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A Top Chicago School Struggles with Special Ed

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Congress is confronting questions of how best to measure the progress of special education students, as it debates reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind law. Some schools in Illinois this year failed to improve because their special education kids fell short. The list includes Walt Disney Magnet, one of Chicago's best elementary schools. Chicago Public Radio's Jay Field has the story.

Kathleen Hagstrom, Disney's principal, is always addressing the same misconception. Her North Side school sits on prime real estate along Chicago's lakefront and Hagstrom says people just assume her students are white and affluent. Not true. Disney's 1500 students are seventy-five percent low-income and eighty percent minority, which makes this next little statistic all the more impressive: over the last six years, the number of Disney students meeting or exceeding state academic standards has gone up by nearly thirty percent

HAGSTROM: Last March, Dr. Eason Watkins, our chief education officer, asked 25 to 30 principals to come to a meeting. And it was proposed that because of our academic achievement and because of the type of population we're serving, meaning a challenging population, we're we interested in replicating ourselves?

Hagstrom had dreamed of taking her school's eclectic art and technology-heavy approach to learning to a struggling part of the city. But as she and her staff began working on Disney 2.0, they got some bad news: special education students at the original Disney had fallen short on the state achievement test. Case manager Loretta Westley oversees the academic plans of the school's special needs students.

WESTLEY: It is a challenge that they have to be judged by the same standards as the rest of the kids, and if they don't make this mark, this group will bring down the school.

According to the federal government, Disney, despite its high overall test scores, was a failing school. So back in September, Principal Hagstrom called the school's special ed team together for a meeting.

HAGSTROM: I got really firm with them about, ‘We have to look at ourselves again!' We have to examine what we're doing. We have to look more carefully at the kids with special needs to see, ‘How can we make a difference?'

Disney has a hundred and fifty special education students. A small percentage of them, the kids with severe disabilities, learn in their own classrooms with specially-trained teachers. The majority—considered slower learners—is mixed in with the regular student body. These are the kids Hagstrom and her staff are focusing on.

In the past, Disney used what's called the “resource” approach, where kids are pulled out of regular classes into smaller learning groups. But this year, the school is moving away from that. Now, they're including slow learners more often in regular classroom work. 

ambi: Teacher reading in classrom “In the gentle spring morning, everyone gathered together near the willows to say farewell.”

As teacher Melissa Sleazy reads to her third graders, a special ed teacher, Mary Reyes, moves from table to table, offering help.

CLASSROOM: Who's you and who's us….the villagers.

SPECIAL ED TEACHER: Who's you and who's us….the villagers!

REYES: What I was trying to do was explain to them, as clear as a I could, what was going on in the classroom and modifying it for them by actually going over it with them. Going over what needs to be done and step by step.

Both Reyes and the regular ed teacher Sweazy have previous experience with inclusion. Sweazy says she prefers it.

SWEAZY: And Mary and I can just speak to one another. And I can have eyes on them as well. So it's not just her having to tell me, ‘Well so and so got this concept today, so and so struggled with this concept.' I can actually see it, playing out, in the classroom.

Officials at Disney are hopeful this emphasis on co-teaching will lead to higher test scores. Even if they succeed, they still face an uphill climb. Last year, No Child Left Behind required fifty-five percent of all student subgroups—whites, Latinos, backs, low-income and special ed—to meet state standards. That number goes up seven-and-a-half percent a year between now and 2014. Case manager Loretta Westley says it's sometimes hard not to throw up her hands in frustration.

WESTLEY: You can see that these kids have made tremendous gains. Some of them come in reading three words. And now they're reading at the second grade level and even though their in sixth grade, it doesn't seem like a huge growth. And according to No Child Left Behind, they're not seen as making progress. But within themselves, they're making huge gains.

Westley believes the federal government should create new, more realistic testing measures for special ed students. But many disability rights groups believe keeping the bar high is important. They fear otherwise these students will end up getting an inferior education. It's a battle that will continue to be fought out, when Congress continues debating the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind next year.

I'm Jay Field, Chicago Public Radio.

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