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At the May 18 meeting of the District 65 School Board, Romy DeCristofaro, the District’s Director of Special Education, presented a report on special education students in the District.

The meeting was held via Zoom because of social distancing requirements. The sole speaker during the public comment section was Cari Levin, LCSW, founder of Community Advocacy, Support and Education (CASE). Ms. Levin’s letter to the Board is available here.

Interim Co-Superintendent Phil Ernhardt said the timing of the report, which had been scheduled for a March Board meeting, is important because it is thought-provoking and far-reaching and “there is action to be taken” in the short term and the long term.”

The report looked at the data and demographics through a racial lens and found that students of color are too often placed in special education and they do not succeed academically.

Many Board members said they were concerned about these findings but not surprised by them.

Although there has been a slight decrease in enrollment in District 65 schools since 2015, the number of students with an IEP increased by 1% during that time, from 13% to 14%.

The report provided, among other data, information the prevalence of disabilities and learning outcomes by education environment and race.  This data is important, Dr. DeCristofaro wrote in a memo to the Board, “for special education funding and for monitoring trends in disability identification.” 

Because the percentages of black and Latinx students with an IEP exceed the percentage of those students in the student body as a whole, those students are overrepresented in special education at District 65. 

The data show that white students comprise 42.5% of the District’s student population and 26.7% of the special education population. Black students comprise 22.6% of the student population and 37.2% of the special education population, while Latinx students, at 20.8% of the student population, comprise 26.4% of the special education population.

No Board member asked whether the Special Education Department had conducted an analysis to determine if any of these students has been inappropriately placed in special education through the annual IEP process.

The most diagnosed disability categories at District 65 are a specific learning disability (30.4% of students) and speech/language impairment (15.5% of students); these are mostly reflective of statewide averages, according to the report. However, the identification of students with emotional disabilities at the District, 9.7%, is more than 50% greater than the Statewide average of 6%.

The chart above shows the numbers of students by race in each disability category. The RoundTable calculated these numbers using data provided by the District.

Special Education Environments and Programs

District 65 offers a continuum of special education services ranging from general education classrooms to home, hospital and residential settings. Within the District’s schools students may be placed in general education, resource or specialized self-contained classrooms – or a combination of these – depending upon their IEPs. Teachers review IEPs at least annually with family members.

The report presented information about how much time students with IEPs spend in these different classroom settings: About 57% of students with an IEP spend 80% or more of their time in a general education classroom, a greater percentage than in Illinois public schools as a whole (52.5%), yet less than nationwide (63.1%).

District 65 data were close to State and national averages in many categories: 24% spend between 40% and 79% in a general education classroom, as compared with 26.4% Statewide and 18.3% nationwide; 9% spend less than 40% of their time in a general education classroom, as compared with 13% Statewide and 13.4% nationwide. While 10.5% of District 65 students are educated in a separate setting, this figure is much higher than the state (6.4%) and national (3.2%) figures. About 75% of the District 65 students educated in a “separate setting” attend Park School or Rice Education Center.

All the District’s regular attendance schools provide inclusion and resource classrooms. The Joseph E. Hill Education Center (preschool) and Dawes, Dewey, Oakton, Washington and Willard elementary schools, Bessie Rhodes magnet school, and Nichols, Haven and Chute middle schools offer bilingual special education services.

The Hill Education Center, Dawes, Dewey, Lincoln, Lincolnwood, Oakton and Orrington elementary schools and Haven, Chute and Nichols middle schools offer cross-categorical self-contained classrooms for certain grade-levels. The Options program at King Arts School offers services in kindergarten through eighth grade.

Since not all schools offer all services, many students attend schools out of their attendance area.    

Time Spent in General Education Classrooms Correlates With Meeting Academic Growth Targets

The more time a student with an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) spends in a general education class, the better that student fares academically.

At District 65, 51% of students with an IEP who spent 80% of their time in a general education classroom met expected growth targets on the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test. Decreased time spent in a general education classroom correlated with lower numbers of students who met expected growth targets on the MAP test: 46% of students who spent between 49% and 79% of their time in general education classes met MAP expected growth targets, while only 38% of students who spent 40% or less of their time in general education classrooms met the MAP expected growth targets.

By disability category, according to Dr. DeCristofaro’s report, students identified as having speech and language impairments, specific learning disabilities, other health impairments, and developmental delays spend the majority of their school day in general education classrooms. Students identified as having emotional disabilities and multiple disabilities “are more likely to be educated in separate settings,” according to the report.

Fewer students of color than white students spend the majority of their time in general education classrooms. Yet white students with special needs outperform both black and Latinx students in general education classrooms, the report said.

