The following is testimonial from CTU member Bessie Tsitsopoulos at a March 21 Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) open hearing for the public inquiry examining special education services and procedures in Chicago Public Schools.
Good afternoon. My name is Bessie Tsitsopoulos and I am a licensed school social worker. I have worked with Chicago Public Schools in that capacity since 2011. As a school social worker, I have worked in many schools, mainly in K-8buildings. This year, however, I am at Amundsen and DeVry Academy high schools.
I have chosen to file two affidavits with ISBE in order to have an opportunity to discuss concerns and experiences in providing services to special education students in CPS. One of my affidavits is a continuation of one filed by a parent of a student I serviced SY 2016-17, where his transportation services were removed in his Individual Education Plan by the district, as it determined that he did not qualify. I filed a dissenting opinion in that IEP, but also in a few more, that parents chose not pursue further through the legal system, as they did not have the resources and the means to do so. In that particular school year, new policies and procedures were introduced by the district in regards to transportation, paraprofessional support, extended school year, therapeutic day schools, and other issues. These policies and procedures basically required much more advanced documentation in order for special education students to qualify for those services, and it required approval by administrative district personnel and principals for students to be approved for the services.
The IEP team, which also includes parents and guardians, and has the most intimate knowledge of the student, no longer had the approval authority for these services.
In addition, in the last three years, class sizes in the general education classroom have increased by an average of five students. This has made it very difficult for special education students that are in co-taught/inclusion classes to receive the support they require in the least restrictive environment, and many are getting pulled back to a separate classroom in order to be more successful.
Many teachers and clinicians like myself found ourselves swamped with additional paperwork as we tried to complete all the additional justification documents. At times, we found ourselves in adversarial roles with the district as many of the services were denied, as in the case of the aforementioned student. Some of us lost our jobs due to our activism, while others like myself had their hand slapped and moved on to another school. Some chose not to advocate for their students, or bother with the extra paperwork. Regardless of how staff reacted, the most important part was that many vulnerable special education students, primarily minorities, had their services reduced or taken away completely. Few parents had the necessary skills and resources to advocate and appeal the decisions. As my student’s mother stated to her advocate, “They beat us down.”
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According to the Standards for School Social Work Services published by the National Association of Social Workers, the following is recommended:
School social work services should be provided at a ratio of one school social worker to each school building serving up to 250 general education students, or a ratio of 1:250 students. When a school social worker is providing services to students with intensive needs, a lower ratio, such as 1:50, is suggested.
All disciplines have much lower ratios recommended than what CPS assigns to clinicians, and clinicians with extreme caseloads—triple what national organizations recommend—found themselves having to choose between providing services to students, completing documents or responding to crises concerning their students and their families. As you will see by some of my exhibits, many clinicians, including myself, have not been able to provide all the special education service minutes for their disciplines for the last few years, and special education students lose out on much-needed services once again.
All of the concerns that I have mentioned to you, we as staff members have tried to address through various ways with CPS such as Professional Problems Committees, joint committees, union contract negotiations and parent advocacy groups, without any success. These concerns continue to exist. For example, I have two schools with approximately 1,400 students between them. My caseload is 96 special education students and growing. Thirty two of them require full re-evaluations, and all of them require new IEPs, in addition to weekly minutes of service. I also provide for the socio-emotional needs of general education students.
I hope these hearings will be helpful in assisting our special education students to finally have their much-needed services restored, and to create a system of services that is equitable for them.
Bessie Tsitsopoulos is a social worker at Amundsen at DeVry Academy high schools.