Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Program for disabled children in Chicago may have to close because of budget cuts

From The Chicago News Cooperative:

Like thousands of other Chicago parents every year, Jennifer Meade-Magruder is not sure which public school her child will attend in the fall. This year, the prospects are even more unsettling because the preschools that could serve her special-needs son, Joshua, face smaller budgets that could force them to close.

Ms. Meade-Magruder may not know until late summer if Joshua’s current school, where he has thrived, will close. If it does, Chicago Public Schools must find a place for him, but the new spot may not include the support he now receives. That could leave his mother with little time to scramble for an alternative.

Joshua, 3, has attended Barbara Vick Early Childhood Center, a preschool on the South Side that serves a high number of children with special needs. After a year there, Joshua, whose condition has been provisionally diagnosed as mild autism, has become a totally different person, Ms. Meade-Magruder said. Once he barely communicated, but now he talks freely.

But next year, Vick and its North Side counterpart, Frederick Stock School, may be among the hardest hit by cuts to the district’s dwindling early-education budget.

Chicago Public Schools is required by law to provide special-education services to every student who needs them. Financing for the other students comes from the state, and the legislature sent the governor a budget last week cutting early-childhood education by 5 percent, to $325 million from $342 million. District officials have told several principals with early-childhood programs that money will go first to schools with the highest number of students who qualify for free and reduced lunches, the common definition of poverty in schools. Vick and Stock schools, situated in middle-class neighborhoods, are likely to be among the last in line.

The budget-cutting mood in Springfield comes as Chicago Public Schools tries to deal with a deficit of more than $720 million and the loss of federal stimulus money to support programming.

Many special-needs students require environments in which they can learn next to typically developing students, and Vick and Stock provide dozens of the district’s blended preschool classrooms. Those classrooms consist of a certified educator, a special-education teacher and one or more aides to serve roughly 20 students, 6 of whom have special needs.

“We’re mandated to provide these children with service, but what will we be able to provide them in terms of inclusive environments? I don’t know,” said Richard Smith, the school district’s director of specialized services.

Money for special-needs students is not threatened, but there may be limited money or none for mainstream students at Vick and Stock, so it may not be possible to maintain blended classrooms. The alternative could be a program only for special-needs children.

“It’s a step backwards, truly, in terms of best practices,” Mr. Smith said. “These students with disabilities need to be part of the community. When they’re with their peers, to me, it’s better than any type of therapy a therapist can provide.”

Several advocacy groups have criticized Chicago Public Schools as not providing adequate services for children with special needs. A 1975 federal law requires districts to educate students in the “least restrictive environment.” In other words, if students with special needs can be educated alongside their peers, they should be.

For students like Joshua Magruder, being around mainstream peers at an early age has made all the difference.

His mother said that she and her husband thought Joshua’s mild-autism diagnosis would change to “verbal apraxia,” a form of speech delay in which children have difficulty communicating what they want to say.

Research shows that blended settings at the early-childhood level have social and intellectual benefits for children with and without special needs. “As a parent, what I hope for the most is that he’ll grow up being seen as a typical kid, in part because of the support he gets at Barbara Vick,” Ms. Meade-Magruder said.

Early-childhood programs, especially blended ones, are expensive, but research shows that investing early can offset special-education costs in elementary and high schools.

“If you were really allocating scarce funds on things that have high return on investment, early-childhood would be getting more,” said Diana Rauner, executive director of the Ounce of Prevention Fund, an early-learning advocacy group. “Instead, everything is sort of this zero-sum. It’s pretty fiscally irresponsible.”

Catherine Lawton, principal of Vick, agrees that the investment pays off.

“I think we have a profound impact on a percentage of kids who, if there wasn’t a program like ours, might be children that would end up in a special-education label for their whole academic careers, and because of the support they get here, end up really as part of the mainstream,” Ms. Lawton said.

Michelle Pusatera, whose son, Dillon, has Down syndrome and attends a blended classroom at Vick, said she wanted to raise her children in the city, but was dissatisfied with how Chicago Public Schools handled students with disabilities.

“I believe that Chicago Public Schools does have some good schools for children with Down syndrome,” Ms. Pusatera said, “but I believe it’s a lottery and it’s pretty much a gamble. I’m not going to gamble on my typical children’s education. Why would I gamble on my son who has a disability?”

Ms. Pusatera said her only options might be to move to a suburb or enroll Dillon in the private school her other two sons attend, which would mean she would have to be his aide because the private school does not provide one.

At the last two Board of Education meetings, parents from Vick and Stock pleaded for money to keep the schools open, but the board president, Mary Richardson-Lowry, said the issue would be dealt with by the new leadership, which will determine next year’s budget.

Until then, Ms. Meade-Magruder and other parents must wait, perhaps until the end of summer, to find out where their children will go to school.

“We’re just holding our breath,” she said.