Parents and teachers speak out about problems with special education at a rally in May 2017 on the South Side.
Chicago Public Schools announced Wednesday it is taking the unprecedented step of offering millions of dollars in extra support to more than 10,500 students who were stripped of needed services during an illegal overhaul of special education.
Experts say they know of no other school district that has provided students wholesale access to compensatory services without a court demanding it, and without proof that the loss of support caused the student to regress.
Stephanie Jones, who runs CPS' special education department, said leadership ultimately decided this was the right thing to do for children. It's being launched after nearly two years of back and forth with advocates.
"I have never heard of anything like this," said Jones, who took on this position in August. "Our pillars to this are accessibility and being timely and flexible."
The program is also unique. It doesn't replace a specific service lost, but rather allows the parent to get enrichment, whether it be tutoring or social emotional support, such as therapy.
According to district records, 10,515 students were either wrongly denied a diagnosis for a specific learning disability or had busing, a supportive aide or summer school removed from their education plan sometime between 2016 and 2018. This came when the school district was implementing a restrictive set of special education policies and procedures.
School district officials say they could easily identify these students and decided to offer them enrichment as a starting point. Parents of students not identified, but who believe their children lost services, can also ask to make their case.
Jones would not provide an estimate of the potential cost for the school district.
However, the school district did provide a breakdown of how much they were offering per removed service, from $240 for every 10 days of transportation missed to $4,000 for each year that a student with a learning disability was not given support. Given these costs, it could easily wind up costing the school district more than $10 million.
This new plan, called the "universal enrichment remedy," comes almost two years after the state compelled the school district to repair damage done.
A 2017 WBEZ investigation found that, under this overhaul, children lost or struggled to get federally required supports to help them function in school. Meanwhile, the school district was saving money, while officials insisted otherwise.
Soon after, urged by a group of advocates, the state launched an inquiry that eventually concluded the overhaul was illegal.
In a powerful move, the state took control of the school district's special education department by appointing monitors to sign off on any changes made by the school district. It demanded that students wrongly denied services be compensated.
Most of the overhaul has been rolled back since then, but the school district had yet, until now, to make good on the demand it repair the harm done.
Terri Smith-Roback, a special education advocate, said she is relieved the school district finally agreed to go forward with a plan that provides an automatic remedy. She was part of the group that pleaded with the state to examine what was going on in Chicago.
"It is not going to be perfect ever," she said. "You can't correct a lot of the injustice that happened, but I feel a lot more positive than I ever have since we started this thing."
A sense of urgency
Jones and others say time demanded that CPS put a program in place if it was going to do any good at all. The school district's analysis found that nearly a third of the students impacted were no longer in a Chicago public school.
About 1,000 of them have graduated. Others transferred out of the school district..
And about 900 students, or almost one in 10, are inactive for other reasons, including that they dropped out, are in prison or have otherwise disappeared from the system. Twenty-eight are dead.
Jones said the school system will do its best to reach out to the parents of the inactive students and offer services.
Matt Cohen, a disability rights attorney, said the services lost during the overhaul likely had a profound impact on whether students progress in school. And he said the likelihood that enrichment programs can reverse even some of the damage lessens as time goes on.
"Is there any way any of the kids who lost out will be made whole? I don't think there is any way," Cohen said. "Whatever CPS offers, whether it is a little bit for a little problem or a little bit more for a big problem, you can't go back two years later and make right what was taken away two or three years ago."
He notes that the damage goes beyond academic skills.
"It can impact your self-esteem," he said. "It can make kids so frustrated that they give up on school or start doing school refusal. These were services that were not just mildly important."
Julie Rodriguez working on homework with her son at their home in 2017. After Chicago Public Schools overhauled special education, Rodriguez says she struggled to get her son the support he needed at his school.
Cohen said that he also is deeply concerned about the students who are not among the 10,515, but also lost services during the overhaul.
The state inquiry found that students had a range of other services pulled. To receive compensation, their parents must request a meeting to make their case. Helping parents understand they can and should do this will be a major undertaking.
Another concern is that the private organizations designated to provide the enrichment services don't have the capacity to serve all of the students who might come their way. CPS officials said the district is ready and willing to add providers as they step up.
Parents can also find their own tutors or therapists, pay them and then get reimbursed by CPS. Smith-Roback, who assists many low-income parents on the South Side, said this is great for parents with the means to pay and wait for the school district to send them a check.
"People on the North Side who were in this conversation were saying, 'My neighbor is an excellent tutor, she lives right next door to me — can I use that person?' and the answer is, yes, you can use that person," she said. "But what about that person whose next-door neighbor is not a tutor? It is very racially inequitable."
Getting to an automatic remedy
While Smith-Roback and others applaud the school district for rolling out this plan, they say the school district was forced into it.
Just a few months ago, CPS officials were intent on making every parent request a meeting with school staff to prove the loss of a service caused their child to backtrack. The school district even sent letters to thousands of parents informing them that they could embark on this process.
But advocates were livid. They said the letter was too complicated. Also, the process sounded cumbersome, especially for parents who are already juggling the demands of having a special needs student.
Around the same time, the Chicago Teachers Union reached a contract deal with the school district that included a provision prohibiting the school district from adding to the workload of school staff and clinicians. School staff are generally stretched thin and did not want extra work because of the school district's wrongdoing.
That meant the school district would have to find another set of people to hold what could end up being thousands of meetings with special education families.
This was a factor in getting the school district leadership to agree to automatically offering services without a meeting, Smith-Roback said.
This also allowed Chicago Public Schools to go forward without admitting their policies and procedures harmed thousands of students.
Jones from Chicago Public Schools avoided the question of whether the school district's policies damaged children. She pointed out that, under this universal remedy plan, even students who did not regress can get enrichment services.
But mom Kalaveeta Mitchell said she thinks an apology would go a long way. It grates her that CPS has "never once admitted they did wrong."
Mitchell said she has been left deeply bitter and suspicious of the school district. She has gotten an indication that at least one of her two special needs children will get offered enrichment programs under this plan.
But she said she won't believe it until she sees it.
Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter at @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.