More Illinois students qualifying for special-education services, data shows

Better medical diagnoses, a growing emphasis on early detection and greater parental advocacy are among the possible reasons why more Illinois students are qualifying for special education services, suburban educators say.

An estimated 13.7 percent of Illinois public school students were eligible for such services during the 2013-14 school year, according to data from the Illinois State Board of Education. That's up from 13.1 percent five years ago.

Special-education experts and school administrators suggested several explanations based on educated hunches or their own schools' experiences.

Constance Simon, the assistant superintendent for special services in Barrington Area Unit School District 220, said she believes doctors, school staffers and other professionals are becoming more sophisticated in diagnosing special-education needs.

Parents also are advocating for their children more and are seeking help at schools, said Jay Miller, the director of special education for Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire.

With medical costs rising, parents are turning to schools for social work, physical therapy and other services.

"They're looking to the local school district for that emotional and social support," Miller said.

Who is eligible?

Students with hearing or vision impairment, emotional disabilities or intellectual disabilities can be deemed eligible for special education services, which also are known as individualized education programs. So can students with cerebral palsy, missing limbs, cancer, attention deficit disorder, diabetes, heart conditions or other qualifying health issues.

To receive services, a student must be evaluated by teachers, psychologists, therapists or other professionals, said Terri McHugh, spokeswoman for Schaumburg Township Elementary District 54.

If the student meets the criteria for a disability that adversely affects the educational process, and if special services can ease those issues, a program can be developed, McHugh said.

An individualized education program is a formal document that spells out a student's needs and sets goals.

It's developed by a team that includes school educators, administrators and the youth's parents, and it describes what will be done to give the student the extra help needed.

"The IEP would include what services will be provided, how often and by whom," McHugh said.

Programs vary from student to student. Speech therapy, the ability to have more time on tests, assistive technology and preferential seating are just a few options.

Parents rarely refuse the services, Stevenson High's Miller said. He guessed fewer than one parent per year turns down offers.

When asked about the statewide increase, Miller said he believes more students are being diagnosed with emotional challenges than in the past. He's seeing an increase of students with depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts and other disabling psychological issues.

"We're getting a lot of students who have emotional challenges and are unable to function optimally in the school environment," Miller said.

Parents are seeking help from schools in greater numbers because private assistance is costly and can be hard to find, he said.

"There's less support outside the school," Miller said.

Rachel Katz is among the Stevenson High students with an individual program. A 17-year-old junior from Buffalo Grove, Katz received her first program in preschool because of developmental delays, said her mother, Dr. Belinda Radis.

She later was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder and a language processing disorder that makes writing or speaking her thoughts difficult, Radis said.

Through her program, Katz works weekly with a speech and language pathologist who helps her with English assignments. She also has a resource manager who assists as well.

Although Katz has struggled more than usual in school this year, her mother praised the special education system.

The services she received early in her schooling boosted her abilities to the point that she now takes advanced courses and has a reputation for being smart, despite her disabilities.

"It was invaluable," Radis said of her daughter's education services. "I think it can make a real difference in a child's school experience."

Some rates are high

Of the 612 suburban elementary, middle and high schools surveyed by the Daily Herald, Sunny Hill Elementary School in Carpentersville has the highest percentage of students who are eligible for special education services.

Part of Barrington District 220, Sunny Hill reported 29.8 percent of its students qualified for education programs, far above the 13.7 percent state average.

The figure didn't surprise District 220's Simon. In fact, it's a point of pride.

"Barrington 220 does identify students who qualify for special education much earlier than many districts do because of our program at (our) early learning center," Simon said.

That center, which opened in 2010 in Barrington, aims to help 3- to 5-year-olds who may have extra physical or learning needs. The facility hosts developmental screenings throughout the year for local children in that age range, and any kids who are found to be needing assistance are accepted to the program, she said.

Districtwide, 16.3 percent of Barrington students qualified for education programs, according to the state's data.

As Sunny Hill's rate is significantly higher than the district average, the district's staff has been allocated accordingly, Simon said.

"We have more special education staff on hand at Sunny Hill to accommodate the needs of these students adequately," she said.

Among the 95 school districts surveyed by the Daily Herald, Grass Lake Elementary District 36 in Antioch had the highest percentage of students with education programs - 21.6 percent.

Like the much larger District 220, the one-school district has a prekindergarten program for 3- and 4-year-olds. It's not uncommon for those students to need occupational therapy to improve their motor skills, speech therapy or other assistance, District 36 Superintendent Terry O'Brien said.

"By having an IEP, we can provide them that service," he said. "The services are really there ... to provide the best opportunity to be successful."

According to O'Brien, 97 percent of Grass Lake students with education programs are in traditional classrooms. Early intervention ensures that percentage stays high, he said, because it helps students meet educational milestones as they get older and progress through school.

"(It's an) investment in our young children," O'Brien said.

Too restrictive?

Administrators at some school districts try to avoid creating education programs for students, however.

The percentage of students who qualify for special education services at Stevenson High was 8.9 percent last year - one of the lowest rates for any district included in the Daily Herald's data search.

Stevenson tries to be as least restrictive as possible when it comes to special education students, Miller said.

When students with education programs arrive at Stevenson, the staff addresses the needs described in the reports, Miller said. But if teachers and other personnel can work to help a student without resorting to services, they'll try to do that, he said.

Miller believes students with disabilities must be challenged to learn new skills. Although education programs can level the playing field for a child, doing more than is necessary "can disable the student even more," Miller said.

He also acknowledged creating education programs that successfully meets a student's needs can be a difficult process. That's one of the reasons they're updated annually, if not more frequently.

"This is just as much of an art as a science," he said.

Mostly local funding

Some of the funding for special education programs comes from the federal government through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. There's some state cash for the program, too.

But as is so often the case with school budgets, grants cover only a portion of the cost.

That leaves local districts responsible for the balance.

"About 80 percent is from local funds," Schaumburg Elementary District 54's McHugh said.

She said her district won't let that financial shortfall keep the staff from giving students with education programs the tools, services and personal support they need to succeed.

"We would not be fulfilling our responsibilities as educators if we didn't provide these resources," she said.

  Stevenson High School student Gina Baran works with aide Inga Buttelmann. As a student with special education needs, Baran has an individualized education plan. Bob Chwedyk/
Sunny Hill Elementary School third-grader Carlos Joval Hernandez works with aide Natalie Velazquez. Joval uses an iPad equipped with assistive technology to help him communicate. Courtesy of Barrington School District 220
Sunny Hill Elementary School fifth-grader Ondre Martinez Sigala, right, works with Assistive Technology Coordinator Kelly Key. Courtesy of Barrington School District 220

Top special-ed percentage, by school and district

These are the schools with the largest percentage of students who are eligible to receive special education services in the Daily Herald's circulation area.

• Sunny Hill Elementary School, Carpentersville: 29.8 percent

• Glacier Ridge Elementary School, Crystal Lake: 29.2 percent

• Edgebrook Elementary, McHenry: 26.5 percent

• Ridge Family Center for Learning, Elk Grove Village: 24.1 percent

• BJ Hooper Elementary, Lindenhurst: 23.1 percent

These six school districts have the greatest percentage of students who qualify for special education services in the Daily Herald's circulation area

• Grass Lake District 36, Antioch: 21.6 percent

• Rondout District 72, Lake Forest: 18.5 percent

• Cumberland District 62, Des Plaines: 18.4 percent

• Lisle District 202: 17.9 percent

• Fox Lake District 114: 17.8 percent (tie)

• Cary District 26: 17.8 percent (tie)

Source: Illinois State Board of Education

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