Montefiore now a school without students but, says CPS, it is not closed

Photo by Meg Anderson

An alternative school's three campuses are now operating inside the Montefiore building. District officials approved the move, which they say is temporary.

CPS says it did not close the Moses Montefiore specialty school, the last remaining district-run elementary school for students with profound emotional and behavioral disabilities.

But this fall there will be no students enrolled in the school, located in the gentrifying Near West Side. And there will be no staff either – except for an assistant principal and a clerk who will work in an otherwise vacant building. All the remaining teachers and staff have been laid off.

District officials say the students who remained at the end of last school year have transferred back to their neighborhood schools or enrolled at privately run therapeutic day schools.

“Chicago Public Schools is committed to ensuring all students have access to the resources they need to be successful in the classroom and beyond, and the students who previously attended Montefiore are prime examples,” CPS officials said in a statement. “After being reviewed by Individualized Education Program teams that include parents, teachers and administrators, the students are successfully moving to neighborhood schools or getting the support they need in other educational environments.”

To close a school – which would break a district promise not to close any additional schools for five years after the historic 2013 closings – CPS would have to go through a formal process that included public hearings and a vote from the Board of Education.

A CPS spokesman says the district has no plans to formally close the school. And he said that students whose Individual Education Plans (IEPs) require the sort of setting that Montefiore offers still have that option available to them.

But a teacher at Montefiore who just learned she lost her job says there’s no other word for what happened except for “closure.”

“I don’t understand how you can say the school is not closed, and there are no teachers at the school and no students at the school,” she said.

Most troubled students

At the start of last school year, there were 26 students enrolled at Montefiore. By the end of the year, teachers say, only a half-dozen students were left. The rest had transferred out during the school year or graduated into 9th grade.

The teacher who was just laid off says she’s troubled by the fact some students’ IEPs were modified during the school year to indicate that the school was no longer an appropriate environment. Those students are now getting sent to less-restrictive environments at their former neighborhood schools.

“It’s a shame,” said the teacher, who asked not to be identified because she is now looking for another job in the district. “We’re now sending them right back to the places they were not successful at before because of the nature of their disabilities…. It’s not going to be good for them at all. It’s not going to be good for the teachers at the schools.”

Advocates for disabled students say that the children who attend Montefiore are among the most troubled in CPS and the most difficult to work with. Some exhibit aggressive or sexually abusive behavior, and some have been abused themselves. And last year a Catalyst analysis of arrest data found that Montefiore had the second-highest arrest rate of any school in the city.

“They’ve been through so much trauma in their lives and it’s hard to reach them sometimes,” said the former teacher. “You have to learn to not take it personally.”

She says things at Montefiore seemed to go downhill last year after a crew from VICE Media was invited to film an eight-part series inside the school. Several advocacy groups filed a complaint with the Illinois State Board of Education once the videos surfaced online. The groups worried that students’ privacy rights were violated and said school personnel weren’t developing proper IEPs or had the proper training to work with the students. They also argued that the district failed to provide the proper oversight.

“Those videos were the point from where everything went downhill,” the teacher said. “The initial purpose was to bring awareness to the school and the services we offer… but the opposite happened.”

“Death by starvation”

But even before VICE, the school was struggling with a bad reputation and was losing enrollment.

Former teachers at Montefiore and others with knowledge of what’s happened at the school in recent years say the district had blocked new admissions and there were no students in younger grades. Last year, the remaining students were in grades four through eight, one former teacher said.

“It’s death by starvation,” said Kristine Mayle, financial secretary for the Chicago Teachers Union and a former special education teacher. She remembers trying to get one of her own troubled students into Montefiore back in 2007, but being unable to convince CPS officials to approve the move.

Rod Estvan, of the advocacy group Access Living, says CPS has been moving away from these types of district-run specialty schools and instead sending students to privately-run therapeutic day schools that have contracts to service CPS students.

For years, staff at CPS specialty schools worried they would get phased out, mostly because of their high costs. In 2011, CPS cut the budgets for Montefiore and Buckingham by nearly $1.8 million.

Montefiore’s school’s principal at the time, Julious Lawson, told Catalyst that it was “nearly impossible to run an effective therapeutic program with the staff we’ve been left with.”

Then in 2013, CPS closed Buckingham and Near North – both specialty elementary schools – as part of the mass school closings. Montefiore became the receiving school for those students. That same year CPS invested $1.4 million in renovations at Montefiore.

Estvan clarified that his organization is not and has not been a supporter of Montefiore, but he recognizes that there are no other district-run options for the kinds of students who wind up there:  “We don’t like the idea of disability-only schools. It’s not consistent with our philosophy. But we recognize that there’s kids we don’t have any options for in the configuration of special education services as they exist.”

In his view, these students should be served by qualified staff inside another school with a vocational program. That way the students can get the services they need but still have access to general education programs with other students.

The 2016 budget, released earlier this week, shows that all 11 specialty schools – those that serve high numbers of students with special needs — will see reductions in staffing. A 12th school, Christopher Elementary, which was budgeted as a specialty school in the past, has been reclassified because it will now be funded through the student-based budgeting system.