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Parents of special needs kids raise concerns over school closings

Parents of Chicago special education students pleaded with the school district Tuesday to re-think its plan to close schools.

About two dozen parents gathered in the lobby of district headquarters. They all have children with profound special needs who attend schools CPS is thinking about closing.

"I’m begging the public schools system not to close Smyth or any school where parents have children who have special needs," said Lasharra Wilson, who has a child at the Near West Side school. "It’s already hard enough to find schools for our children. Where are we supposed to go?"

One mother said her sixth grade autistic son has gone through two other closings. He was at Attucks until the autism program there was moved to Abbott. The district closed Abbott in 2009 and moved autistic children to McClellan. Now CPS is considering closing McClellan. 

Wilson says moving children with profound needs has implications for their families, their schools and the children's well-being.

"You can’t transition autistic children. They don’t take well to change, so changing them is going to create behavioral problems in the classroom and at home. It’s going to make learning hard."

Parents talked about having fought for new facilities or accessible buildings that may now be shuttered. Others said it took them years to find a school, and talked about how it would be heartbreaking to leave a school that was helping their children progress, sometimes after years of frustrating setbacks.

The parents were joined by Raise Your Hand, a parent group that has sharply criticized the school district's method of calculating whether schools are underused. Director Wendy Katten said she has little faith that district can effectively transition such needy students to other schools.

"I personally have seen CPS botch (special education) plans for my own child. I know that they cannot properly transition 6,000 (special education) children... in one school year. This is a disgrace....There is no way that they can do transition plans when they couldn't even assess these buildings properly."

The district says it sent a letter home with special ed students today.  Signed by schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett, it promises a plan to transition kids, and says receiving schools will be ready on Day 1.

"I know that consolidating underutilized schools will allow us to focus our resources so that every child can be in a safe, better performing school close to their home," the letter says. It promises that receiving schools “will have the resources and amenities that many parents like you, as well as teachers, have been demanding, such as libraries, air conditioning, computer and science labs and social workers. These are the kinds of schools Chicago’s children need and deserve."

More than 5,200 special education students attend schools being considered for closure.

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