At Monday night’s meeting of the Evanston Township High School District 202 School Board, members of the district’s special education team spoke to board members about new updates to special education programs designed to improve support for students amid the ongoing challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.
As of Dec. 1, 2021, ETHS had 533 students with individualized education programs (IEPs), which are documents developed under federal law for constructing an academic plan for every student enrolled in special education courses or programs.
At the start of the current school year, ETHS created a new service model for special education where teachers primarily work as either instructors or case managers, according to Director of Special Education Diona Lewis.
Under the new model, educators assigned as case managers teach a maximum of three classes with no more than 45 students, while instructors teach five courses that are either self-contained for special education students or co-taught with a mix of special education and general education ETHS students.
Additionally, Lewis reported that the school added an assistant director of special programs within the department and restructured the roles of administrators to make them more accessible to educators.
“Our staff was super excited about this, and they have reported to us on multiple occasions that the new structure has reduced burnout, increased collaboration and allows for stronger student/teacher relationships,” Lewis said. “There were fewer things to juggle, and they actually do feel appreciated with the work that they’re doing.”
Lewis said one of her main goals for the future is to allow case managers to keep the same students throughout their ETHS careers, rather than having students transition to a new case manager every school year.
The special education department is also aiming to increase the number of co-taught classes so that more special education students can get exposure to the general education curriculum and collaborate with their peers in the general school population.
The department features a number of special programs, including the ETHS Day School, Transition Education and Mindfulness for Success (TEAMS) and Educating Developing and Guiding Empowered Evanstonians (EDGEE):
- The day school mainly serves students with emotional disabilities who are “typically internalizers with mental health diagnoses” or previous mental health-related hospitalizations, according to Lewis. The program has 23 students and a staff composed of certified teachers, paraprofessionals, a psychologist, a social worker, safety personnel and an administrator.
- The TEAMS program, on the other hand, primarily includes students with autism and intellectual disabilities. There are currently 40 students enrolled across both academic programs and vocational transition training, because those students usually stay at ETHS until they turn 21. Lewis said Monday that the department is working on integrating the programs so that younger TEAMS students can access career and technical education opportunities earlier in their time at ETHS.
- EDGEE launched just this past January with seven students who are eligible for TEAMS but have higher social skills and are more likely to leave ETHS at 18, rather than 21. Next year, the enrollment will increase to 12 students, Lewis said.
Lewis and other department representatives at Monday’s meeting emphasized that a lot of their work over the last two years has revolved around addressing truancy or chronic absences due to mental health challenges that students have experienced during the pandemic. As a result, they stressed the importance of giving students a voice in the courses and support programs they enroll in and in the creation of their IEPs.
“It’s very important for them to be involved in the IEP process and learn how to self-advocate, but they aren’t only their disability,” Board member Pat Maunsell said. “And so to hear their voices in other places and ways, I think, is very empowering.”
Public comments, update on new superintendent
Also at Monday’s meeting, a group of students and community members spoke to the board during the public comment period to advocate for more action from the board and administration to combat climate change. Among other things, the speakers asked for the creation of a full climate justice and climate change curriculum in every freshman biology class, as well as the hiring of a full-time sustainability coordinator who could work to make the building greener and more energy efficient.
Additionally, Eleanor Jones, an ETHS junior, said the school needed to do a better job handling cases of sexual assault and abuse reported by students. According to Jones, there are students who have to walk by their abusers in school every day because the administration failed to act on reported sexual violence.
“Recently, an email was sent out about Sexual Assault Awareness Week and what is planned to honor it here,” Jones said. “I would like to believe that the intentions were honorable and not simply to save face. However, in my time at ETHS, I have never heard of someone who had a positive experience when going to administration for help after they had been assaulted or harassed.”
And at the end of Monday’s meeting, school board President Pat Savage-Williams thanked the community for providing feedback and participating in the process to select the next ETHS superintendent. Because of the robust response to surveys and advice offered by students, parents and teachers, the next superintendent will have a great head start when arriving at the school, Savage-Williams said.
“I just really want to thank all who have engaged in the search process to date,” she said. “The board values the input, and we as a board are still talking. We hope to have an announcement by the end of the month, if not sooner.”