Frustrations of a CPS special ed parent: ‘Why are other kids reading and not my son?’

Oliver Curran, a special education student in CPS, works on a writing exercise during remote learning at his home in Gold Coast in December. | Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Remote learning has provided a window into the classroom for parents of students with disabilities. Some aren’t happy with what they’ve seen. Oliver Curran loves to talk. To him, watching news about politics or chatting with his mom is more fun than playing with toy trucks.
As much as he loves talking, Oliver, 12, can’t read, his mother, Nancy Curran, said. Curran brought her concern to Oliver’s special education team at Coonley Elementary School in Chicago’s North Center neighborhood, but instructors told her Oliver just needed more time, she said.
That was more than a year ago, Curran said.
Now, with Oliver attending school virtually due to the pandemic, Curran has noticed other students are already reading in her son’s seventh-grade class of fellow special education students.
“Why are other kids reading and not my son?” said Curran, of Streeterville. “I’m very concerned about that, and I’m not really being taken seriously.”
Remote learning has opened a window for parents to peer into their students’ classrooms, which was difficult to do before the coronavirus pandemic. At Chicago Public Schools, some parents of children with disabilities say they are disheartened by services they believe fail to meet students’ needs and are upset by the low expectations some educators have for their children.
Mo Buti, who founded a Chicago advocacy organization, AiepA, for people with autism and other disabilities, said her clients observing their children’s virtual classes are realizing they aren’t always being challenged in school.
One of Buti’s clients recently noticed their son’s sixth-grade CPS class still has morning circle and song time, which Buti said is more typical of activities for younger kids.
“For the first time ever, parents are getting a snapshot of what school looks like for their child,” Buti said. “The most, kind of, sad thing is that many parents are realizing maybe the level of their child or the low expectations of their child.”

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times
Nancy Curran points out teachers on the screen as her son Oliver Curran identifies them during a remote learning session in December.

‘Sink or swim’
Oliver Curran is in a CPS cluster program at Coonley, where students with disabilities receive instruction in a separate classroom with a modified curriculum for the majority of the school day. Coonley, which hosts some of the city’s cluster programs, has a higher concentration of special education students.
Oliver is one of more than 63,000 students in CPS — 18% of the student body, according to the district’s 2020 report card — and one of more than 7 million students across the nation who have learning accommodations through Individualized Education Programs or other defined plans, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
An IEP is a specific legal document for students with disabilities. It states the student’s current education level, goals to work toward and additional supports necessary to better educate them, things like therapy and time with a social worker.
Oliver’s physical and learning disabilities stem from a brain surgery he had when he was 4 to stop his epileptic seizures, and he’s had an IEP since preschool, his mother said. When Curran asked her son’s IEP team why he hadn’t learned to read by seventh grade, she said the team didn’t provide any reason.
Her son’s IEP even said he should be able to independently read and comprehend a paragraph or short story by this past April, which Curran said hasn’t happened.
“You don’t get any help with CPS,” Curran said. “It’s like you sink or swim.”
CPS spokesman James Gherardi said meeting students’ “unique needs is a top priority,” though the district recognizes some support students with disabilities need can only be provided in-person. The district will phase in optional in-person instruction starting this month, he said, and most cluster programs will be able to attend school daily. Of the 31,687 students with IEPs eligible to return to school, 11,351 opted in — about 36%.
“We have committed to ongoing dialogue and engagement to ensure we are meeting their needs,” Gherardi said. “Based on engagement data and feedback for parents, it’s clear that remote learning cannot work well enough for many of our diverse learners.”
Gherardi did not respond to specific questions about Curran’s son.
Curran, however, said she won’t send her son back to school in January because she doesn’t want her son to be the “guinea pig” to test if students can safely return to school without spreading the virus.

