OCR: Chicago Schools Meet Special Ed. Code

By Joetta L. Sack — July 09, 1997 3 min read

Progress in Boston

The U.S. Department of Education ended its monitoring of the school system last month, saying the 428,000-student Chicago district had met the goals outlined in its latest agreement with federal officials.

“They have made just a substantial amount of progress,” said Linda McGovern, the director of the Chicago branch of the department’s office for civil rights.

The violations, first reported in 1986 by parents and teachers, included long delays in evaluating students and referring them for services. In the 1989-90 school year, for example, the OCR found that only 42 percent of the 23,000 special education evaluations in Chicago that year were conducted within the state-mandated deadline of 60 days from a student’s referral. By the 1995-96 school year, 92 percent were completed within 60 days. And, even though Chicago was missing a state rather than federally imposed deadline, federal law requires schools to comply with reasonable state assessment deadlines.

The OCR investigated the school district for compliance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

In 1986, “it wasn’t unusual for an evaluation to take one to two years, or even three years,” said Sue Gamm, Chicago” chief specialized-services officer, who worked for the OCR when its investigation began. The district completed 94 percent of its evaluations within 60 days as of May of this year, she said.

But the problems were not easily or quickly fixed. After the Chicago schools failed to make satisfactory progress in 1988, the case went to an administrative-hearing officer, who upheld the Education Department’s orders.

The Chicago school system and the OCR agreed to a compliance plan in 1989, but again the district was unable to meet it, and the two sides negotiated a modified agreement in 1993.

That agreement included restructuring the special education administration and hiring more staff members, including an associate superintendent for special education, more specialized personnel, and social workers to handle the workload.

The Chicago public schools have now completely complied with that agreement, Ms. McGovern said.

Keeping the Pressure On

Federal education officials praised the district’s recent efforts to alleviate problems, which included creating a computer program to track evaluations and placements, new procedures to streamline the evaluation and placement process, increased monitoring of schools’ special education services, hiring more staff, and providing better training and personnel development for special education teachers.

Charlotte Des Jardins, the executive director of the Family Resource Center on Disabilities, a parents’ support group in Chicago, agreed that the school system has made significant progress. Although there are still about 5,000 students waiting for evaluations, that’s about one-tenth the number there were in 1969, when she first started lobbying the school system to speed up its process, she said.

“It’s a lot of kids, but it’s a lot of progress,” Ms. Des Jardins said. “We certainly have to keep the pressure on.”

Ms. Gamm said school officials spent the first years laboriously sorting through more than 40,000 school records just to determine how far behind the process was. They have since computerized all the records, and the system alerts officials on upcoming evaluations and when backlogs occur.

Progress in Boston

While Chicago came into compliance with federal standards, the Boston public school system recently received a release from state court monitoring for similar problems.

A Massachusetts superior court judge ruled last month that the Boston schools had complied with state special education guidelines, lifting a 21-year-old court-oversight order.

The case, brought by the Massachusetts Advocacy Center, maintained that students were not being evaluated and placed into services quickly enough.

A version of this article appeared in the July 09, 1997 edition of Education Week