School Closings Weigh Heavily on Special Needs Families

The impact of transitioning to a new school is difficult for any child, but even more difficult for children with special needs, parents say

Julia Novak, a sixth-grade special education student from Chicago, has been through three public schools in four years. The first school could not accommodate her physical disability. The second could accommodate her physically, but was a disastrous match for her academically. Julia, who also has cognitive, speech and language delays, was suspended nine times that year.

"The curriculum was not fitting what she needed and they just kept punishing her reaction, which was disruptive behavior," her mother Tammy Novak said. "After the ninth suspension, I just couldn't send her back there anymore."

After plenty of agony, for both Julia and her family, they finally found a match. Lozano Elementary was a low performing school—in fact it was given the lowest rating a Chicago Public School can get. But it was a miracle school for Julia. "She made tremendous strides academically, socially," said Novak. "It's been an amazing transition. She's happy to get up in the morning."

Just months into her first school year at Lozano Elementary, her school was identified as one of the 129 underused Chicago schools that may be slated for closure.

To the family's relief, it didn't show up on a shortened list released this week by CPS, but for thousands of children they don't have the same peace of mind.

Officials said Thursday they plan to close 54 schools in an effort to address the district's $1 billion deficit, make better use of resources and improve education in the nation's third-largest district. The plan will affect about 30,000 students, district officials said.

In addition to the closures, students at 11 other schools will be "co-located" with existing schools. Six schools have been targeted for academic interventions known as "turnaround."

Large urban school districts across the country have cracked down on low-performing and underused schools over the last decade, shuttering dozens of them at a time. Earlier this year, school officials in New York City and Philadelphia voted to close more than 20 schools, while officials in Washington, D.C. approved plans to close 15. The closures have been controversial, but advocates argue that it's not fair to keep kids in bad schools, it's not logical to fund buildings that aren't full, and closing them ultimately benefits students.

For every school that closes, hundreds, and sometimes thousands of students are displaced and forced to begin the following school year somewhere else, with new classmates, a new curriculum and routine. And while change can be jarring for any student, it's even more difficult for children with special needs who often represent significant percentages of students in schools slated for closure.

More than 5,000 students that receive special education services attend the Chicago elementary schools that could be shuttered next year, according to data from the Commission on School Utilization—a group appointed to study the city’s problem with underused school buildings. Those students make up nearly 17 percent of all elementary school students in the city who receive special education services at their local schools and 12 percent of all students who may be displaced by school closures later this year.

The commission recommended not to shutter any high schools with low enrollment or underused elementary schools that are earning high marks, after considering community concerns. In its final report to the city, which said that up to 80 schools could be safely consolidated, the commission acknowledged the complexity of accommodating the all the needs of the city’s special education students and said, “no simple formula will suffice.”

A spokesperson for CPS said the district has developed "a specialized plan for transitioning students with disabilities" in the event their school needs to be closed, and that by consolidating schools the district can focus on "getting every child into a better performing school close to their home."

Chicago parents who want a bit more control over their children's fate do have the option of trying for one of the city’s dozens of other school choices, like charter or magnet schools—alternatives to traditional neighborhood public schools that are becoming more and more abundant, in Chicago and beyond. But admission to these schools is based on applications and lotteries—getting in is not guaranteed.

In fact, a study by the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research, which looked at school closures between 1997 and 2010, found that the variety of new schools that emerged in place of shuttered neighborhood schools wound up serving fewer special education students than the neighborhood public schools that were previously there. And a federal report released in July showed that nationally, charter schools enrolled a lower percentage of students with disabilities than traditional public schools, though neither report could say for sure why that was.

Expanded options have accelerated an exodus from weaker neighborhood public schools, which are often left serving the most vulnerable populations—from special education students whose local options may be limited, to children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds who don’t have anyone in their lives to help them navigate a complicated system.

“Generally speaking, when schools and neighborhoods depopulate, the normal pattern is that the families and households that are more mobile, by virtue of having better resources, are able to move to a more desirable neighborhood or are more aggressive and able to take advantage of school choice,” said Jeffrey Henig, professor of political science and education at Columbia University’s Teachers College. “What that means is that those that are left are the most defenseless or less able to protect the schools politically.”

Families of special education students are also limited to the schools that are able to accommodate their children's various needs.

Advocates for school choice, like Robin Lake, the director of the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education, argue that families of special education students should value an increased set of options. But Lake points out that children with special needs are the “most vulnerable kids in terms of transition,” and that school districts have to make a plan to ensure these kids can navigate the system if their current school ends up on the chopping block.

Novak, the Chicago mother, held out hope that her daughter's elementary school would not be named on the closure list and the family could have a couple more years of stability. Julia is still in sixth grade, and she can stay at her school, which serves students from preschool through eighth-grade, for two more years before she’d have to move on. 

“I’m supporting her school as much as I can,” she said. “It’s a warm, safe place.”

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