I was going through old photos when I made a sad discovery. In third and fourth grade, my granddaughter lost her smile. She also lost two years of her education because her school was unable to adapt materials and methods so she could learn. These were her final years in public school, as it was determined that a therapeutic private school for children with significant learning disabilities was more appropriate for her specific needs. Gradually, during fifth grade at The Cove School, her smile returned.
Looking back, she was the victim of a program that was ill conceived in which children with a variety of disabilities were included with support in general education classes in every neighborhood school. When she started kindergarten, she was placed, along with a handful of other children who had IEPs, in a class co-taught by amazing kindergarten and special education teachers who had spent months preparing a curriculum for the class. In addition, there was an excellent aide who was training to be a special education teacher. It was the gold standard for doing inclusion correctly. Not surprisingly, it also turned out to be too expensive to be sustained, especially in every school in the district. First grade was acceptable, although the special education teacher was shared by two classrooms for budgetary reasons. After that, it was all downhill.
During the next three years, she learned very little because the material was not presented in a way in which she could access it. The environment was overwhelming and she became extremely anxious about school. The special education teacher now rotated through several classes in grades two through five. Children with a wide variety of disabilities were seated at a table in the back of the general education classrooms and taught the same adapted curriculum, regardless of their needs. The only room available for individualized pull-out services was the self-contained special education classroom in which students had highly significant communication disorders and often acted out. Each year, my granddaughter became more anxious and learned very little.
I am now fearful the same thing could happen to her and her peers who are Evanston Township High School (ETHS) students outplaced to private therapeutic schools serving teens with a wide variety of disabilities. In February of 2018, ETHS received approval from the Evanston City Council for a special use permit to create a special education public day school at 1233-1235 Hartrey Street in Evanston. The school now had a ten-year lease on 6500 square feet of property that is an 18 minute-walk (just under a mile) to ETHS, according to MapQuest (see below):
I am concerned about one of the main stated goals for establishing this program, which is to bring outplaced Evanston students back to their community so they can participate in some non-academic classes and after school activities at ETHS. To expect students with significant special needs to walk safely and reliably to ETHS, navigate the huge ETHS building to attend classes or access services, and actually participate in extra-curricular activities is naïve. While the site for the program is relatively close to the high school, the target population may not be able to make this walk without supervision.
At the time the permit was granted, all that was known about the school was that it would serve 22 students its first year, which will be this fall. Ultimately, ETHS plans for an enrollment of 40 students. Questions about the target population for the school received vague answers. Dr. Lanée Walls, the Director of Special Education, noted that the majority of students currently in private placements have emotional disabilities, so she expected this would be the largest group served. But she did not rule out mixing in students with other disabilities currently served at private placements. Because special education staff members at ETHS are certified for all thirteen of the disability eligibility categories outlined in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the new public day school could be cross-categorical. This means students with a wide variety of disabilities could be included. Evanston CASE, which takes no stance for or against the new therapeutic day school, has concerns, including, “This is often a challenging model to implement, as it requires a broad range of expertise and as certain groups of special education students do not meld well with others (e.g., students with behavioral issues and students with specific learning disabilities.)”
Granted, paying for outplacement for special education students is expensive. The greatest part of this expense is transporting the students, as the cost of educating each student at the new therapeutic day school will be comparable to the tuition at private programs. Thus, factoring in the costs of the lease, build out of the space, and staff salaries for the new public therapeutic day school, ETHS will be financially ahead due to savings on transportation costs. Or will it? Parents of currently outplaced students have received letters about the new school. Clearly, ETHS hopes to place 22 of them in this program. Clearly, parents of students who are thriving in their current schools are not eager to accept a placement in a school that is an experiment with no track record of success or stated philosophy. Lawsuits will happen, and ETHS will have to spend money defending them.
There is good cause for parents to be wary about a school for students with significant special needs that intends to combine four grade levels of teens who have all types of emotional problems with teens who have serious learning disabilities or autistic spectrum disorders. How will a teacher and paraprofessional be able to meet the varied needs of these students, who will likely not mix well with each other?
Parents of teens currently outplaced and thriving in therapeutic schools are worried about their children being selected for placement in what amounts to an undefined experiment whose current main purpose seems to be keeping their children in Evanston and some budgetary savings. It is not known if there will be an on-site nurse for a population that includes students taking medications and students with medical needs such as seizure disorders. Will students needing occupational therapy, speech, or social work have to access those services at the high school? As of now, all outplaced students are candidates for placement in this new school, regardless of what their current therapeutic schools or professional therapists think.
