Education | Far Southeast Side

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Revisiting a closed school for special needs students

On the phone last month, Dr. Otis Taylor did not sound like a man who had just lost his job. He didn’t point any fingers and he did not express remorse. In fact, he sounded like he might have been smiling. “I’m done with this part of my life,” he said, speaking of his four years as principal at Buckingham, a former CPS school. “It’s in my past, it happened.”

Buckingham Special Education Center, in Calumet Heights, was one of forty-nine schools CPS closed this fall, making Dr. Taylor one of forty-nine principals who were either relocated or laid off. When the Weekly wrote about the school in May, the fate of Buckingham and other schools slated to close was still undecided, and Buckingham parents and staff were still hopeful. They had faith that their school’s unique position would keep it open: Buckingham was one of only three public schools in Chicago that exclusively served students with emotional disorders from kindergarten through the eighth grade. Their case was made even more compelling by the fourteen miles separating Buckingham and Moses Montefiore, where students would be relocated—a far greater distance than that between any other closing school and its designated welcoming one.

When a public hearing was held in April to discuss the proposed closure, hearing officer Cheryl Starks concluded that CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett “failed to consider pertinent additional information on the safety impact that the long commute will have on Buckingham students.” Starks recommended against closure.

A month later, the school board voted against that recommendation.

“I will never forget there was never any empathy at all,” said Taylor, thinking back to the process leading up to the final vote on school closures. “I wasted my time going to those hearings.”

Still, he is proud that he defended his school, and disappointed by those he says were too concerned with keeping their jobs to do so. “How could I not speak up?”

CPS data indicates that only sixty-two percent of the roughly 11,000 students affected by the closings were enrolled in their designated welcoming schools on the twentieth day of school this year. About thirty percent were enrolled in other CPS schools, and about 500 students’ enrollment whereabouts remained unknown. CPS has made efforts to track down these missing students, but with little success.

Moses Montefiore Academy, near the Medical District on the West Side, was designated to receive students from both Buckingham and Near North Elementary School, thus consolidating the three public therapeutic elementary schools in Chicago into one.

Families also had the option of enrolling their children in private therapeutic day schools or in general education neighborhood schools, which may be closer to home but not necessarily equipped with the resources needed to support children with emotional disorders.

When asked how many Buckingham students ended up enrolling at Montefiore, Principal Anthony Chalmers said, “We haven’t really done a breakdown of that.” He estimated that of the thirty-five students Montefiore received from Near North and Buckingham, fifteen were from the latter. A CPS spokesperson later clarified that fourteen Buckingham students enrolled at Montefiore, but one has since dropped out. She did not have further information on why this student left, or whether he enrolled elsewhere.

Though these thirteen Buckingham students are now in a new school—one nearly twice as large as where they were before—some of their old support systems remain intact. According to Chalmers, six teachers, one social worker, and one security guard were transferred from Buckingham to Montefiore. He was positive about the transition overall, and Dr. Taylor, who worked with Dr. Chalmers for the first few months of the school year to ease the transition, confirmed that “supports were in place.”

Unlike many other schools affected by the closings, Buckingham has no students unaccounted for. CPS has confirmed that fourteen former students now attend private therapeutic day schools, and that two are in district schools. The remaining nine students matriculated to high schools around the city.

Yet it remains difficult to figure out where they have actually gone. One private therapeutic school administrator said CPS had offered placement in her school to three students, not necessarily from Buckingham, but that those students never enrolled in her school. She did not know where they had enrolled.

When asked if her school received any students from Buckingham, the secretary at one South Side neighborhood school said no one really knew where all the new students were from. It was too chaotic in those first few days because “kids were coming from everywhere.”

Though the school year is now a few months in, the challenges of transition remain. Taylor offers some succinct advice to his former employer: “I will tell any administrator in CPS: don’t rest on your laurels, always be ready for what’s going to happen.”

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