As her daughter with special needs heads to college, this Chicago mom wants better for students left behind

Kymera Mitchell is off college after her mom fought to get enough CPS support. Now, CPS leaders say they want to fix special ed for all students.

Kalaveeta Mitchell, right, worked tirelessly for the last 14 years to make sure her daughter Kymera got all the resources she needed as a Chicago Public Schools special education student. Kymera just graduated after being admitted to 20 colleges. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Kalaveeta Mitchell, right, worked tirelessly for the last 14 years to make sure her daughter Kymera got all the resources she needed as a Chicago Public Schools special education student. Kymera just graduated after being admitted to 20 colleges. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

As her daughter with special needs heads to college, this Chicago mom wants better for students left behind

Kymera Mitchell is off college after her mom fought to get enough CPS support. Now, CPS leaders say they want to fix special ed for all students.

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Kymera Mitchell made national news this spring as a student with autism and post-traumatic stress disorder who beat the odds, graduating from a Chicago public high school and earning admission to 20 colleges.

Kymera, a quiet and thoughtful 18-year-old, worked hard, but it is also a testament to her mother, Kalaveeta Mitchell. The no-nonsense Chicagoan spent the last 14 years trying to get a school system that struggles to provide the bare minimum for students with disabilities to see her daughter’s potential and properly support her.

“I feel vindicated because [of] all the time and all the horrors that I had to go through in CPS, battling back and forth,” Mitchell said.

Every school day, she asked her daughter if she was learning and getting services she was promised. When the answer was no, Mitchell demanded, often pursuing a legal remedy.

“That was a job,” Mitchell said. “That’s more than an eight-hour [a day] job.”

CPS leaders and the Board of Education say a top priority for this school year is to transform special education services for students coming behind Kymera. They say staff need to listen to parents like Mitchell, who have had to battle for their children. They don’t want her daughter’s success story to be so rare.

At his first Board of Education meeting as president last month, Jianan Shi declared the board’s intent to become the kind of district families seek out because of the special education program.

“Our legacy will be how we serve our students with the greatest needs,” he said.

Fixing special education is increasingly urgent. Last fall more than 15% of the school district’s 322,000 students were receiving special education services. That percentage continued to rise as more students were identified for support throughout the school year, CPS data shows. Coming into this school year, a greater share of students will likely require special education services than in at least the last 15 years.

A single district made up of just the 50,000 students in special education in Chicago would rank as the second-largest school district in Illinois. Learning disabilities are the most common diagnosis by far, but the number of students with autism and developmental delays has been increasing dramatically in recent years, CPS data shows.

And the outcomes for these students are poor. On state tests from the 2021-22 school year, less than 3% met state standards in reading and math. And on the SAT, only 5.8% of high school students met college readiness standards. Graduation and college enrollment rates for special education students also lag behind the general population.

“We have heard from Day One from our educators, from our families, from our students directly and from a lot of the passionate advocates across the city, that our system needs a redesign,” Chief Education Officer Bogdana Chkoumbova said. “It’s not just [about] small, incremental improvements.”

Chkoumbova said she and her boss, CPS CEO Pedro Martinez, have increased spending on special education and opened up significantly more staff positions since they took over nearly two years ago. Students in special education also benefited from interventions to help all students make up ground after the pandemic, she said.

But only now, under pressure from a new mayor and board, are she and Martinez talking publicly about what it will take to fundamentally change the approach to special education. They also recently pushed out the chief of special education, who many complained was hard to work with and seemed overwhelmed.

Chkoumbova said she realizes CPS needs to shift from focusing on compliance and legal mandates to emphasizing quality education that sets kids up for the future.

“It is about us really firmly believing that our students with special needs actually grow if we offer them these amazing opportunities,” she said. “We should have the same aspirations and goals for all of them.”

Fixing the basics

Chkoumbova said she wants to harness the energy of parents, such as Kalaveeta Mitchell, who have been in the trenches for years, becoming expert advocates for their children. Many of these mothers, including Mitchell, are on a new Chicago Board of Education special education advisory committee.

These parents want the overall shift in approach Chkoumbova is promoting, but they also say basic problems need fixing. For example, securing transportation for special education students who travel long distances to class is an ongoing problem. That’s been exacerbated in the last two years by a shortage of bus drivers.

CPS last year finally prioritized busing for special education students. Still, hundreds of students were forced to spend hours on buses traveling to and from school.

This year, the district is adding 60 more programs for students with moderate and severe disabilities, called cluster programs. The district officials say they expect to be able to better serve the growing population of students in special education, and to get more programs closer to students’ homes.

However, parent advocate Terri Smith, who sits on a district special education task force, worries the plan is not well thought out.

“There’s nobody to staff new classrooms, and there’s no vision for those new classrooms,” she said, noting that kids with different disabilities will all be in the same rooms. “That just gives them a license to warehouse a bunch of kids that happened to be on the same transportation route in a classroom that’s convenient for them.”

