By Robert Schroeder
“There may be fear for one reason or another that a child needs to be in a restrictive setting, but we’re opening that door. We’re having conversations, we’re not doing this blindly. We’re going to support you and openly communicate always.”
Chicago’s Pullman neighborhood is a historical community of transients.
From its beginnings in the 1880s as a workers’ town established by George Pullman for his Pullman Palace Car Company, the neighborhood was a locus for families from Chicago and beyond to settle in search of life opportunities.
Fast forward to 2014: the historic factories and Victorian living quarters still dominate Pullman’s landscape. The gabled clock tower of the Pullman administration building is overlooking a new batch of transients—students testing into Gwendolyn Brooks College Preparatory Academy, a CPS selective enrollment school.
The school attracts high-achieving students from across the city’s south side. Because of its required entrance exam, Brooks generally serves fewer students with special education needs than its public school brethren, but the broad geographical swath of students with learning disabilities brings its own challenges.
In a school with a predominant Black and Latina/o population, with these same students overrepresented in receiving special education services, there is a constant need to evaluate students for both their placement in the special education setting and the level of intensive support they are receiving. By the high school level, students are long past the point of diagnosis and placement.
Working with students who have been evaluated by dozens upon dozens of different professionals across the city, the task of ensuring special education placements are appropriate and successful falls to school case manager Carlitta Tucker-Powell, MEd Special Education ‘06.
“We’re always having conversations as to whether or not we can expand students into the general education setting or simply elevate out of the special education setting,” Tucker-Powell said. “Could this have been a child who was just struggling for a year or two, or had something extra going on at home, or lacked focus at school?”
For Tucker-Powell, those conversations are part of an all-encompassing process bringing together parents and teachers and bringing Tucker-Powell into the classroom. She meets weekly with teachers in self-contained classrooms to discuss best practices and new supports that may result in different experiences. Tucker-Powell also co-teaches a English-language arts courses with a general education teacher in an inclusive setting. With a small number of students with special education needs in the inclusive setting, she provides individualized instruction to complement the efforts of the general education teacher.
The overall goal at Brooks is to transition students to the least restrictive environments possible, but that goal can generate fears among general education teachers. Tucker-Powell’s expansive role collaborating with teachers reduces resistance to removing students with special education needs from restrictive environments.
“We’re going to support you and openly communicate with you,” Tucker-Powell said. “We’re able to say, this is a concern we have in the special education department, and I need this to translate to your general education classroom.”
Tucker-Powell models transitions that move students from self-contained classrooms into general education settings with supplementary aids and supports, which could be a paraprofessional in the classroom or a dedicated special education teacher like her own role in English-language arts classrooms.
Those transitions often are produced from mutual agreements among teachers, parents and case managers. While Tucker-Powell describes the parent body as very supportive, she says maintaining communications channels with parents is a challenge in a low-income urban environment in which by choice or necessity families frequently relocate their housing. At the base level, contact information becomes outdated, but at a higher level the time commitments exposed by unstable housing prevent increased parental interaction with the special education staff.
All of these efforts to build an inclusive school environment mean Tucker-Powell, despite her own focus on special education needs, starts the inclusive process with her own practice.
“I filter around and engage all the students and am available for all the teachers, whether they have a students with special education needs or not,” Tucker-Powell said. “The most successful way to do this is to take ownership of all the kids, not your kids and my kids. We have to talk within our discipline and talk across our discipline.”