District 41 at odds with some parents over approach to special needs

  • Janet Wagner's two kids have special needs and have gone to schools in Glen Ellyn Elementary District 41, where parents have raised concerns about its services.

      Janet Wagner's two kids have special needs and have gone to schools in Glen Ellyn Elementary District 41, where parents have raised concerns about its services. Paul Michna | Staff Photographer

  • Janet Wagner's two kids have special needs and have gone to schools in Glen Ellyn Elementary District 41, where parents have raised concerns about its services.

      Janet Wagner's two kids have special needs and have gone to schools in Glen Ellyn Elementary District 41, where parents have raised concerns about its services. Paul Michna | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 8/19/2016 6:00 AM

Janet Wagner wants her two children to go to college, to have friends, to thrive.

She also wants their teachers to understand them.

 

Both, who were adopted from Russia, have special needs and have gone to schools in Glen Ellyn Elementary District 41.

In some ways, it's easier for teachers to see an engaged learner in her daughter, a bubbly and outgoing fourth-grader who was diagnosed with fetal alcohol syndrome at 3, her mom says.

But for her 12-year-old son, who wasn't diagnosed with learning disabilities until earlier this year, some general education teachers have misinterpreted his difficulties with reading, writing and math as being disorganized or inattentive, Wagner said.

"I never felt as though anybody really understood him," she said.

She was one of a group of parents who sharply criticized the district's handling of services for students with special needs during a meeting Wednesday night. More than two dozen attended, some of whom expected the district to present a plan responding to concerns they aired in a listening session in June.

"Why hasn't this been done already?" asked Derek Ladgenski, whose son has cerebral palsy.

But district administrators said they wanted to talk with parents about what to prioritize. After getting parent feedback, the district pledged to focus on improvements in three areas -- professional training for teachers, inclusion and programming -- and to share steps to put them in place by Aug. 26.

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Superintendent Paul Gordon also told them the school board will vote next month to hire a consulting firm to conduct a $20,000 audit of special education in the district and make recommendations. He called the study a "deep dive" into services and instruction, a probe that's one piece of the district's work to address what parents say are long-running issues.

"It's changing a culture and that takes time," said Gordon, who has been at the helm of the district since 2013.

'Brutally honest'

The audit, Gordon said, will provide an "honest assessment" of the district's strengths and weaknesses. Some parents, though, said they should have been involved in deciding which firm to recommend to the school board.

Mom Susan Dudish-Poulsen said she's been frustrated with the district's communication and "feeling like we're being talked to."

On Sept. 6, board members are expected to vote to hire TJ Consultants to do the audit into special education services the district provides for 12 percent of its roughly 3,500 students.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Board members said they welcomed an audit from an outside voice. Stephanie Clark stressed it must "get into the nitty-gritty of the details and not just how do we look on paper?"

"I just want to make sure they know they need to be brutally honest with us so this is something that we can use to make sure we get this right and get better," member Kurt Buchholz said.

The firm's principal consultants are Tim Thomas and Judy Hackett, a former assistant superintendent in Indian Prairie Unit District 204. The audit would involve focus groups of parents, employees and some older students, and it would examine, among other things, use of special education aides, inclusive practices, student achievement data and staffing.

If approved, the consultants could deliver a report in December or January 2017. Gordon said the district's work "won't be frozen in time" until the findings are presented to the board.

The group of parents that met Wednesday, called a special education collaborative, is expected to continue gathering during the school year. And, in September, administrators in schools will meet with parents whose students have an individualized education plan.

"I think it's important for our staff to hear kind of that bigger picture as well, not just kind of our version," said Karen Carlson, an assistant superintendent.

'An uphill battle'

Jamie Martin, a Glen Ellyn mom with a 12-year-old son who has autism, thinks part of the issue stems from turnover among administrators. She called for more training that could be led by teachers who understand their children and their disabilities.

Martin says many teachers have been receptive to behavior techniques that she shares, though there have been some cases "in the minority" who are "rigid" in their approach.

Other parents describe a culture among the staff that isn't cooperative but adversarial, saying they have to "fight for" therapies and other services.

"It's been an uphill battle," Wagner said.

Her son has a high verbal IQ but has struggled with reading and writing. As part of the IEP process, he undergoes an evaluation every three years. Wagner also had two independent evaluations done, at a cost of about $1,700 each. The most recent one confirmed the learning disabilities in reading, writing and math.

Wagner, an attorney who has a master of laws degree specializing in child and family law, hopes the district implements what the parents have suggested but remains skeptical.

"Investing in special education is really investing in the community," she said. "The fiscal responsibility the district is talking about, it's not just for the district. It's for educating our kids so that they can be productive members of our society."

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