Special needs students a top priority at McNair Elementary

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Ronald E. McNair Elementary School has about 100 students with special needs. What will happen to them if the school closes at the end of the year? Some West Side residents ask.

About 15 of those special needs students are autistic and others require an Individualized Education Program (IEP), Mary Moore, McNair’s Local School Council president said at a recent Chicago Public Schools meeting.

“That’s the love we have in our school,” Moore said at the Feb. 13 meeting held in CPS’ Austin-North Lawndale Network. “Some of the students that are in our school, that’s all they know is McNair, so don’t close our school.”

McNair has about 395 enrolled students, and those with special needs make up about a quarter of its population. CPS officials have determined the school’s ideal capacity would be about 690 students, which makes it 57 percent utilized, according to district calculations.

Multiple rooms at McNair are dedicated to students with disabilities, Moore said.

McNair is one of seven Austin schools remaining on CPS’ narrowed list of under-enrolled schools that could potentially close in June.

The other Austin schools are: Armstrong, DePriest, Emmet, Key, Lewis and May.

McNair’s Assistant Principal Brenda Lawrence said it would be devastating to McNair’s faculty, students and the surrounding community if the school were to close.

The school has the lowest of three academic ratings – Level 3 – and is on probation.

But its test scores are on the rise, Lawrence said.

“Over the years, the school is making academic gains in reading, math and science,” Lawrence said. “Look at the scores over the last five to seven years.”

In 2012, about 58 percent of students were meeting or exceeding standards on the Illinois Standard Achievement Test (ISAT), which is up 3 percentage points from 2010.

There’s been a few years where test scores dipped slightly, but overall, the school is on the right academic track, Lawrence said.

Dwayne Truss, vice-chair of the Austin Community Action Council, said at a press conference before the Feb. 13 meeting that McNair and some other schools in the area have a high number of special needs children because “Charter schools don’t want to educate those children.”

“They don’t want to invest in those programs,” Truss said.

Truss added that CPS doesn’t have the capacity to move special needs children to another school while also making sure that they follow through with their legally required IEPs.

Robyn Ziegler, a CPS spokeswoman, said CPS is well aware of which schools have special education programs and students, and it’s taking a “much deeper look” at how those students and services impact school-space utilization.

CPS is developing a comprehensive plan for transitioning any impacted students with disabilities that will guarantee students are transferred to a school that can implement IEPs and include the necessary equipment and supplies, Ziegler said.

The plan also includes proper personnel training at schools that would be welcoming students with disabilities to ensure they will be well cared for, she said.

The district initially released a list of 330 under-enrolled schools citywide – including more than a dozen in Austin — that could be closed but narrowed it down to 129.

High schools and high-performing schools are off the table, district officials have said.

And the list was whittled down after CPS announced earlier this month it would not close schools with more than 600 students, schools that recently experienced a school action or are in the process of adding grades, among other criteria.

Ziegler stressed the process is far from over, and there are “many other things” CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett will take into consideration before making final recommendations. She said CPS encourages people to continue to express their concerns and needs to the district.

A representative from CPS’ Office of Special Education and Supports has been present at all school-network meetings– including the Austin-North Lawndale Network– to hear specific concerns related to students with disabilities, Ziegler added.

Brittanya Griffin, a parent representative who serves on McNair’s LSC, has a fourth grader with special needs at the school.

She said McNair faces unique circumstances in providing additional services and support for the school’s special needs population.

That extra support from the school allows students with disabilities, who normally might not be able to go to school because of medical needs, to attend McNair.

She raised student safety issues at the meeting and said the school opens early and stays open late to provide a “safe haven for our students.”

Most of the schools on CPS’ potential school-closing list are on the South and West sides.

A recent WBEZ analysis shows many of the schools are in areas already dealing with economic blight and violent crime issues.

WBEZ reporter Elliott Ramos also looked at census data, which suggest the areas with the most potential closures have experienced a significant loss in population over the past few decades. Read WBEZ’s “Which comes first? Closed schools or blighted neighborhoods?” for the whole story and interactive maps.

Ald. Jason Ervin (29th) said CPS needs to provide equal resources to West Side schools.

“We want to make sure that all of our kids get the same thing as…the kids in Lincoln Park,” Ervin said at the West Side meeting. “We want the same thing those kids have.”

The Lincoln Park Community Area has one school on the possible closure list.

Englewood has the most schools – 19 – on that list, right behind Bronzeville’s 15 schools. Fourteen schools in both the Garfield-West Humboldt Park Community Area and the Far South Side are also on the list. Nine are in North Lawndale.

Check out the Chicago Tribune’s “CPS School Utilization” map for a breakdown of all 129 schools.

CPS has until March 31 to reveal the final schools it plans to close.

Mario Lekovic and Carlos Bolanos contributed to this story.

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