Dr. DeCristofaro’s report laid that disparity at the feet of the department itself, quoting a nationwide report: “Placement in special education does not ensure that students receive quality instruction.”

Risks of Over-Identifying Students for Special Education

School districts are legally required to educate each child with an IEP in the least restrictive environment possible. Depending on the support needed for each child, the environment can be a general education classroom, a self-contained classroom, a combination of those two environments or a therapeutic day school.

Dr. DeCristofaro’s report noted the racial and ethnic breakdown of students in special education at District 65 and cited reports about harm caused by over-representation – that is, a greater percentage of students of any one race in special education than in the student body as a whole.

The inclusion rate for students with disabilities is 72% for white students, 56.2% of Latinx students and 45.1% for black students. The report concluded, “Our current special education system has created conditions that segregate many of our black and Latinx students from the general education environment. … Spring to spring MAP data from 2018-2019 shows that 48% of students with IEPs made expected gains compared to 57% of their general education peers. One might expect students with IEPs, who have access to additional interventions and specialized instruction to be making greater gains, but that is not the case.”

Disproportionate representation, Dr. DeCristofaro said, “signals the possibility that some students may not be truly disabled and may have been incorrectly identified.” The report included a “risk-ratio” by race and disability – showing that black students at District 65 “are at a significantly greater risk of being over-identified for special education and our Latinx students are also at a greater risk.”

Students unnecessarily assigned to special education programs and classrooms can suffer emotional as well as academic difficulties, being prevented from reaching their full potential through the perpetuation of negative stereotypes and lowered expectations from staff, peers and family members, Dr. DeCristofaro said.

Over-identifying students can also stagnate school districts, keeping them from “recognizing the need to make adjustments to their curriculum and instructional methods in order to reach all students,” research has shown, according to the report.

Other research, however has found that adding income as a factor in analyzing students placed in special education in many cases neutralizes the race factor. Poverty can exacerbate or trigger disabilities in young children by exposure to toxins, poor nutrition or stresses related to lack of other resources.    

At School District 65, according to the latest data on the District’s website, 36% percent of the students receive free or reduced-price lunch.

Board Discussion

Much of the Board discussion centered on the race and ethnicity of students identified as needing special education resources, the allocation of those resources by race and ethnicity and the comparative academic progress of white, Latinx and black students in special education. The dual concerns seemed to be that white parents of students in special education are demanding too many services for their children – “opportunity hoarding” – and parents of black and Latinx students may have been coerced in the IEP process into allowing their children to be placed inappropriately into special education – being “misidentified.”. 

Board President Suni Kartha said, “I know that the Baord for some time has been asking for an analysis like this specially looking at our special education information with a racial lens. It’s difficult information for us to see but it’s important for us to see, and I think it’s really important for our whole community. I truly hope that our entire community really looks at this information.”

Board Vice President Anya Tanyavutti said, “I would agree that this information applies to every single one of us. It is not just about how our children with IEPs are experiencing school, but about how all our children are experiencing school, and we know how kids are treated differently racially and know they’re treated differently when they have disabilities.

“This is really important for all of us to understand and name and acknowledge the problem so we can figure out what we need to do to change and create and more equitable environment.”

Seeing the data this way, she said “cuts and it hurts in a new way. Thank you for helping us take an honest look [at special education] as a District and as a community.

“One thing I think you made out very clearly is the intersecting systems that lead to the over-representation of black and brown children in need of special services simply for existing, possibly culturally or linguistically, the way they deserve to exist and show up without judgment and I appreciate your naming the systematic responsibility for that.

“The hostility toward and neglect of black children and families indicates a faith in white children’s potential to learn and a lack of faith in black and brown children’s ability and potential to learn. … So what’s the plan to close that opportunity gap and allow everyone to trust that when they engage in this system with us that they’re not going to be dehumanized?”

Dr. DeCristofaro said she had “heard the term ‘opportunity hoarding’ a number of times at District 65, and I do see it as something that is real.

 “I don’t know that I have all the answers, but I can share that we are looking at this from a couple of different lenses: understanding there’s got to be some radical shift for all our educators and our parents and part of that I’m hoping will be come through …  and seeing the data and recognizing that we really need to [revisit] how we’re seeing students.

“The ongoing equity work and conversations that we’re having make it seem we’re prioritizing resources where they need to go and not to the families that are asking for more, more, more.

 “I know that we’ll still continue to get requests for more services, when really there are students over here that need more and that’s part of our job – looking at the big picture, who really needs what, and making sure we get support where it’s needed. Part of our staff support for next year is matching resources to needs of students early next year.”

Ms. Tanyavutti said, “I don’t think there’s much that’s going to help in terms of how I fell right now but I appreciate the thought of assessing how our resources are distributed.”

