Julia Novak, a sixth-grade special education student from Chicago, has been through three public schools in four years. The first school could not accommodate her physical disability. The second could accommodate her physically, but was a disastrous match for her academically. Julia, who also has cognitive, speech and language delays, was suspended nine times that year.
"The curriculum was not fitting what she needed and they just kept punishing her reaction, which was disruptive behavior," her mother Tammy Novak said. "After the ninth suspension, I just couldn't send her back there anymore."
After plenty of agony, for both Julia and her family, they finally found a match. Lozano Elementary was a low performing school—in fact it was given the lowest rating a Chicago Public School can get. But it was a miracle school for Julia. "She made tremendous strides academically, socially," said Novak. "It's been an amazing transition. She's happy to get up in the morning."
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But the peace may be short lived. Just months into her first school year at Lozano Elementary, her school was identified as one of the 129 underused Chicago schools that may be slated for closure.
Large urban school districts across the country have cracked down on low-performing and underused schools over the last decade, shuttering dozens of them at a time. Earlier this year, school officials in New York City and Philadelphia voted to close more than 20 schools, while officials in Washington, D.C. approved plans to close 15. The closures have been controversial, but advocates argue that it's not fair to keep kids in bad schools, it's not logical to fund buildings that aren't full, and closing them ultimately benefits students.
For every school that closes, hundreds, and sometimes thousands of students are displaced and forced to begin the following school year somewhere else, with new classmates, a new curriculum and routine. And while change can be jarring for any student, it's even more difficult for children with special needs who often represent significant percentages of students in schools slated for closure.
More than 5,000 students that receive special education services attend the Chicago elementary schools that could be shuttered next year, according to data from the Commission on School Utilization—a group appointed to study the city’s problem with underused school buildings. Those students make up nearly 17 percent of all elementary school students in the city who receive special education services at their local schools and 12 percent of all students who may be displaced by school closures later this year.
The commission recommended not to shutter any high schools with low enrollment or underused elementary schools that are earning high marks, after considering community concerns. In its final report to the city, which said that up to 80 schools could be safely consolidated, the commission acknowledged the complexity of accommodating the all the needs of the city’s special education students and said, “no simple formula will suffice.”
A spokesperson for CPS—which is expected to announce which schools will close by the end of next week—said the district has developed "a specialized plan for transitioning students with disabilities" in the event their school needs to be closed, and that by consolidating schools the district can focus on "getting every child into a better performing school close to their home."
Chicago parents who want a bit more control over their children's fate do have the option of trying for one of the city’s dozens of other school choices, like charter or magnet schools—alternatives to traditional neighborhood public schools that are becoming more and more abundant, in Chicago and beyond. But admission to these schools is based on applications and lotteries—getting in is not guaranteed.
In fact, a study by the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research, which looked at school closures between 1997 and 2010, found that the variety of new schools that emerged in place of shuttered neighborhood schools wound up serving fewer special education students than the neighborhood public schools that were previously there. And a federal report released in July showed that nationally, charter schools enrolled a lower percentage of students with disabilities than traditional public schools, though neither report could say for sure why that was. Were parents choosing to keep their kids with special needs in traditional public schools? Or were their kids getting rejected from the other schools?
For Sabra Townsend, the mother of a Philadelphia teen diagnosed with autism and Prune Belly syndrome, a connective tissue disorder, it was the latter. With high school on the horizon for her eighth-grade son, Townsend began researching and touring options beyond the local public school.
“I wanted the option to—just like for any other student—to look at other high schools that were available,” Townsend said. She whittled the list down to five schools, a mix of vocational, traditional and experimental high schools (including one Microsoft-backed school with a strong digital lean), gathered letters of recommendation and sent out the applications. Not one was accepted.
“This didn’t just happen to my son. This happened to everyone in his class,” Townsend said, referring to the 12 others in her son’s eighth-grade special education class.
And then the news came that his local high school was closing.
Germantown, a large public high school which provides special education services to nearly a third of its students, is among the 23 Philadelphia public schools approved earlier this month for closure.
The city’s School Reform Commission argued that the schools, which were underused, were a drain on the city’s finances. It’s a similar argument made by the Chicago Public Schools and other districts across the country, attempting to weed out low-performing, underused schools, while expanding a more favorable array of options.
Those expanded options, however, have accelerated an exodus from weaker neighborhood public schools, which are often left serving the most vulnerable populations—from special education students whose local options may be limited, to children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds who don’t have anyone in their lives to help them navigate a complicated system.
“Generally speaking, when schools and neighborhoods depopulate, the normal pattern is that the families and households that are more mobile, by virtue of having better resources, are able to move to a more desirable neighborhood or are more aggressive and able to take advantage of school choice,” said Jeffrey Henig, professor of political science and education at Columbia University’s Teachers College. “What that means is that those that are left are the most defenseless or less able to protect the schools politically.”
Families of special education students are also limited to the schools that are able to accommodate their children's various needs.
Advocates for school choice, like Robin Lake, the director of the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education, argue that families of special education students should value an increased set of options. But Lake points out that children with special needs are the “most vulnerable kids in terms of transition,” and that school districts have to make a plan to ensure these kids can navigate the system if their current school ends up on the chopping block.
Novak, the Chicago mother, is still holding out hope that her daughter's elementary school might not be named on the closure list and the family could have a couple more years of stability. Julia is still in sixth grade, and she could stay at her school, which serves students from preschool through eighth-grade, for two more years before she’d have to move on.
“I’m supporting her school as much as I can,” she said. “It’s a warm, safe place.”