The Special Education Department at Oak Park and River Forest High School has postponed a series of planned staffing changes after the proposals prompted intense pushback from parents concerned that the adjustments might upend their children’s education.
Earlier this month, Special Education Director Shalema Francois-Blue sent an email to parents and guardians of students with disabilities about the department’s proposal to replace program chairs with new administrative roles, such as special ed supervisors and Individualized Education Program coordinators.
In the email sent March 5, Francois-Blue reassured families that faculty employed as program chairs will not lose their jobs, “rather they will be reassigned to be classroom teachers and continue to provide services to our students in that capacity.” She also wrote that program chairs can also apply for those new administrative roles.
News of the department’s restructuring caused an uproar among parents, who were surprised and upset at the possibility of losing trusted staff. During a March 11 Committee of the Whole meeting, more than a dozen parents and special ed teachers spoke out against the department’s recommendation to shift employees around, especially its program chairs.
With public comment reaching nearly an hour and half, families — some of whom appeared in front of the board while others voiced concerns over email to the District 200 Board of Education — worried about how the potential change could impact their children’s learning. Moreover, they wanted to know why these changes were called for in the first place and why they were excluded from the discussion.
“I think the personal relationships we’ve established with the program chairs have been crucial throughout our kids’ education and particularly last year,” said Flo Schumacher, mother of an OPRF senior, in an interview with Wednesday Journal.
Schumacher, who attended the March 11 meeting in person, told board members that program chairs are the “heart and soul” of the special ed department. She often leaned on Fawn Joyce, one of the department’s program chairs, for help. From school bus services to additional resources, Schumacher said Joyce was her go-to person.
And when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Schumacher, like many other OPRF families with teens with special needs, relied on program chairs like Joyce more than ever.
“I think a lot of parents were feeling — especially parents of special education kids — very lost, abandoned,” Schumacher said. “There was a lot of additional stress associated with remote learning. I think most of us felt that Fawn was the only person who was actually helping us.”
At the March 11 meeting, other parents joined Schumacher in calling the employees who held the program chair positions a “lifeline” or “nexus.” These were people they could depend on and easily turn to for help, they said during public comment.
For Jennifer Sage, what bothered her the most was the department’s failure to fully explain its restructuring plans. The parent of another OPRF student, she was left with so many unanswered questions.
“When you’re reassigning them [program chairs] to be classroom teachers and that’s not what they’ve been, what does that mean for my existing classroom teacher?” she wondered. “It feels like an overhaul, and I don’t see the purpose, and they’re not sharing that.”
She also wanted to know what motivated the department to consider restructuring and who were those special ed supervisors and IEP coordinators. Looking at Francois-Blue’s email, Sage said, it looked like “a lot of words that mean nothing.”
“That’s the reason why we’re so unhappy,” Sage continued. “You can’t use those words and not explain how it works.”
During the meeting on March 11, Francois-Blue explained to the board why a recommendation was made regarding the department’s program chairs. She said program chairs serve as Local Education Agency (LEA) representatives at IEP meetings, and they are currently not meeting their role’s legal requirements and may be in procedural violation, according to the state rules.
She added that the recommendation was not meant to “displace, get rid of staff, devalue staff or disrupt relationships” and was presented as a way to comply with Illinois State Board of Education guidelines.
This proposal is part of a long list of staffing recommendations that were presented to D200 board members, including an associate web designer, psychologist and many other positions in the special ed department. District officials said the proposed staffing changes would result in a total estimated savings of around $223,000.
The Journal reached out to Francois-Blue for more comments and information on the department’s plans to replace its program chairs and other restructuring efforts.
“Based on the feedback received during the discussion at the Committee of the Whole meeting on March 11, the administration decided to postpone bringing the restructuring of special education to the board for approval,” the department wrote in an email to the Journal. “Before finalizing our recommendation, we plan to take additional time to assess the effectiveness of the division structure and gather input from stakeholders to ensure continuous improvement of the delivery of services to our students with special needs.”
As Schumacher and Sage reflected on the department’s recent announcement, they thought about the type of support that they, along with their children, need now more than ever — and this change-up is not it.
“Kids with special needs need consistency, and when something’s working, you don’t mix up the card if you can avoid it,” Sage said.