Access Living Statement on the report of the Commission on School Utilization... Bias against special education continues at CPS -- and in the composition of the Commission

[Editor's Introduction: Despite the fact that the Illinois General Assembly had approved a clear facilities procedure for Chicago's public schools, in October 2012, the newly appointed "Chief Executive Officer" of CPS, Barbara Byrd Bennett, declared that CPS could not meet the deadline to publish a list of schools to be closed by the deadline of December 1, 2012. CPS officials and the Mayor's staff went to Springfield to ask that the deadlines be extended to March 31, 2013 for the closing list and June 1, 2013 for the publication of a preliminary ten-year facilities plan. In the confusion created (deliberately in the opinion of Substance staff and editors) by the public statements of Byrd Bennett and CPS propagandists, the public was given the impression that CPS could not hold hearings, as required, and meet the December 1 deadline, as required.

Access Living's critique of the CPS "utilization" activities has been largely ignored by CPS administrators, and by most of the members of the "Commission" appointed by Barbara Byrd Bennett to close down lots of schools.This was done despite the fact that the previous year, under then CEO Jean-Claude Brizard, CPS had complied with the law. Despite the facts, Byrd Bennett succeeded in getting the Illinois General Assembly to extend the deadlines. She then appointed a "Commission" to hold hearings on what she began claiming was an "underutilization crisis" and the current debates began. Since then, protests against Byrd Bennett's statements and claims have grown. But in the process, one of the most poignant question about school utilization has been less in the public eye: What space is needed to education children with disabilities in Chicago's public schools. The report below, to the Commission following its report, demands answers to those questions].

Access Living Statement on School Closings and the "Utilization" question

January 23, 2013

Sent to the Commission via its website (the Commission has no mailing address)

To the Members of the Commission on School Utilization and its chair Frank Clark:

Access Living has two substantive concerns relating to the Interim Report issued by the Commission on January 10, 2013. If members of the Commission are not familiar with Access Living our primary mission is to increase the ability of people with disabilities to be full participants in society and the education of children and young adults with disabilities plays a foundational role in our mission.

Access Living expressed directly in a meeting with Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett on November 13, 2012 our concerns relating to the proposed composition of your Commission in relation to knowledge about students with disabilities and the dynamics of possible school closings. We were invited by the CEO to submit names of knowledgeable individuals to possibly be added to the Commission and three names were submitted directly to the CEO on November 21 and possibly forwarded to your Commission. We received no further communications from either CPS or your Commission in relation to that submission. We believe our concerns unfortunately have been substantiated to a large degree based on what we read in your Interim Report.

Concern #1: The Commission accepted initially CPS' utilization formula as it relates to classrooms designated exclusively for students with disabilities.

At page 5 of the Interim Report we read:

"We believe that CPS has accurately calculated, based on the utilization formula, the number of empty seats in the system. But is is also possible that setting aside just 23-24 percent of classrooms for enrichment such as art, music, computer training, or special education, is insufficient. In the next phase of our work, we'll take a closer look at that question."

At page 22 of the Interim Report we read:

"Many of those who came before the Commission raised concerns about special education students, and appropriate class sizes for students with IEPs. CPS operates 14 schools generally referred to as Special Ed, or Specialized Education schools where the majority of students enrolled are students with disabilities who require a separate school placement. CPS's Ideal Program Enrollment for these schools has been adjusted to account for the space needs of these children. When calculating the ideal capacity of Special Education schools serving early childhood and elementary grades, CPS has multiplies the number of allocated homerooms by 13 (instead of 30 for regular elementary schools). Similarly, Idea Program Enrollment for Special Education schools serving high school grades has been calculated by multiplying that product by 80%. For schools with large numbers of students who have IEPs but are in mixed classrooms (i.e. classrooms with both IEP and non-IEP students), neither the State nor Board policy mandates class sizes smaller than the overall average. These schools may require more space for pull-out sessions with students, and if so the assumption that 23% of classrooms be set aside could be insufficient. We will look into this more in the second phase of work."

