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On Dec. 14, the District 65 School Board grappled with how the inclusion plan it recently approved would impact Park School on a practical and theoretical basis. Park School serves the needs of students, aged 3-21, who have severe and profound learning and/or physical disabilities. Under the inclusion plan, the District will place an increased focus on integrating students with a disability into the regular classroom or into the general education setting.

A one-and-a-half hour discussion began at the end of the Board’s regularly scheduled meeting, and it concluded without unanimity among Board members on how inclusion should be handled for the incoming kindergarten students who normally would have been admitted into Park School. While it is impossible to pigeon-hole Board member views on this complex issue, several Board members said they want to retain Park School as an option for students who have severe and profound disabilities.

In trying to frame how he would present the issue to Park School parents at an informational meeting scheduled for Dec. 15, Superintendent Hardy Murphy said he would tell the parents, “There will be no broad and sweeping changes for groups of students or for the Park [School] program and that what we’ll be doing is making decisions on an individual, student-by-student basis.”

By law, an individual education program (IEP) must be prepared for each student with a disability. The IEP is developed by a team consisting of the parent(s), teachers and other professionals, who identify a students needs, establish annual goals, and determine what placement and services would best address the student’s needs. By law, special classes or special schooling should occur “only if the nature or severity of the disability is such that education in the regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily.”

While it is unknown at this time what decisions the IEP teams will make for individual students, Dr. Murphy said the intent of the inclusion plan is to place all incoming kindergartners into a general education class or a general education building, with supports, “if at all possible.” At a parent informational meeting on Dec. 2, Dr. Murphy said there would be a “transformation” of Park School over time.

Anticipating that there might not be any District 65 kindergartners placed in Park School next year, he asked Board members how to address a potential question about whether Park School would accept kindergartners next year who did not reside in School District 65. The consensus among members of the Board was, “That hasn’t been determined yet.”

Rolling up From Kindergarten

This year Park School has four students at the kindergarten level, and a total of 36 students at the preprimary- through eighth-grade levels.

Dr. Murphy said next year the District would take a closer look at students who normally would have been candidates for the kindergarten class at Park School and determine whether there is any way they could be placed, with supports, in a general education classroom in the District or in a program with supports – such as the Options program at King Lab school – in another school in the District.

“The law says we have to serve [students with a disability] in the least restrictive environment,” said Dr. Murphy. “If the least restrictive environment is Park School, then they have to be at Park School. But if it’s not and we can provide them with supports and services at another school in the District, we can’t place them in Park School.

“There’s going to be an evaluation where we look at the supports that it takes for a child to be successful in a kindergarten in this District. If we can provide those supports, that child will go to that kindergarten rather than Park School. What we’re trying to say to you is the District has not always positioned its efforts that way.

“Before we had not committed the resources,” continued Dr. Murphy. “Now we’re committing the resources so those students can be successful in another place.”

Assistant Superintendent Susan Schultz said, “That doesn’t mean they’ll go into a general education classroom. That means they could be in a cluster program, such as the Options program [at King Lab School] and be integrated. There’s an integrated learning setting, because there are general education students there – normal peers for them to interact with – and so it’s about that environment.

They might be in a separate classroom for their academics, but have opportunities to interact with [their general education peers] in art class and lunch time. … That’s an integrated setting not available to them at Park School,” said Ms. Schultz.

“What we’re going to do is look at the potential for including these students and what are their needs,” continued Ms. Schultz. “These are very challenging students with very significant needs. What we haven’t done in the past is we haven’t looked at our schools to prepare those environments to be able to accept students with those challenging needs. That’s our task now as we move forward.”

The Implications for Next Year and Beyond

Board member Katie Bailey asked whether incoming kindergarten students in District 65, who normally would have been placed in Park School, would be placed there next year.

Dr. Murphy said, “We’re going to evaluate that, and the plan is not to have those kindergarten students at Park if at all possible.”

Ms. Bailey asked if they would eventually go to Park in first or second grade.

Dr. Murphy said, “If they are successful where we placed them, they would not go to first grade at Park.”

Tracy Quattrocki asked, “If we’re phasing it out in kindergarten and first grade, are we in effect closing it slowly? We’re making it obsolete, the need for it, if we’re integrating, and we are in fact shifting from Park to the cluster model … or individual classrooms. But I think we need to be upfront about that if that’s what we’re doing.”

Dr. Murphy said, “This time next year, what we’re going to do is we’re going to see if there is any way that we can include the kindergarten children in a general education classroom in this District, or if there is any way to provide supports, the supports necessary – let’s call it the cluster, maybe they can go to the Options program in this District.

