CHICAGO — As he settles into his new job, Chicago’s school chief met with parents of students with disabilities on Thursday to assure them he will address staffing shortages and access to services and transportation.
Pedro Martinez, who has been CEO for three months, spoke to parents at the Office of Diverse Learners Support and Services’ Family Advisory Board meeting. He shared that his two children struggled with speech and had 504 plans, signaling that he understands the difficulties parents face in navigating the education system and wants to support them.
Martinez inherited a district that has marginalized students with disabilities for years. Prior to the pandemic, a report found that the district systemically delayed or denied services for students with disabilities from 2016-2018. The report led to the state board of education installing a monitor in the district. When schools shuttered during the coronavirus pandemic, students with disabilities went without remote learning and services for months. Once students were able to access remote learning and services, it was difficult to keep them engaged.
A Chalkbeat investigation in August showed that there is a backlog of Individualized Education Programs, a legally binding document that outlines what services a student with disability needs. In the 2019-2020 school year more than 10,050 re-evaluations, initial evaluations, and annual reviews were incomplete. While there were improvements in the 2020-2021 school year, IEPs are still a concern for parents and students.
Halfway through the current school year, students with disabilities are still having difficulty getting reliable transportation due to a national bus driver shortage. Special education assistants have been pulled from classrooms to fill in for missing substitute teachers and have had to monitor lunchrooms due to staff shortages.
Chicago Public Schools shared data this week showing it has increased special education support staffing from 11,600 to 12,300 since the start of the year, but educators, parents, and teachers union officials have warned of a worsening staffing crunch as the city experiences a rise in COVID-19 cases and educators contend with burnout.
Martinez answered several questions submitted by parents before the meeting.
One parent asked how he would be inclusive of students with disabilities across the district. Martinez responded that he wants to make sure that students with disabilities have access to the same grade-level content as their peers.
When asked how the district will invest in special education, Martinez said that his top priorities are ensuring that services in Individualized Education Programs are met and addressing students’ needs after being remote last year. He also wants to make investments in summer programs and staffing.
Another parent asked if there are issues within the district that Martinez sees that need to be immediately addressed.
“We’re still struggling with providing transportation to all of our diverse learners,” said Martinez. “We’re still having challenges, frankly, around staffing, and we still have challenges with vacancies and different schools.”
Another question addressed the need for awareness training for educators and staff to meet the needs of students with disabilities. Martinez said that the special education department is planning to invest more resources to train educators and staff but there needs to be more.
As the evening went on, Martinez asked parents for grace as he learned the history of special education in Chicago and said that the parents’ concerns are similar to those across the country and in large districts.
“My goal, and I know my team’s goal, is to make sure that we’re good listening partners with you and that we try to help to understand the challenges,” said Martinez. “What I would ask of you is give us a chance to make sure that we’re addressing issues in a systemic way.”
Afterwards on social media, some parents said they were upset with how the meeting went, as the Zoom chat was disabled and Martinez only answered questions written prior to the conversation.
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.