Most suburban schools report special ed student growth

The need for special education services in suburban school districts is on the rise, according to newly released data from the Illinois State Board of Education.

A Daily Herald analysis of 104 suburban school districts shows a combined 3.4% growth in the number of students with Individualized Education Programs this year — a figure that mirrors a statewide increase from the 2022-23 school year.

Nearly three-quarters of the suburban districts in the analysis reported more special education students enrolled this year. The growth can put a strain on district budgets, and it can be difficult for schools to find enough personnel to provide the necessary services.

“It’s staffing based on student need,” said Kim Cline, assistant superintendent for support services and school safety at Wheeling Elementary District 21. “And in the last 10 years, it’s gotten more difficult mainly due to supply and demand.”

Fewer people are going into the profession, and there’s a growing need for the services, she explained.

Special education experts and advocates said a combination of factors have led to the increased number of students requiring an IEP.

“One reason might be because more students are getting early intervention services and identifying a need sooner,” Cline said. “And I think more parents are getting their children evaluated through outside providers.”

District 21 has 78 more students with an IEP than last year, an 8.7% increase, state records show. In all, 15.7% of the district’s student body receives some level of special education service.

The need for special education services has also become less stigmatizing in recent years, with parents more apt to seek and accept additional assistance for their children.

A Pew Research Center report from last year using data from the National Center for Education Statistics noted the number of special education students has doubled in the past 45 years nationwide, largely due to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), passed in 1975.

The need varies from district to district, analysis revealed.

Combined, 14.4% of the students in the 104 suburban districts have an IEP, records show. There are seven districts where more than 20% of the students are receiving special education services — Rondout Elementary District 72, Villa Park Elementary District 45, Grayslake Elementary District 46, Mundelein Elementary District 75, Fox Lake Elementary District 114, Lake Villa Elementary District 41 and Rosemont Elementary District 78.

“A number of families move here because of our very personalized approach to learning for all kids,” said Rondout Superintendent Jenny Wojcik. “Families whose children are in need of an IEP seek us out.”

Nearly a quarter of Rondout’s students have an IEP, the highest rate among the suburban schools in the analysis. On the flip side is Stevenson High School District 125, where only 8.3% of the students receive special education services. It’s the only district where less than 10% of the students have an IEP, ISBE data shows.

Traci Wallen, Stevenson’s director of special education, said the IEP rate for most high school districts will be lower because some students will transition out of such programs before they graduate. She noted her district evaluates special education students every three years to determine if they still qualify.

“We tend to wean the students off it because they aren’t going to get these kinds of programs in college,” Wallen said. “Our job is not to cradle and insulate them. We want them to transition. That’s the goal.”

Parents or teachers can request an evaluation for an IEP, but ultimately, parents are the ones who decide whether to enroll their child in such a program, district officials said.

And special education programming traditionally is one of the costlier aspects of a school district’s budget.

“School districts do not receive 100% reimbursement for support and services (given to) children with an IEP,” Wojcik said. “It does take a larger percentage of our budget to support our children with an IEP.”

In Lake Villa Elementary District 41, 32.4% of the district’s instructional spending is earmarked for special education costs this year, according to its 2024 budget.

District 41 officials note they provide special education services for two orphanages, which drives up costs. However, those expenses are fully reimbursed by the state.

And costs can vary because there’s no such thing as a standard IEP, district officials note.

“Our focus is always on doing what we can to help students reach their full potential,” said Erin Holmes, director of communications at Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211. “We look at the service recommendations of each student with an IEP … to appropriately allocate course sections, services, staff and resources to ensure students are given the support they need to succeed.”

Just a little bit more than 10% of District 211’s students have an IEP this year, state records show. There are 40 fewer students at District 211 schools with an IEP this year.

This is only the second year ISBE has reported the number of students with an IEP, but district officials expect the numbers to continue to rise, at least in the short term. That’s because some point to the learning disruption for many younger students caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We have seen a post-pandemic increase in the number of students with high needs, and our services are in direct response to the needs of our students,” said Tom Jackson, a spokesman for Villa Park Elementary District 45, where 22.4% of the students have an IEP. “We provide a broad range of in-district programming to meet the needs of our students and families in the community.”

Statewide, nearly 300,000 students have an IEP, ISBE records show. This school year, that represents almost 17% of all students from preschool through 12th grade.

Stevenson High School District 125 has one of the lowest special education student rates in the suburbs, according to state figures. Daily Herald file
Article Comments
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the "flag" link in the lower-right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.