She also said that among her friends, white parents seemed eager and black parents reluctant to avail themselves of early intervention resources. “So I think there’s a fear – a deep fear – that black families have of being mistreated and being stigmatized and being tucked away.

“I see those numbers as children and families being treated as inconvenience and when families do have real needs they are fearful and reluctant to ask for help, when the resources may very well be available to address that issue, and the earlier the better.

“How we address the very real fear that families have that prevents them from accessing the help they may need early on – because from the data we see these fears are absolutely founded.

“I do like that idea of offering resources rather than saying they are scarce and unavailable.

“For the last three years, we really tried to look at things with equity lenses, we hear from people in the community, ‘Is everything about race?’ It is necessary to unpack white supremacy and see how it continues to harm children and families. Our community really needs to grapple with that – that people are having very different experiences based on race.”

Elizabeth Lindsay-Ryan said, “We are no longer surprised, because of the equity work that we do, but we can’t be any less devastated. When you look particularly at [the category of ] ‘emotional disability’ and the language piece for Latinx students, that feels very influenced  to me, influenced white supremacy, bias, racism and profiling. Those seem to be categories that are very easy for an educator’s influence, how they express them. The intersection of racism and sexism I think has proved to be the very strong in how we expect people to behave in a school and whether we see that as a discipline issue of a disability one.

“I think it’s critical [to have] a paradigm shift – there’s nothing wrong with these kids.”

Referring to the addition of a “reflection protocol” to the multi-tiered support system (MTSS) at the District, Ms. Lindsay-Ryan said, “I appreciate reflection protocol … because misidentification is a problem here, not the disability. We need to make sure the process has such rigorous parameters … We have to think about how we treat students and families … because if we’re keeping going at it that ‘We’re the educators and we have all the expertise,’ we’re not hearing from families how they’re experiencing this and … [we keep] having this disconnect.

Ms. Lindsay-Ryan said she also said she wished to “call out these two diverging lines where white supremacy is showing up: in our fear and concern about our responsibilities in lawsuits for white students that is allowing them to get resources in a certain way and to the point that our systems are negligent in or should be accountable in a different way for the neglect the black and Latinx students face.”

She added she wants the District to shift from its fear of hearing how different families are experiencing special education in District 65. She said not doing so “just leads to the opportunity hoarding … and for those who are marginalized to be dehumanized and that leads to folks feeling like they don’t trust and want to access the supports.

“I think we have to look at all the white supremacy threats in the system before they’re coming in our doors.

“We are creating very different trajectories, and the fact that white students with IEPs are exceeding expected growth for black and Latinx students is horrible. We real have to find a way to revamp the system that we have.

“I hope that as we continue to look at services through a racial lens, we don’t get numbed and tired out to how devastating it really is.”

Board member Sergio Hernandez said, “This Board values true honesty. … We’re going to move forward and make sure we elevate the disparities. … As [Ms. Lindsay-Ryan] said, we have to create that space on teaching parents how to advocate for their children if they’ve been evaluated and their child has special education needs. … I think giving families the space to talk about it, showing that the need special education [is important].  Early intervention really helps resolve the issue.” He said the District’s Special Education Department should work with the Joseph Hill Early Education Center “to help mitigate some of the disparities.” To Dr. DeCristofaro he said he appreciates that she plans to emphasize co-teaching.

Dr. DeCristofaro said, “We have been thinking about this for next year and thinking about parent more parent groups and thinking about ‘How do we reach the more marginalized communities?’”

Ms. Kartha said, “I agree with access to early intervention. This is a communitywide issue.”

Board member Soo La Kim asked about the process by which children are assigned to special education. “It sounds like, on the issue of proportionality, there is some misdiagnosis and that, even when there is need identified, black and Latinx students are separated out more than white students. If you could help us understand a little just what that process is, how the assessments happen – and then, where is the juncture where students are segregated or included in general education classes.”

Dr. DeCristofaro said, “Part of the problem with the process is, I think, we jump a lot of this to go to special education. It can come from a good place – [for example] ‘I want to get this kid more help.’

“You asked about emotional disability: Let’s say there are some concerns about a student in a classroom. A teacher might make a referral to the problem-solving team; sometimes parents request a case study. In the case of emotional disability, I would say it’s more often coming from the school team. I’d have to look into that, but that would just really be my hunch. Then, typically, let’s say, they open a case study evaluation. I think part of the reason when we look at our disability categories; we tend to see over-representation, because it’s one’s of the categories where it’s most subjective – where educators can just check a box, where some of the other categories are more technical – you have to score below a certain threshold [to be identified for special education].”

She said one solution might be to “slow down the process,” a measure that a special education subcommittee is looking at – to “really break down what these boxes mean and put in some stopgaps so we can have a conversion about it.”

