Special Education for Evanston High School Students: If You Build it, Should They Come?

Many Evanstonians were outraged by a highly insensitive comment by Alderman Ann Rainey about creating a new special education program for high school students. At a zoning committee meeting, Evanston Township High School (ETHS) officials requested a special permit to build a therapeutic day school in an area zoned for commercial use only. After an upbeat presentation by ETHS, Alderman Rainey said, “You’re asking us to change our zoning based on ‘special’ education? What is it about these students that makes them special?”

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As the grandmother of a future ETHS special education student, I should be outraged by that remark. Like many others, I am offended, but I don’t think that’s what she really feels. Her choice of words was inelegant, but I don’t think she meant that kids like my grandchild don’t have unique educational needs and are not “special.” Rather, I think she was trying to ask what sort of special education students ETHS envisioned serving in this small therapeutic (20-40 students) setting. There are thirteen defined categories of special education, and they don’t all mix well.

I’m not going to address the complicated issues surrounding zoning variances and past legal problems. Instead, I wonder about designing a building without a vision for what type of program it will house. Students in special education have a wide variety of complicated needs. Trying to serve students with emotional disabilities, learning disabilities, developmental delays, and autism spectrum disorders in the same setting could be a disaster. Without a clear educational mission or community input, ETHS is making some assumptions that may not be relevant, depending on which students end up being served.

Saving money is never a good starting place for sound educational policy. Yes, keeping some students in Evanston rather than sending them to private programs that meet their specific needs saves the taxpayers transportation and private school tuition expenses. But until the intended program is clearly defined, there is no way to know if it will best meet the specific needs of individual students.  Staying in Evanston and being close enough to attend some classes and participate in extracurricular activities at ETHS may be better for some than spending up to two hours round trip on a bus or in a cab to attend a specialized school some distance away. But only if the ETHS program is as good as the one the student attends. As an aside, would there be transportation costs to get the therapeutic school students to ETHS for these classes and activities?

Reed Beidler, owner of the property ETHS wants to lease, thinks whatever this therapeutic program ends up being, it will fit in well with his other tenants. I’m not sure I see the synergy between the proposed special education program and Goldfish Swim (a private swim program for children 4 months to age twelve) or Evanston KinderCare (for children ages 6 weeks to 5 years). Maybe there could be some connectivity with Have Dreams, a program serving children on the autism spectrum. Or perhaps Sugar and Spice, a commercial bakery that has offered apprenticeships to clients of Have Dreams. The Rimland Center, an agency that serves adults on the autistic spectrum, is also a tenant. There could be some opportunity for connection if the proposed school focuses on children on the autistic spectrum. But I’m not sure that students with autism are the appropriate target population for a therapeutic school that would only have room for a small percentage of the ETHS population needing special education.

The idea of a therapeutic school designed to meet the needs of students who have mostly emotional and mental health needs could be a sound use of a small, new facility. Many of these students are currently outplaced and are bouncing back and forth between hospitals and private programs. With careful planning as well as excellent staffing, training, and resources, ETHS might be able to meet their needs and ease them back into the larger high school.

But the fear is that, by mixing the population of needs served by the proposed therapeutic school, this vague plan could end up far from the “win-win-win” predicted by the ETHS administration. A small facility cannot meet the needs of students with emotional and mental health problems and the students with more complex learning disabilities who have placements at schools like Cove or students with significant developmental delays and physical impairments who are best served at Park School.

Let’s go back to Alderman Rainey’s poorly stated comments. I listened to her remarks in context, and this is what I think she was trying to say. What will make this program special? What will be the target population? What type of curriculum will be in place? Are we talking about physical, emotional, or mental health needs? Which of these thirteen categories of disabilities defined by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is ETHS hoping to serve in this new school?

  1. Specific learning disability (SLD): A specific group of learning issues that affect a child’s ability to read, write, listen, speak, reason or do math.
  2. Other health impairment: Conditions that limit a child’s strength, energy or alertness. ADHD (attention deficit) falls under this category.
  3. Autism spectrum disorder: A developmental disability that covers a wide range of symptoms and skills, but mainly affects a child’s social and communication skills.
  4. Emotional disturbance: This could include anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and depression.
  5. Speech or language impairment: Communication problems including stuttering, impaired articulation, language impairment, or voice impairment.
  6. Visual impairment, blindness
  7. Deafness, a severe hearing impairment that prevents students from processing language through hearing.
  8. Hearing impairment: A hearing loss not covered by the definition of deafness.
  9. Deaf-blindness
  10. Orthopedic impairment: Any impairment to a child’s body, no matter what the cause (i.e.: cerebral palsy).
  11. Intellectual disability: Below-average intellectual ability. Down syndrome is one example.
  12. Traumatic brain injury
  13. Multiple disabilities: A child with multiple disabilities has more than one condition covered by IDEA. Having multiple issues creates educational needs that can’t be met in a program for any one condition.

To further complicate the issue of creating a therapeutic high school, Rhonda Cohen, Child Development/Inclusion Director of Cherry Preschool, points out that meeting one of the educational eligibility criteria categories listed above enables a child to get an IEP (Individualized Education Plan). Note that the "I" stands for "individualized." And part of that legal process requires that the school district team (which includes the parent) determine the "least restrictive environment" (LRE) for meeting a student's goals as listed in the IEP. The LRE varies from student to student. There is never a "one size fits all" plan. Thus, a school district cannot assume a particular setting will be best for all of the students in a criteria group. For example, there are students who are not ambulatory and have CP in all types of settings – from general education classrooms with support to Park School and everything in between. The same can be said of the ETHS students meeting other eligibility criteria. The placement that serves individual students best can be in general education, self-contained classrooms, Park School, or private therapeutic settings that have unique/necessary services and personnel not available in a school district.

I do not excuse Alderman Rainey’s offensive choice of words. And I especially cannot defend her doubling down on her remarks rather than apologizing and clarifying what she meant to say in the face of criticism from the community. That said, this is a very complicated proposal. Just renting space and creating a physical environment is not enough. Without a mission or clear plan, how would ETHS know how to build out the space? And if you build it, should they come?

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