Alissa Levy Chung, who is a clinical and developmental child psychologist and special education advocate, has expressed concern about the lack of participation by experts in the field and the special education parent community in the planning process for the new school. She had hoped the new therapeutic school
“…would target the kids that I frequently work with in my clinical practice who are struggling with significant mental health challenges…Many of these kids go in and out of school due to inpatient and partial hospitalizations or anxiety related school refusal. Some may have difficulties with executive functioning, but few have frank learning disabilities or difficulty doing academic work from the academic standpoint (versus anxiety, which causes them not to do their work even though they are capable of understanding it intellectually).”
Dr. Chung describes how these students struggle, moving between school and hospitalizations, dropping classes, and barely graduating ETHS despite their intellectual strengths. These are students whose internalizing behaviors include depression, anxiety, phobias, self-harm, eating disorders, drug and alcohol addiction, social isolation, and suicidal tendencies. Such a population would require the services of highly experienced social workers and paraprofessionals on site to help them successfully participate in some ETHS classes and activities. The goal for this group would be to provide a safe and supportive environment with the hope of gradually transitioning them back to ETHS as they are ready. Current programs like The Bridges, which provides mental health clinicians, and The Pre/Post Hospitalization Program (PHP), which aims to support students transitioning back to ETHS from hospitalization due to mental health concerns, are a start but not enough to keep these students from cycling between hospitalizations and failed attempts to integrate back into classes at ETHS.
Instead of focusing on this population, it appears the ETHS therapeutic day school is adopting a “jack of all trades” model. From the letters sent to outplaced students’ families in a wide variety of therapeutic settings, it appears the plan is to mix the original target population with teens who have complex learning disabilities and needs that are radically different. In addition, students with complex learning disabilities would not be able to access most of the extracurricular and social opportunities at ETHS, which are really not adapted for the complex developmental problems of these teens. According to Dr. Chung, “There is a reason that most therapeutic day schools focus on either learning/developmental differences or social/emotional challenges and not both.”
The possibility of adding students with externalizing behavioral problems to this stew is even more troubling. These teens’ behaviors may include physical aggression, disruptive and antisocial behavior, bullying, theft, and vandalism. Clearly, students with internalizing behavioral disorders and students with significant learning disabilities would not do well in the same setting as the teens described above.
As explained by the website Understood, “The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) says that each child who has a disability and needs special education and related services will receive a free and appropriate public education (FAPE).” Students with disabilities have the right to receive an education that is appropriate to meet their needs. The requirements of FAPE can bump up against also teaching a student in the least restrictive environment (LRE). Students should be included in learning with non-special education peers as much as possible. Sadly, as was the case with my granddaughter in late elementary school, sometimes a separate educational program is the only way for a student to thrive educationally and socially, and to receive appropriate instruction with others who are truly her peers.
Removing a student like my granddaughter from a school where she is learning, thriving socially, and happy to place her in a cross-categorical special education program with no track record of success would be devastating. She is still the little girl who had a panic attack when her third-grade teacher kept her after school to punish her for getting anxious at the end of the day and then released in the hallway at the height of school dismissal chaos. I was waiting for her outside of the door, but she never exited the building. A teacher found her sobbing on a stairwell. No way could she navigate the hallways of ETHS, a 62-acre campus of over 3,500 students, to take an art class or participate in an extracurricular activity.
I worry that ETHS special education students will pay a huge price in terms of their learning and mental health for a program that may have its heart in the right place but does not have a clear vision. Hopefully, the selection of students for the new therapeutic school will be based on the teens’ best interests with the goal of helping them to thrive educationally, socially, and emotionally. If they build it well, and if they create a program with a clear and narrowed focus and mission, then they will come.
IMPORTANT MEETING TO EXPLORE THESE ISSUES
WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 20 AT 7:00 PM
ETHS WELCOME CENTER
Please join us in a conversation with ETHS Director of Special Education Lanée Walls, and members of the administrative team, for an overview of special education at ETHS. Topics will include referral and evaluation, the placement continuum including the new ETHS Day School, case management and the articulation process. We request that you schedule a separate time to discuss individual student concerns.
Special Education at ETHS
ETHS Parents Engaged