Study reveals frustrations with special education in District 41

Posted3/7/2017 5:25 AM

A review of special education programs in Glen Ellyn Elementary District 41 shows deep frustrations among some parents and apparent inconsistencies in instruction.

The district, spurred by concerns from families, hired two consultants, Judy Hackett and Tim Thomas, to launch the study last spring. Hackett, a former assistant superintendent in Indian Prairie Unit District 204, and Thomas, a former superintendent in Highland Park-based Northern Suburban Special Education District, presented the results to the school board Monday night.


Several parents commended the school board for approving the review. Janet Wagner, a mom of two children with special needs, said the findings validated long-held parent concerns, but she expected a more "substantive report." Wagner took issue with the lack of specifics about the types of disabilities current students have and the district's resources to address those needs.

"Our problems are even more intense than outlined in this diplomatically worded report," Wagner said.

As part of their probe, the consultants conducted confidential interviews with parents, teachers, administrators and about a dozen Hadley Junior High students. They also observed general and special education teachers in all five district schools.

Here's a look at some of their findings:

'Considerable animosity'

The district provides special education services for roughly 12 percent of its students. The consultants say they studied four "interconnected" areas: instruction, professional development for teachers, leadership and goals, and communication and collaboration.

The report documents criticisms from parents that some teachers struggle to fully understand their child's learning disabilities. Parents told the consultants the district sometimes ignores their interests and "refuses to do anything different." Some say they feel forced to seek private providers such as speech therapists and specialists.

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"This has created considerable animosity between the school district and many parents over time," the report found.

Consultants noted teachers often placed students with special needs in small groups, outlined expectations and modified instruction to accommodate their learning needs. But other teachers "did not demonstrate much variety of instruction and seemed not to fully appreciate the different learning styles of the learners."

The consultants recommended fostering engagement among parents to build trust.

"Engagement is when you have parents actively -- not just involved but participating -- (in) decision-making and, dare I say, demonstrating leadership," Thomas said. "That is a higher level of parental involvement and engagement."

'Systemic change'

Teachers gave mixed reviews about their training, the report indicates.

Many educators told consultants the district has put a high priority on professional development programs.

"I think we could do a better job of following up on training," one teacher is quoted as saying in the report. "How do we really know if we're doing it right? I can't believe I'm saying this, (but) there needs to be more evaluation of how well we're implementing what we've learned."


Superintendent Paul Gordon said the district plans to create a new, three-year blueprint for professional learning communities, or teams of educators who meet regularly to collaborate. Gordon said he wants those groups to more consistently use grade-level and individual student data to guide instruction.

The district over the last year and a half has developed a multitiered approach to screen students, identify the level of support they need and monitor their progress. The majority of staffers who participated in focus groups with the consultants "did not mention that process and were not aware of any system in place," the report found.

"What this report clearly indicates is it's not part of our whole culture yet," Gordon said.

But building consensus around such a "systemic change" is a common challenge in school districts and can "take a number of years," Thomas told the school board.

The district will host a meeting at Hadley Junior High with a special education collaborative of parents to discuss next steps and improvements at 6:30 p.m. March 16.

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