We are glad the Commission plans on taking a closer look at the question of the utilization measurement of special education classrooms in schools. But without carefully examining this question in detail we found it concerning that the Commission could initially declare that CPS has accurately calculated these classrooms. We are also concerned that the Commission when it attempts to discusses the issue in greater detail at page 22 appears to be confused. From what the Commission wrote it appears that he members believe that CPS has only 14 schools where special education classrooms have legally mandated self-contained classrooms with enrollment limited by the Illinois Administrative Code. It appears that the Commission believes that the rest of CPS schools have only issues relating to pull out programs for students with disabilities. This is profoundly incorrect.

Data provided to the public by Catalyst Magazine, which we discuss below, demonstrates that there are numerous general education elementary schools that could potentially be closed that have multiple self-contained classrooms with legal mandates well below 30 students. These schools have what are called special education cluster programs. In some of these schools the impact of having multiple classrooms measured incorrectly for utilization could tip the scales in favor of these schools being closed.

Access Living has long objected to what the utilization standards call "ancillary classrooms." (1).

In prior versions of CPS utilization standards these rooms were called "BA" rooms, meaning below average sized classrooms. While "A," sized classrooms, were defined by CPS as "measuring 600 square feet or more," the square footage of ancillary or BA classrooms were never defined by CPS. (2).

CPS has claimed for years that spaces not designed as classrooms, such as offices, lunchrooms, or storage rooms, and used as teaching stations were excluded from capacity calculations. But our experience has been that if a space has historically been used as a classroom for students with disabilities CPS has rarely done deep research to determine the design intent of such spaces. Access Living has found windowless rooms at schools designated as self contained classrooms for disabled students.

Access Living has objected to the CPS 2011 utilization standards concept of "maximum

capacity." It is the same for every full sized classroom at the regular elementary school level and

it is 30 students. But a classroom that is designated for special education students placed legally

by the school district in separate settings can under no condition even have as many as 30

students and in some cases under State law can be required to have as few as 8 students. (3)

The effect of this concept is to make almost all non-ancillary full size classrooms used exclusively for students with disabilities in general education high schools and elementary schools underutilized classrooms.

Access Living believes that this is profoundly wrong because it has the effect of causing

schools to avoiding putting self-contained classes in full sized rooms to keep from having the

classrooms designated as being underutilized. A standard sized classroom used for selfcontained

classes with a legally required lower teacher to student ratio needs to have a different utilization standard than the same room being used for a regular class with a much higher teacher to student ratio. This consideration cannot be limited to special education schools.

The Chicago Public Schools has recently added to the problematic nature of its utilization

measurement of self-contained special education classrooms by a response it provided to a parent organization Raise Your Hand for Illinois Public Education. The Raise Your Hand organization asked this question:

"Many schools have high special education/bilingual populations which are not taken into

account in your utilization formula and many schools rent out space to community organizations

which are not taken into account. How are the committee and CPS factoring this into the

decision making process?"

On January 8, 2013 CPS provided a response to this question from Raise Your Hand writing:

"Currently, CPS knows exactly how many self-contained classrooms or special education homerooms there are in elementary schools. Each of these rooms are identified by a CPS program code and name. It is not a matter of working with principals, it's a matter of fair calculation for purposes of space utilization. For some schools currently listed as underutilized a fair calculation of these classrooms may allow them to be removed from consideration for closure, for other schools it may make limited difference."

Catalyst Magazine created an excel spread sheet of the 182 CPS elementary schools that are formally listed as underutilized by CPS and could be included as possible school closures. (4).

Catalyst created this list based on the Commission's Interim Report recommendations to exclude high schools and elementary schools with more than 600 students. (5)

Of these remaining schools 60 or 33% are also special education cluster sites that take students from beyond their intake areas for specific special education services. (6).

These 60 schools with only a few exceptions have special education enrollments higher than the average for CPS based on CPS' 2012 Illinois State Report Card data. Some are double the CPS average. Using the percentage of students with IEPs for each of these schools in their 2012 report cards and the current enrollment figures for each of these 60 schools we estimate there are at least 4,100 students with disabilities in these possible closure schools which would be around 8% of the district's entire special education enrollment.

If we use data from ISBE's 2009-2010 Illinois Special Education Profile for CPS and extrapolate that data for these 60 schools we discover that at the minimum of these 4,100 students 985 are likely in self contained settings. (7).

