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Elsa Delgado at Chicago Public Schools' Kelyvn Park High School with a former student on Nov. 15, 2023.

Chicago Public Schools aide Elsa Delgado (right) catches up with a former student at Kelyvn Park High School. “We do the little things that make a big thing,” she says. “And nobody sees what we do.”

Manuel Martinez

Personal aides for students are the unsung heroes of special education in CPS

As part of a series called “Inside Schools,” WBEZ is profiling people who make schools run.

Every few minutes, the eighth grader gets distracted and her aide, Elsa Delgado, gently prods her to stay focused. “Read it out loud,” Delgado tells her. And when the student writes an answer to a question, Delgado encourages her: “Yes, that’s good.”

With time, Delgado is confident she can help this girl succeed this school year and put her on a better trajectory. “We do the little things that make a big thing,” Delgado says.

Delgado works as a special education aide in the junior high program at Kelvyn Park High School in the Hermosa neighborhood on Chicago’s Northwest side. She spends all day, everyday shadowing her assigned students. Some years, it is just one. This year, she has three.

Elsa Delgado (center), a special education aide in Chicago Public Schools, works with two of her students at Kelyvn Park High School on Nov. 15, 2023.

Elsa Delgado, a special education aide, helps two of her students with their assignments at Kelyvn Park High School.

Manuel Martinez

Schools rely on tens of thousands employees like Delgado across many fields to keep buildings and classrooms running smoothly. And much like teachers, they’re often underappreciated and overworked.

But they play a vital role, especially in special education. Chicago Public Schools has spent years trying to improve its services and aides are a key part. When the school system’s special education program was put under state corrective action in 2018, it was partly because CPS made it difficult to get support from aides included in students’ individualized education plans. Those plans lay out the supports students with disabilities need to get an appropriate education.

CPS was trying to cut costs and, though aides are not highly paid, assigning a full-time staffer to a small number of children is expensive.

Over the last five years, the number of aides has gone up more than any other position in special education, except for case managers, which went from being an extra responsibility for teachers to a stand-alone position. There are now about 6,800 aide positions in the school district, up from 4,500 in 2018. The cost also has nearly doubled, from $150 million in 2018 to nearly $280 million.

But CPS and school districts across the country have trouble filling these positions. About 500 CPS aide positions, or 7% were vacant, as of Nov. 1, according to CPS. This means many students aren’t getting all the support they need and aides are likely stretched thin.

“Nobody sees what we do”

Working as an aide is intense, physically and emotionally, Delgado says. Aides perform a range of tasks, from keeping kids with autism from running off to helping physically disabled students navigate schools.

Delgado said she and other aides often work with young Black and Latino boys, who are the most among the most likely to drop out without the right support. She said aides need more training and respect.

“We feel so unappreciated,” Delgado said. “Nobody sees what we do.”

She points to the giggly eighth grade girl she works with now. They’re together from the moment the girl arrives until the moment she leaves.

“She’s very close to me,” she said. “I [have] seen her cry, I [have] seen her curse people out, I [have] seen her laugh. So that relationship is very strong.”

Special education aide Elsa Delgado (left) confers with a student during class.

Elsa Delgado (left) went back to school to become an aide. At the time, Delgado was working as a waitress and struggling to raise her children on her own.

Manuel Martinez

Delgado says her students have taught her the power she has to make a difference. She still keeps in touch with a young man named Elijah. When she first met him as a freshman, she spent most of the time chasing him down the hallways. He couldn’t sit still and didn’t want to be in class.

“He had no hope in him,” she said. “He just acted poorly to get attention.”

At first, she didn’t know how to get him to calm down and try in school. She was relatively new to the job and turned to a veteran aide for support. Delgado also leaned on what she knew: being a mom.

She noticed he came to school hungry, so she made sure she had food for him. He was also tired, so she let him take walks to get fresh air rather than scold him for dozing off. She became his “personal assistant,” she said.

“I would organize his book bag, his locker,” she said. “Remind him, ‘don’t forget to shower,’ because those are the things he will forget …. ‘I am the personal assistant that sees what you don’t see in you.’ ”

Special education aide Elsa Delgado in the hallway at Kelvyn Park High School on Nov. 15, 2023.

Elsa Delgado splits her time between three students this year.

Manuel Martinez

Delgado also shared some of her experience with him. She became an aide through Palenque LSNA, a group formerly known as Logan Square Neighborhood Association. She started in the parent mentor program, which has been sending parents and others into classrooms to support teachers for nearly 30 years.

At the time, Delgado was working as a waitress and struggling to raise her children on her own. Seeing the potential in Delgado, Palenque helped pay for her associate’s degree.

“It opened the door for so many opportunities that I didn’t know they were there,” she said. “I was like ‘maybe I could be more than just a server.’ Maybe there’s hope because there’s help out there.”

With state funding, Palenque last year formalized the program to help parent mentors become aides and already has helped 132 parent mentors get credentialed.

And Delgado told Elijah that, when she came to the United States from Mexico as a child, she had a hard time adjusting from the warm beaches of Mexico to Chicago where it was cold and everyone spoke a different language. She had her children young and by the time she met Elijah, Delgado was a single mother with teenage children.

“If I can do it, [you] must believe you can do it,” she told Elijah.

Special education aide Elsa Delgado works students on the basics of Volleyball during gym on Nov. 15, 2023.

Elsa Delgado (left) spends all day shadowing her three students, including in gym class where they were learning the basics of volleyball.

Manuel Martinez

Eventually, Elijah started coming to classes more prepared and tried to do well.

He wound up at a special high school for students with behavioral disabilities and is now working as a chef. It might not seem like a big deal to others, but Delgado said it is remarkable how well he is doing.

“I am like ‘I knew you had it in you,’ and we kept seeing that and we kept pushing it and now he’s like he’s doing his thing and I couldn’t be more proud,” she said.

Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on X @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.

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