special education difficult.
Many of the students of color with special needs are included in the general education classroom. Inclusion is a complex and time-consuming process demanding trust among school professionals, parents and students. Those efforts will be set back as students with special needs move to new schools.
Some classrooms are projected to be overcrowded as a result of the closings. Teachers could have too many pupils to serve the individual needs of students with disabilities, which may discourage IEP teams from placing students in general education classrooms. This would exacerbate a situation in which students of color are less likely to be included in general education than their white peers. While 60 percent of white special education students are included in general education classrooms for at least four-fifths of the day, that number drops to 45 percent among black students.
Moreover, students of color with disabilities are particularly affected by commuting through unsafe neighborhoods. An inability to pick up social cues, compulsive behaviors and low self-esteem put them at a higher risk of being the victims of, and participants in, acts of violence. CPS’ proposed safety plans have already been criticized for being generic. They’ll also pose more risks to students with special needs.
This combination of factors will make school closings doubly hard for students of color with special needs. The sheer magnitude and speed of these changes will be especially painful for what is already the school district’s most vulnerable population.
Department of Special Education
UIC College of Education