We would suspect that this number could be higher since each of the 60 schools contains a cluster site and normally these school receive higher numbers of students legally requiring self-contained settings. But at the minimum if all these cluster sites are closed CPS would be required to relocate 66 self contained classrooms into space in new schools. That would be a daunting task.

But it is also clear that these 60 schools also had their self-contained classrooms measured against a 30 student standard which increased their underutilization percentages. The Commission has the power to look at this issue with current data and not estimates which we have given the Commission. Each of these self-contained classrooms needs to be evaluated against its legal maximum enrollment assuming it is in a standard sized classroom. The Commission has the power to recommend to CPS that they do this and we urge the Commission to make such a recommendation.

Concern #2 The quality of the school facility and physical accessibility

At page 6 of the Interim Report the Commission writes: "CPS needs to make sure it's not fixing what isn't broken. The District must not shutter schools that, though technically underutilized are vibrant hubs of community activity housed in high-quality buildings, and that serve as an anchoring force in their neighborhoods."

We agree fully with that statement. Access Living believes that in order for a school to be a vibrant hub it must be accessible to all students including those with mobility related disabilities that require schools that are complainant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. A building could be considered to be in good condition and have had thousands of dollars of work done on it over the years and be completely non-accessible based on modern ADA standards. Conversely a building could have been made accessible by CPS at great cost but could be underutilized. What then? Does CPS close an underutilized school that is ADA compliant and transfer students to a large building with space that is in good condition, but is totally non-accessible? These are clear problems we want to see defined and addressed in a straight forward manner by the Commission. It is Access Living's position that the Commission should request that CPS should prohibit the closing of any school that has been made largely ADA compliant if that school's population, both students with and without disabilities, cannot be placed in an equally accessible facility. CPS has made great progress in making more schools accessible, but currently only about half of CPS schools are accessible, so those schools that are accessible need to be preserved.


We hope that the Commission as it goes forward it will carefully consider the problems school closures pose for students with disabilities and CPS programs for them.

Rodney D. Estvan M.Ed., Education Policy Analyst, Access Living of Chicago, Restvan


1. The utilization standards define these rooms as follows: "classrooms spaces required for non-homeroom uses, such as science labs, computer labs, art rooms, music rooms, resource rooms, special education rooms, governmental agencies and/or community organization special programs, after school programs, and other appropriate uses." (2011 Standards at pages 2-3)

2 On this issue see CPS (2008, Jan 25) " Elementary School Space Utilization Report School Year 2007-08" at page 3.

3 See Illinois State Board of Education memo: Hanselman, E (2009, May 1) "Guidance on Special

Education Class Size for 2009-2010 and Beyond (23 Illinois Administrative Code 226.730(b) and


4. The Chicago Sun Times on January 19, 2013 created another list of 193 schools it believed might be potentially closed.

5. The list also excluded any of the 14 CPS special education schools and it did not included elementary schools functioning at level one according to our discussion with Catalyst on 1/17/13.

6. Data provided in an excel file accompanying a Catalyst article see

7. CPS based on its 2009-2010 Illinois Special Education Profile CPS has 24.3% of its students in separate classroom for 60% or more of the school day.


January 30, 2013 at 6:44 AM

By: Rod Estvan

Thanks for posting our comments

Thanks to Substance for publishing our comments to the Commission. There is a minor formatting problem in relation to the CPS response to Raise Your Hand, the direct quote was not CPS' response. It was actually a statement made by Access Living.

I suspect this was due to the document being a pdf file and the response from CPS to Raise Your Hand being extracted and pasted from the Raise Your Hand website.

I know that many special education teachers are deeply concerned about any possible closures not only for their own situations but for the education of their students. We hope the Commission looks very closely at this issue.

Rod Estvan

Add your own comment (all fields are necessary)

Substance readers:

You must give your first name and last name under "Name" when you post a comment at We are not operating a blog and do not allow anonymous or pseudonymous comments. Our readers deserve to know who is commenting, just as they deserve to know the source of our news reports and analysis.

Please respect this, and also provide us with an accurate e-mail address.

Thank you,

The Editors of Substance

Your Name

Your Email

What's your comment about?

Your Comment

Please answer this to prove you're not a robot:

1 + 5 =