A Chicago Public Schools principal yesterday accused district officials of routinely denying disabled students access to specialized help, and at times even barring them from evaluation for learning disabilities.
Mary Ann Pollett, principal of Moses Montefiore Special Elementary School, testified before the City Council's Committee on Education and Child Development that officials have discouraged teachers at her school from reporting students' disabilities because it is too expensive to deal with them.
"They deny that that goes on, but it does," Pollett said, with her superiors only a few yards away. "Montefiore is only the tip of the iceberg. This goes deep into a systemic issue that needs to be addressed within the Chicago Public Schools."
CPS officials say they provide testing when appropriate, and ensure children with special needs are enrolled in the right schools.
For months, supporters of Montefiore have worried that officials might cut its staff, or simply close it altogether. In May, City Council members convened a committee meeting to discuss the school's future. A month later, what began as an effort to save one school has turned into a broader discussion of how district officials treat children with disabilities.
At the end of yesterday's meeting of the education committee it was clear CPS would keep the school open.
"We will not close it," said Michael Scott, president of the Chicago Board of Education. "We are not going to make the proposed staff cuts."
But advocates for the disabled say questions remain about how the school district deals with special-needs children.
Montefiore Special School serves boys with emotional and behavioral disorders. District officials had proposed staff cuts there because of low enrollment at the Little Italy school, which officials say is half empty.
The school's low enrollment raised the question of why more students aren't referred to Montefiore and similar facilities for students with special needs, and whether district officials shun testing for potentially disabled students because of how much it costs to educate them.
According to CPS records, there were 62 students enrolled at Montefiore during the 2008-09 school year. All of them are considered disabled under district guidelines.
Testimony from district officials yesterday included a host of figures about how many students are evaluated for disabilities annually, as well as how many the district ultimately deems eligible for special education.
Officials determined that, of more than 400,000 students at the district, just hundreds of them tested this year had emotional or behavioral disorders severe enough to warrant education at a specialized school such as Montefiore.
Pollett questioned how officials could believe that so few students merited such attention.
District figures also show that in 2009, 80.6 percent of students tested for disabilities were eligible for some form of special education. That is a higher percentage than in 2004, when 76.7 percent of evaluated students were eligible.
That comparison proves that the district is not blocking students from testing for disabilities, said Deborah Duskey, chief of specialized services at the district.
"That is absolutely not true," Duskey said.
She said district officials do try to avoid labeling students as disabled because that could affect their future chances of earning military employment or higher education.
"We've been accused of overidentifying students with disabilities in the past," Duskey said. "If they need that label, they're going to get that label, but we want to make sure that we're not just handing out labels for the sake of handing out labels."
Chicago Teachers Union President Marilyn Stewart differs with that approach. At yesterday's meeting, Stewart released a survey from the union that showed more than 70 percent of about 1,700 teachers and 280 case managers believe students in their schools with emotional or behavioral problems were not receiving special education.
"If you don't identify an issue with a child, you can't address it," Stewart said.
Clarice Berry, president of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association, said her organization produced a similar, and admittedly unscientific, survey several years ago that showed a "covert suppression" of administrators trying to staff schools for students with disabilities.
"These are our most fragile children," Berry said, "and we don't have services."
She said the disparity in resources is especially jarring when one compares special education in the South and West sides of Chicago with the city's North Side. Berry says parents in Chicago's more affluent communities have access to attorneys, for example, that force administrators to accommodate their children.
CPS Chief Education Officer Barbara Eason-Watkins denied that the district bars disabled students from the opportunity for a good education, but she said the district is working on ways to better identify them.
"Clearly, we understand that more work needs to be done," Watkins said.