Tour DeVos

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos will visit private autism center, Air Force Academy on Colorado leg of tour

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos visiting Ashland Elementary School in April.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on Wednesday will visit a Denver private autism center that played a key role in a historic U.S. Supreme Court case over how public schools should care for students with special needs.

The new details announced by the U.S. Department of Education come one day after the department announced DeVos’s trip through six Western and Midwestern states. The aim of the tour, the first of its kind for the Michigan billionaire since her confirmation, is to highlight schools that are rethinking education.

The nonprofit center DeVos will visit, Firefly Autism, was founded in 2002. According to the center’s website it has helped more than 400 students since then.

One of those students, known as Endrew F., was the plaintiff in a recent lawsuit that challenged how the Douglas County School District educates its students with special needs.

The U.S. Supreme Court sided with Endrew’s family. In a March decision, the court set a higher standard for how public schools must educate students with disabilities.

Public school districts often pay Firefly to educate students they cannot accommodate. Firefly has also consulted more than 17 school districts in four countries to train teachers on specific autism programs.

The U.S. Department of Education said DeVos’s tour of the center will be closed to the press at the request of the school, citing federal health privacy law. DeVos will host a roundtable with Firefly educators, then make brief statements and take questions from the press, the department said.

After her visit at Firefly, DeVos will tour the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.

DeVos kicked off her multistate swing Tuesday in Wyoming, where she laid out her vision of school choice and put in a plug for personalized learning.

That vision is all about parents having lots of options for where to send their students — and for many of those options to serve one slice of students well, rather than trying to educate students with different needs.

DeVos’s tenure as education secretary has been controversial since her nomination by President Donald Trump. DeVos, who used her personal wealth to advocate for more charter schools and private school vouchers, has particularly drawn the ire of teachers unions.

Wednesday’s trip won’t be DeVos’s first trip to Colorado.

This summer DeVos spoke at a conference of conservative state lawmakers. During her speech she championed private school vouchers, something the Colorado Supreme Court has twice ruled unconstitutional. Opponents staged a rally at the Capitol in advance of her visit.

Fixing Special Education

Advocates say survey shows special education reform in Chicago has been slow, underresourced

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel
Chris Yun, an educational policy analyst with the disabilities rights group Access Living of Metropolitan Chicago, speaks at a press conference about the survey.

Despite the state taking over Chicago schools’ troubled program for special-needs students, both education services and communication with parents remain woefully lacking, advocates for families alleged Monday.

The groups, including Equip for Equality, Parents 4 Teachers, Access Living and Raise Your Hand, released a survey of 800 parents and teachers that indicated that the Illinois State Board of Education’s reforms have fallen far short of its promises, six months after a state probe found Chicago schools violated students’ rights by routinely delaying and denying services, such as  speech and occupational therapy, busing, classroom aides,.

There continues to be no remediation plan for the thousands of students who were illegally denied services,” said attorney Olga Pribyl, who heads Equip for Equality’s special education clinic.

Representatives of the state board and Chicago Public Schools did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Advocates called on Illinois governor-elect J.B. Pritzker to commit more resources to monitor assigned to oversee Chicago special-education reforms. The office has three staff members, half the number advocates had requested. “We are asking Pritzker and his transition team to recognize the critical need to reform special education at CPS,” said Chris Yun, an educational policy analyst with the disabilities rights group Access Living of Metropolitan Chicago.

Key findings of the survey include:

  • Three out of four respondents reported knowing of one or more students not receiving services because a service provider was unavailable due to staffing shortages. Special education teachers were the most unavailable service provider, followed by paraprofessionals and nurses.
  • Many parents don’t know what changes the monitor has initiated. About three-fourths of respondents had not heard about the school district’s monthly parent trainings about the rights of special education students. While about 60 percent knew of changes tied to the state’s investigation in special education in Chicago, but fewer than 10 percent had seen the  new policy guidelines.
  • About two in three parents who have attended meetings designed to map out their child’s school services — known as an Individualized Education Program —  this year reported they weren’t given a draft of the plan five days in advance of the meetings as required.
  • About 80 percent of teachers and staff reported that IEP meetings neglected to mention compensatory services for students whose services were delayed or denied.

Natasha Carlson, a K-4 teacher who co-chairs the special education committee at the Chicago Teachers Union, said the survey results represent a broader failure by the school district and monitor to ensure students with disabilities are protected.

“This is most likely the tip of the iceberg,” she said.

You can read the full survey report below.

Tale the teacher

Watch: This Detroit teacher is ‘no longer trying to fit’ others’ idea of what a teacher looks like

Torrie Anderson, a teacher at Detroit's Davis Aerospace Technical High School, participated in a teacher storytelling event called Tale the Teacher on October 6, 2018.

Torrie Anderson doesn’t think she looks like a teacher.

Over the years, as she’s taught English in district and charter schools in and around Detroit, she’s gotten pushback from administrators who wanted her to dress more conservatively, or to cover her tattoos.

But now, Anderson said, “I realize that the way I look has no impact on my effectiveness as a teacher.”

Anderson was one of four educators who told their stories on stage at the Lyft Lounge at Musictown Detroit as part of the Tale the Teacher storytelling event last month. Chalkbeat, which co-sponsored the event, has been publishing videos of the storytellers.

So far, we’ve published the video of one teacher who views teaching as a way to bring about social change.

Another teacher talked of using rap to excite his students about science.

Anderson recalled a story from her first job out of college when, working in a charter school, a principal scolded her for wearing shorts that revealed too much leg at a school football game.

“I cried the entire way home,” she said.

“I remember being told that I was a unicorn in a profession full of elephants,” she said. “I was told that I needed to find a way to be an elephant/unicorn hybrid, as if such a thing could even possibly exist.”

The elephant and unicorn figurines she bought after that incident have followed her through four schools to her current job at Detroit’s Davis Aerospace Technical High School. Both are still sitting on her desk, she said.

But now, she plans to get rid of the elephant “because I’m a f—ing unicorn and I’m no longer trying to fit into anyone’s idea of what a teacher should look like.”

Watch Anderson’s story below but note that, in addition to not trying to look like a teacher, she’s not trying to sound like one either. In this story, she uses quite a bit of profanity.

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