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Chicago Teachers Fight Removal of Special Ed Student Cap

Should there be limits on the proportion of special education students in regular ed classrooms? This Chicago teacher thinks so.

Guest post by Michelle Gunderson.

Every child who enters my first classroom is treated with dignity and respect and learning takes place in an atmosphere of joy. Children with special needs are supported through a matrix of services with other professionals. Most of the work, though, is done solely by me, the classroom teacher. I repeat directions, use visual clues, check often for understanding, reduce assignments, provide sensory breaks along with a host of other modifications and accommodations. How is this possible? Because according to Illinois school code there is a limit on the percentage of children with special needs in my class. Without these limits the work becomes impossible.

This is not a matter of school funding or expediency. This is a matter of human capacity. There is only so much that one person can provide a classroom of children. Without these percentage limits the work load comes to a breaking point - and no one wins. No one learns.

The Illinois State Board of Education is seeking to eliminate a cap on the percentage of children with special needs in our classrooms. The current regulations allow for a cap of 30%. Think about this -- in our Chicago Schools, where most classes have 30 children in a classroom, it is already permitted for our rooms to contain 9 children with special needs. We would like to believe that having a cap is not necessary, that school systems would do what is right and keep the ratio of special needs children at a reasonable proportion. But I'm afraid we have little experience in Chicago to support this much trust.

Teachers do not simply provide accommodations and modifications as if they were a "to do" list. This takes careful planning, analysis, and execution. I want to teach with strong intention, giving my students the full range of support they deserve in the Least Restrictive Environment. Think of the paperwork, the attention to students' needs, and the stamina required to do this well for even a small number of students. Too many children with special needs in a general education classroom would result in ineffective teaching, exhaustion, and failure at all levels. Imagine the potential due process suits because it is impossible to comply with children's Individual Education Plans - the plans our children are owed and deserve.

Members of the Chicago Teachers Union fought valiantly for a contract that includes language that supports our students with special needs. We can now file grievances if our classrooms do not adhere to the Illinois School Code classroom composition guidelines. Removing regulatory provisions undermines this process and takes away one of the tools we use to fight for our students.

I fully oppose the proposed changes to Part 226 of the Illinois Administrative Code and encourage others to become informed and take action. You make find more information at Chicago Teachers Union Action.

Update, Jan 21, 11:20 am EST: According to the Chicago Sun Times, the proposal to remove the cap on special education students has been dropped, as a result of vociferous opposition. 

What do you think? Should there be a cap on the proportion of special ed students in regular ed classrooms?

Michelle Strater Gunderson is a 27 year teaching veteran who teaches first grade in the Chicago Public Schools. She is Vice President for Elementary Schools of the Chicago Teachers Union, and a doctoral student at Loyola University in Curriculum and Instruction.

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