School District 65 has made progress on 18 of 19 recommendations to improve the delivery of special education services that were made in her 2002 report, Cassandra Cole reported at the School Board’s May 18 meeting. Dr. Cole evaluated the District’s special education program in 2002 and did a more limited follow-up review this year. She is on the faculty of Indiana University and serves as the Director of the Center on Education and Lifelong Learning, Indiana Institute on Disability and Community.

“It is clear that there’s been a great deal of thought, time and effort devoted to improving special education in this District,” she said. “The preliminary steps have been taken to move the District toward a unified, inclusive organization that welcomes, includes, educates and supports all learners. There is no reason to believe the District will not continue to move forward.”

While Dr. Cole said the District has many things to celebrate, she said there are still some concerns. An organization with about 70 parent members, Evanston Citizens for Appropriate Special Education (CASE), presented its own report at the same meeting. CASE made ten recommendations, some of which overlap with those made by Dr. Cole.

Progress Made

In her 2002 report, Dr. Cole recommended that the District move “to a unified system of education.” Key principles of a unified system include that students with a disability are provided instruction in the general education system and that special educational services are provided in a seamless manner within the general education system. “This is the heart of the original 2002 report,” Dr. Cole told members of the School Board.

Dr. Cole concluded that District 65 has taken many steps that provide “a sound basis for a unified system of education.” In her 2008 report, she cites the adoption of goals and a strategic plan that support a unified system; joint professional development programs for general education and special education teachers; an emphasis on differentiated instruction that can meet the needs of students with a disability in the general classroom; the use of the general education curriculum for all students; the implementation of Response to Intervention (RTI) which can help unify intervention services; the restructuring of the administrative office in a way that merges the responsibilities for students with a disability under the general education department.

Dr. Cole also concluded “there has been an enormous amount of progress” in developing principal leadership in the area of special education. “The ownership of programs for students with disabilities has moved from the special education department to the building level, where principals now accept the responsibility for the education of all students,” she said. “Principals are creating structures for greater collaboration and problem-solving among staff, including special educators. The principals are working to create a culture to ensure that all school personnel share the responsibility to educate all students. The ‘us and them’ mentality, while not completely eliminated, has greatly decreased in the buildings that were observed.”

Dr. Cole also reported the District has made “great progress” in moving students with a disability into the general education curriculum. In 2002, 43 percent of students with a disability were spending 80 percent or more of their time in general education. By 2005, the percentage increased to 59 percent, and it has ranged between 56 and 58 since then. These percentages are at or slightly above the state average she said.

“The structure is in place,” said Dr. Cole. She adds, though, that building a unified system of education “continues to be a work in progress.”

Continuing Concerns

While finding that much progress has made been, Dr. Cole concluded that too many students are still placed in self-contained programs, that the therapeutic needs of a small group of students with mental health issues are not being met, that students with disabilities are being required to transfer to new schools to receive services, and that parent-school partnerships should be strengthened.

Parents have often voiced these same concerns. The concerns are also the subject of CASE’s report.

A Need for More Inclusion:

Dr. Cole found there are still too many students receiving instruction in cross-categorical and self-contained programs throughout the District. She said, “Several teachers and principals reported that often students are placed in these more restrictive placements due to the lack of capacity to support the students in the general education environment [because there may] not be enough co-teaching, a lack of differentiated instruction, or a lack of training.”

She concludes, though, that the District is “well staffed in special education” and “affording more individuals an opportunity to be educated in the general education classroom would not require additional staff.” Rather, she said, “It would require the District to rethink the roles and relationships of the support personnel.”

CASE’s report similarly says the District should create more “inclusive classrooms” for students with disabilities. Jill Calian suggested during the public comment section of the Board’s meeting that the classrooms be patterned after the “diagnostic kindergarten” classrooms at Dewey, that are staffed with a teacher, a teacher’s assistant and special education teacher who spends one-half of her day in the classroom.

Interagency Partnerships to Address Mental Health Issues: Dr. Cole said the District should develop partnerships with agencies outside the school system to address the therapeutic needs of a “small group of students” who have a dual diagnosis, severe emotional disabilities, or mental health issues. She said “the skills and knowledge necessary to deal with intensive child mental health issues requires an interagency, collaborative approach.” She also suggested the District visit schools that have established interagency partnerships to explore how it can be done effectively.

CASE likewise concludes, “There is a significant need for a truly therapeutic classroom program for students with emotional disabilities. …The District should increase the use of community resources like the Bridges program to assist in providing for these very fragile children.”

Transferring Programs and Students to New Schools: Parents of children with a disability have often complained that special education programs have been transferred to new schools to balance out classroom space issues at the schools in the District. Dr. Cole reiterated this view, stating “some of the most vulnerable students” are “often required to transfer to new schools to receive special education services.”

The goal, she said, “should be that students attend their home school for services. If that is not possible because of resources, the hope is that the student can stay in the school that he/she is placed for their entire elementary school experience and move with their peers to the middle school level.”

Parents spoke of the importance of keeping special education programs at the same location. Julie deLara said during the public comment period, “Allowing children to stay in one place allows them to create bonds within the school community, acclimate themselves to the building and staff and enjoy the benefits that come from stability.”

Cynthia Rolfe said keeping programs at the same school “will also allow the parent community to partner with [administrators and teachers] to create a more inclusive program. …”

Board member Tracy Quattrocki asked the administration to provide information concerning the location of all special education programs in the District, and requested that the Board discuss this issue at an upcoming Board meeting. The five-year strategic plan adopted by the Board in March contains a goal to “maintain continuity of program placement for special needs students.”

Educating Children in Separate Schools: Dr. Cole said another area of concern was the high percentage of students with disabilities being educated in separate schools devoted to educating students with significant disabilities. “This has gradually risen since 2002 from 5.2 percent to 8.4 percent in 2008,” she said. The state average is 4.8 percent.

Dr. Cole also reiterated the recommendation made in her 2002 report that the District “address the need for and continuation of” Park School. “There is a preponderance of evidence across the country that students with the most intense needs can be educated in an age-appropriate, integrated school building,” she said.

Strengthen Parent Partnerships: While stating “it appears that families generally have a good working relationship at the school building,” Dr. Cole recommended that the District “strengthen family-school partnerships with special education.”

Dr. Cole cited a parent survey completed by 24 parents at the end of IEP meetings that showed 96 percent of the parents felt they were an active part in the discussion and decisions of the meeting, and that all questions were answered to their satisfaction.

Several Board members raised questions concerning the small number of responses. Cari Levin, founder of CASE, questioned the reliability of the survey results because of the limited number of responses and the nature of the survey questions. She told the RoundTable, “People are calling saying, ‘I have never seen an IEP evaluation form.’”

Board members asked the administration to provide all parents with the survey form after IEP meetings, but did not address the nature of survey questions. Ms. Levin told the RoundTable, “There are a large number of people who find the IEP experience extraordinarily frustrating, and the survey questions do not get at that.”

CASE also recommended that the District be more transparent in providing certain information, which she said “could go a long way toward creating a collaborative feeling.” CASE also suggested the District create a phone listing for parents whose children have special needs that parents could voluntarily opt into and connect with each other.

CASE also recommended that the Board receive data on a quarterly basis concerning the provision of special education services to enable it to monitor program effectiveness and compliance with the law.

Larry Gavin

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...