Sun-Times Media
Coonley Elementary School on the Northwest Side

Faltering IEPs
Students with IEPs often receive related services to support them: speech therapy, psychological services and occupational therapy, among other things. But even existing services written in students’ IEPs aren’t always being delivered, said Matthew Cohen, a special education attorney in Chicago.
CPS added a Remote Learning Plan to students’ IEPs to explain how those services would be delivered while school remained online during the pandemic. But these remote services are “insufficient,” Cohen said. Having a paraprofessional online doesn’t replicate the one-to-one support some students require, when aides regularly checked in with students in the physical classroom before the pandemic, he said.
“A high percentage of the kids are not getting anything approaching what they need,” Cohen said. “I’m concerned that this is going to really result in a reduction of expectations of what the school is supposed to do.”
At DePriest Elementary School in Austin, John Yolich teaches a class of 15 diverse learners (which is how CPS refers to special education students). His students’ IEP goals typically aim for a certain learning level by the end of the school year, like being able to analyze a nonfiction story or mastering math multiplication tables.
Lysandra Cook, associate professor and coordinator for the special education program at the University of Virginia, said many students won’t meet their IEP objectives this school year and will need revised or rewritten IEPs after missing out on critical learning.
Cook said the the majority of schools are doing their best to meet their students’ needs, but for students with a more severe disability, things get complicated. The student doesn’t have the same ability to meet with members of their IEP team, Cook said, a challenge in and of itself.
“It’s a lot for schools,” Cook said. “They’re being so responsive in trying to provide supports, but it’s really difficult.”
Beginning the school year online in largely unchartered territory, Yolich thought writing IEPs almost involved “making stuff up,” but it’s really a matter of finding a “happy medium” in writing proper education goals for each specific student, he said. He balances challenging students enough that they’re still engaged but not making goals so rigorous that they’re impossible to achieve, especially in a virtual classroom.
But since students are allowed to turn off their cameras and disengage, Yolich said his class’s educational progress is declining.
“I don’t fool myself as a teacher,” Yolich said. “They’re really not learning at all.”

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times
Laurie Viets (left) — with her children, River, Raven and Canyon Viets-Strel — says remote learning hasn’t been that great for her kids, but she’s worried about sending them back during the pandemic.

Academic decline
Laurie Viets knows all three of her children will be behind in school once classes resume in person, she said.
All her children have IEPs, said Viets, 48, of Irving Park. Canyon Viets-Strel, in sixth grade, and twins Raven and River Viets-Strel, in fourth grade, are autistic and have oppositional defiant disorder, characterized by disobedient behavior. River and Raven also have ADHD, she said. All three attend Agassiz Elementary School in Lake View.
Canyon is the only sixth grader in his class who needs a high level of support, so he doesn’t have to share the aides with other students with disabilities, Viets said. Canyon logs into a separate Google Meet to communicate directly with his paraprofessionals. The twins don’t have the same level of support written into their IEPs, she said, and more students in their fourth-grade class require the same level of support as River and Raven.
Viets hasn’t fought very hard to get more academic support for her twins, she said, because she isn’t sure it would help. Her children still aren’t really learning in online classes, she said.
Some parents with enough money have circumvented this problem by building “learning pods,” small groups of students that meet in person and hire a teacher to instruct them, only revealing an underlying socioeconomic inequality in special education, said Cook, the University of Virginia professor.
Students used to being in learning pods will have more stamina for being in the classroom when classes return in person, Cook said. But for students with disabilities who haven’t had as much stimulation, she said “the disparities in the classroom are going to be bigger.”

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times
Laurie Viets adjusts Raven Viets-Strelat’s hat during a trip to North Park Village Nature Park while CPS is on winter break.

Losing opportunities
Aidan Hughes is in his second year at a transition program at Southside Occupational Academy High School. The post-secondary program offers students with disabilities a chance to learn life skills and gain job training after finishing high school.
Since the pandemic, Hughes, 19, who is autistic, hasn’t received the job training and skills the transition program aims to offer, his mother, Mary Hughes, said. If classes weren’t virtual, her son would have gotten job experience working in a gift shop or cleaning the Thompson Center. Instead, his class simply discusses job skills virtually, said Hughes, 57, of Beverly.
“It’s no one’s fault,” Hughes said. “But it is something that is going to have to be made up.”
Hughes said she’s especially concerned about sending her son and other students back to school in person, with such high numbers of positive cases in the city. Aidan Hughes will continue school remotely in January, she said.
Viets said there’s “no way” she’s sending her children to school in January. At the start of the year, she considered homeschooling her three children all year.
But if she were to have done so, she was told her children would have lost access to all district services — including speech and occupational therapy and social work, Viets said. They would also lose their spots at Agassiz since it isn’t their neighborhood school.
“Instead of CPS being like, ‘Hey, it’s a pandemic. We get it.’ It’s like, ‘Nope, if you leave, you’re screwed,’” she said.

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