Finding enough well-trained staff is also a perennial problem.

Kymera Mitchell, with her mother’s help, is headed to Columbia College this month to study graphic design. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

At least once a year Kalaveeta Mitchell asked for a state hearing officer to mediate when she believed CPS was falling short — and the issue often related to staffing.

At times, schools would restrict her daughter’s access to a clinician, such as a speech therapist, because of limited resources. Services also would be promised in Kymera’s individualized education program, which is a legal document, but they wouldn’t be provided.

“It’s the culture of CPS,” Mitchell said. “A lot of the time the staff would be like, ‘We want to do it.’ But then they will get word from upstairs to tell them, ‘No, you really can’t. It’s a budget thing,’ or whatever it was. And I was like, ‘That’s not how it’s supposed to be.’ ”

There’s long been a tension between special education, which is expensive, and Chicago Public Schools as a whole, which is chronically underfunded and often in a budget crisis. In 2016-2018, CPS got into trouble with the state after it devised a plan to limit services to save money.

Since then, with state oversight and the teachers union demanding it, the school district has increased spending on special education and opened up thousands more positions. This year, there are about 12,000 special education staff positions, including teachers, classroom assistants and clinicians, such as social workers, up from 9,400 in 2019.

Still, many of these positions go unfilled. Last year, on average, 700 special education teacher and classroom assistant positions were vacant. As of the last day of June, some 1,200 positions were still unfilled.

“I don’t think the other problems can be addressed until we look at this problem,” Smith said. “Because without enough quality people, any programming that we try to implement is not implementable. There just aren’t enough people.”

Chief Talent Officer Ben Felton said he is trying his best to make it happen. He said CPS has already made significant strides amid a nationwide shortage of special education teachers and other staff. He notes that, even with the vacancies, there are thousands more teachers and aides in classrooms than just a few years ago.

Felton said the district has worked proactively to develop its own supply of special education teachers. It has a teacher residency program, another that helps aides become special education teachers and a recruitment strategy that offers quality applicants jobs on the spot and then finds placements for them.

But just getting a teacher in a classroom is not enough.

Sandra Heidt, a CPS parent and committee member, tells the story of a special education teacher who looked her in the eye and said: “ ‘I just don’t know what to do with him.’ I never forgot those words. ‘I don’t know how to educate him.’ ”

Heidt’s son, who is now a young adult, has autism, an intellectual developmental disability and speech delay. Heidt said she thinks all teachers need mandatory professional development so they know how to work with and support individual students with a range of needs.

Supporting special education teachers

Teachers also say they are desperate for more training and support.

Paula Barajas, a special education teacher at Ruiz Elementary on the Lower West Side, said CPS in the past has limited what she can offer her students. She often wants to give them access to specialized lessons that require extra training for her. But she’s been told not to promise it in the students’ individualized education program because the district is then legally obligated to implement it. Yet the veteran teacher does it anyway.

“I’m always like, ‘I’m gonna get in trouble,’ ” she said. “My hands are going to be slapped.”

Barajas also said the school district cuts corners when it comes to training. Recently, Barajas was sent to learn about a reading program for upper grade students, but she teaches primary grades. Then, she struggled to get her school to buy all the needed materials.

Barajas said these seemingly smaller issues add up and prevent children from getting needed support. When you see low test scores, she said, you have to ask, “Why aren’t special ed students catching up? There’s a multitude of things that go into teaching a special ed student that we are not being equipped with as special ed teachers.”

Smith says special education services should look like a triangle, with more support for younger students so they need less as they get older. But in CPS it is the opposite: Kids don’t get the right support when they are young, so they need more as they age, she said.

“That is the wrong model all together,” she said. “It is dingy and it is counterproductive and it belies really, really poor planning.”

At the root of the problem, Kalaveeta Mitchell said, is a widespread belief that not all students have potential and can learn. Mitchell said it dawned on her when her daughter was about 8 years old that her school was not really trying to teach her.

“It was horrible because I didn’t know anything initially,” she said. “And then when I really started learning what I needed to know, in terms of the law, and what the policies were for CPS, then if anything, I was just angry. I was just really angry.”

She started asking her daughter every day, “What did you learn?” If her daughter couldn’t answer, she would email the teacher and push to get her what she needed.

Kymera said seeing her mother constantly fight was difficult for her. She knew it sometimes exhausted and angered her mother.

And she could see the impact of not having that type of support on her special education classmates. As she watched their light dimming she would try to encourage them, but Kymera said there was only so much she could do.

“When I am seeing them not doing better … it breaks my heart,” said Kymera, who is headed to Columbia College this month to study graphic design.

The newly minted CPS graduate wants all students to receive the support that allowed her to flourish — but without requiring their parents to go to battle every day to get it.

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