Two criteria for the diagnosis of emotional disability are “inability to develop and maintain relationships with peers and teachers” and “inappropriate types of behavior or feeling under normal circumstances,” Dr. DeCristofaro said, adding, “So I would say, ‘What’s normal?’ ‘To whom?’ ‘Who is making that determination?’

“So I think there is some subjectivity in that part, and the reason why we’re seeing more students over-identified. Then when you actually get to the table, then the team will talk about what to do and what they need and that’s when they develop the IEP – again, from a good place – ‘This is a behavior. How are we going to support that behavior? Put her here so we can address that.’

“Those decisions are made collectively. The parents are part of that IEP team, oftentimes trusting the schools and everyone is acting with good intentions, but I think there are some missed questions and things that we need to look at more clearly, while making these decisions, because, obviously what we’re doing right now isn’t working.”

Ms. Lindsay-Ryan said, “So it seems like we need some kind of overhaul of that system.”

Board member Rebeca Mendoza said she had talked to the parent of child in special education who said the child was “absolutely thriving in the new environment and thanked us for the accommodations made for the student.  Some of these accommodations weren’t’ available pre-COVID, like one-on-one instruction and being able to have a schedule that meets the needs of the student.” She said she thought the District could take that approach “and see what’s working well.”

In looking at disability identification, Ms. Mendoza said, ““The two messages around behavior and language it has a lot to do around who’s filling out that assessment, and it would be in our best interests to revisit our those things are filled out. And when a child doesn’t feel like they’re cared for, they’re stressing a teacher out more than other students and you know what that does to the psyche of a child and know if they don’t feel respected. If our children were able to give our educators a level of respect so they felt respected, what would that look like?”

Referring to the 25% of special education students who are not receiving education in District 65 schools, she asked, “How we can ensure that it really is a last resort and it’s not a sort of like threat that ‘This is going to be a lawsuit if you don’t give me what I want.’ How much is that costing us and are these students that we could be serving within the District?”

Board member Joey Hailpern said, “I don’t think you shared anything we didn’t expect. I think about people’s souls and their ability to believe these kids can learn, that kids can do well and thrive within and without our organization. That’s where it all starts, and when tensions arise and when things begin to happen in the learning environment, we need people to think and feel their way through systems of support to try to overcome some of those challenges. And if we don’t have the support of if the system breaks down, then the acting space becomes a rejection.

“I think too that we don’t have the right setup. It’s the web of setting up so that the child is in the center that allows us to go through iterations of things and accept things not working.” He analogized misidentification with “the treatment of people of color being put in the back of a police car. The same things happens with learning and living differences, and they feel like they can’t go to the school, and feel they just maybe can’t communicate the same way … And if there’s a better way for us to build this system of support for kids to stay in the community, that would be an awesome opportunity for us to take. You’ve laid a good foundation with this information.”

Ms. Kartha said, “Thank you again. I think this is so important for everyone in the community to understand. If we have inequities in the system, it affects our children even if they don’t access those services. If we’re going to effectuate the kind of structural changes that we need, we’re going to have to educate our community to what’s going on. … We need to figure out how to educate the community on this.”

Next Steps

Dr. DeCristofaro’s report said the District should ensure that special education students have access to a curriculum with rigorous, grade-level instruction aligned with the Common Core standards that will “improve learning for black and Latinx students.” To that end, she has proposed several initiatives, among them 

Gathering additional information and evaluating student, educator and family needs for the next year and beyond;

Partnering with the consulting group WestEd to “support the evaluation” of the current special education programs, finances and organization;

Hiring Deborah McKnight of the Pacific Education Group – a consulting group that espouses critical racial theory – to conduct equity leadership training

Expanding programming for K-5 students at Dewey, Oakton and Lincolnwood schools so students can receive services in their home schools.

She told the Board the District is hiring additional staff to accommodate the additional programming to ensure children will have access to support services in their home schools.

In addition to including the reflection protocol, the Special Education Department will offer training and support for co-teaching special education and general education and will increase access to general education for all students with disabilities.

“We have to work side by side with our general educators to make sure we are meeting the needs of all our learners,” Dr. DeCristofaro said. “We have a lot of work to do – we have a really good plan and we know we’re going to make a difference.” Quoting Deborah McKnight of the Pacific Education Group, she said, “You can’t fix issues of special education in special education.”

Some Background on Inclusion at District 65

For a brief history of District 65’s adoption of a full inclusion program, click here


Mary Gavin

Mary Gavin is the founder of the Evanston RoundTable. After 23 years as its publisher and manager, she helped transition the RoundTable to nonprofit status in 2021. She continues to write, edit, mentor...