“If you say anything other than we’re going to bring all the resources we have to bear to try to provide the supports and placements for those children in one of our regular schools, then we’re doing a couple of things: We’re compromising the integrity of the process, and we’re not being honest about what this inclusion effort is all about. It is about placement in the least restrictive environment, even for our most severely involved students…”

Bonnie Lockhart similarly asked, if kids in first and second grade did not need to go to Park School, would the District, in essence, be systematically closing Park School, grade by grade. Dr. Murphy said, “If we don’t need for them to go to Park School, they won’t go to Park School.”

Ms. Lockhart followed up. “If this inclusion model is successful, then those grades would no longer be at Park School?” she asked.

Answering from a theoretical standpoint, Dr. Murphy said, “Right.”

“And as those grades move up, there would be no grades at Park School?” Again answering from a theoretical standpoint, Dr. Murphy said, “That’s right.”

He said, though, that the District would make placement decisions, in consultation with parents, based on the individual needs of each student and the availability of resources to meet that student’s needs.

Assistant Superintendent Mike Robey said this year the District placed 40 students who normally would have been placed in a diagnostic kindergarten into the general education kindergarten classrooms throughout the District, with co-teaching supports. He said anecdotal evidence thus far suggests 100 percent success.

He said, “I think what we need to get our hands around is the idea that as students grow and mature and benefit throughout the District, for some of them the gap is going to reduce and shrink between their needs and the needs of the general education students and there will be virtually, at some point, very little difference, if any.

“For some depending on their needs, that gap might grow a little bit. We might have to look, at that point in time, at how we can best service their needs. And you have to look at the continuum of services, from everything totally inclusive to some services in the classroom, to some being pulled out, to maybe looking at other things, maybe cluster models.”

Board Comments

A number of Board members expressed concerns about the potential or theoretical possibility that Park School would be phased out over a period of years.

Ms. Quattrocki said it came through in e-mails and anecdotal comments she has received that Park School has “an amazing community” that perhaps is an equivalent or greater benefit than the limited time students in a clustered program may obtain in an integrated setting in one of the District’s other schools. She said this intangible was something the Board needed to explore with parents at Park School.

She said if a student who normally would go to Park were “truly included” in the general education classrooms, “I think that’s a great thing.” She added, though, “I’m not so keen on this cluster idea” because they may lose their sense of community that they have at Park School.

She said, “I would see the success of our inclusion [plan] to have many, many students included, but on the continuum of services to still have Park … as an option, realizing it is a very good option.”

Ms. Bailey said her thinking was more in line with Ms. Quattrocki’s. She said if students were placed in a cluster program, it would be taking away from the community at Park School.

Bonnie Lockhart said she had some concerns, but felt more comfortable after hearing that decisions for each student would be made on a case-by-case basis, with the parents involved.

Ms. Weaver said, “If each child was being looked at individually, and if we have no kindergarten at Park School next year, that’s okay – as long as all students have been individually assessed.”

She urged that the Board stay focused on each individual student, rather than on long-term goals.

Jerome Summers said, “This discussion about Park School is alarming in some ways, about phasing out Park School over time. … However, if in our society we include these children, if it can work, I would like to give it an opportunity to work.”

At one point, Board president Keith Terry said he thought four Board members were opposed or concerned about phasing out Park School. No vote was taken on the matter, however, and it is unclear if or how that issue may ultimately be resolved. Without clear direction from the Board as to whether Park School will continue as an alternative to incoming kindergarten students, it is unclear whether IEP teams will consider it a viable alternative in the IEP meetings in deciding what is the most appropriate placement of a child.

At the end of the meeting, there was no objection to Dr. Murphy’s advising Park School parents, “There will be no broad and sweeping changes for groups of students or for the Park [School] program and that what we’ll be doing is making decisions on an individual student-by-student basis.”

Toward the end of the discussion, Dr. Marlene Grossman said she thought there were some students at Park School who could benefit by being in other environments. “We have to celebrate the fact that we are looking at that type of philosophy and then do it very thoughtfully and work very, very hard to look at every single child and do the best by them,” she said.

On Dec. 15, Park School parents opposed making any changes that would adversely impact the school. See accompanying story.

DEC’s and CASE’s Comments

At the Dec. 14 meeting, Jean Luft, president of the District Educators’ Council (the teachers union), said, “”Park School provides a community of respect, love and support for its students and families. Replicating the accommodations and physical structure of Park School will require a great deal of resources and energy. We have to question why the District is trying to fix Park School when the families and staff have indicated that it is not broken.””

Cari Levin, founding director of Citizens for Appropriate Special Education (CASE), says in a guest essay on page 7, “”Moving preschool and kindergarten students into inclusive settings will effectively initiate a phasing-out of Park School. … The administration asserts that they will make placement determinations in the context of Individual Education Plan meetings. However, policy decisions are being made and plans are moving forward prior to convening those meetings.

“”I believe strongly in inclusion for children when appropriate, but I don’t believe this aspect of the inclusion plan makes sense. … If District 65 wants to positively transform the lives of disabled children, they must preserve and treasure the existence of Park School.””

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...