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Hearings in federal lawsuits to halt Chicago school closings begin

Updated: July 16, 2013 9:12PM

Mandi Swan said she hasn’t met her 10-year-old autistic son’s new teacher yet. And she hasn’t seen his new classroom.

The boy, identified only by his initials in a federal courtroom Tuesday, was a student for four years at Lafayette Elementary School. His school has been caught up in the Chicago Public Schools’ historic closing plan, though, and now he’s getting ready to switch over to Lowell Elementary School in the fall.

But his mother, Swan, is among the plaintiffs in a pair of federal lawsuits aimed at blocking the school closures by alleging violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Hearings in the cases began Tuesday in front of Judge John Lee and are expected to last through the week. The lawsuits target the city’s board of education and schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett.

Swan was among the first witnesses to testify, and she explained how her son, one of her five children, has trouble adjusting to changes in his routine and is prone to “outbursts of rage.”

When he moved to Lafayette from an outside school district in the first grade, she said he regressed as a student as the school was forced to focus on his behavior issues.

“They interrupted what his typical routine had already been,” Swan said on the witness stand.

She said he made progress in the next two years as he kept the same teacher through first and second grade, but had setbacks again as he changed teachers in third and fourth, never fully recovering.

“He can’t read,” Swan said. “He just turned 10.”

Swan said she wants the judge to make CPS wait a year before going forward with its planned school closures. That’s so students like her son can take that time to get ready for the move and meet their new teachers, principals and classmates.

“They need that time to be able to learn who these new people are,” Swan said.

The other lawsuit — also being addressed in this week’s hearings at the Dirksen federal courthouse — aims to block the school closings altogether.

Under cross-examination, though, Swan conceded to CPS attorney Jennifer Smith her son began to make progress just a few months after his move to Lafayette.

She also acknowledged her son has an individualized educational program — or IEP — and that she’s been told by CPS any services required by that IEP would be provided at Lowell.

Much of the remainder of the day was spent listening to experts called by attorneys for the lawsuits’ plaintiffs. That included the first witness of the day, Pauline Lipman, a professor of educational policy studies at the University of Illinois Chicago.

She referred to school closings in general as “an experiment” for which little research has been done. What research has been conducted suggests they cause harm to students and “some of it is persistent,” she said

She also pointed out that while 40 percent of CPS students are black, black students make up 87 percent of those affected by the school closings.

“It’s very clear that the school closings have a disproportionate impact on African-American students,” Lipman testified.

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