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Cassell Elementary expands; parents want autism program to grow, too

Cassell Elementary School 11314 S. Spaulding Chicago IL Tuesday October 4 2011.  There is an overcrowding situatischool with some

Cassell Elementary School at 11314 S. Spaulding in Chicago, IL on Tuesday October 4, 2011. There is an overcrowding situation at the school, with some classrooms having almost 40 kids in the classroom | Matt Marton~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: July 4, 2014 6:10AM

Autistic children needing a cluster program are already there. So is the will of Cassell Elementary’s community to keep them through 8th grade. And now there’s space to do it, with an eight-classroom addition at the crowded school opening by September.

So parents of autistic children at the Mount Greenwood school, 11314 S. Spaulding, can’t understand why one of their new classrooms in their special-ed friendly school won’t be used to expand its existing K-4 autism program to include older grades, so their children could stay put.

“It’s so frustrating because we were always told the cluster couldn’t continue because of a space issue. It’s not a space issue anymore,” said Kate Moriarity, whose 9-year-old son is about to age out of Cassell. “We keep reiterating, this is your perfect chance to make a continuous program.”

Moriarity and other parents will make their case again Tuesday at a Local School Council Meeting. CPS spokesman Joel Hood said Markay Winston, who heads the district’s office of Diverse Learner Supports & Services is scheduled to attend, along with Ald. Matt O’Shea (19th). School principal Denise Esposito, who declined to comment on the record, is also expected to speak there.

Hood did not answer questions about CPS’ specific plans for Cassell, but instead sent an emailed statement: “CPS is committed to ensuring that the needs of all diverse learners are met according to their individualized study plans. We will continue to work with the Cassell school community to develop a solution that will accommodate the unique needs of their diverse learner population, while also focusing on a broader District-wide strategy to deliver a high-quality education for every student in every neighborhood.”

Meanwhile, Cassell’s three fourth graders in the cluster program have been offered places at Clissold Elementary School, 2350 W. 110th Place, about a mile and a half to the east. Clissold also takes autistic children from Keller Elementary Gifted Magnet School, 3020 West 108th.

“It seems illogical that you’re making a population that has the hardest time with change ...w you’re forcing them to change schools,” said Alvin Green, father of a 10-year-old also slated to move.

Clissold is a bigger school with 560 children enrolled this year, ranked a level lower than Cassell, and counts 14.3 percent of its children as special education. With 364 children and CPS’ top rating, Cassell’s population is 23 percent special ed, almost double the district average of about 13 percent, and the building is fully compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Clissold’s building also is bigger, with its older autistic children on the third floor, Green said. Its ceilings are higher than Cassell’s, there’s a lot of echo on the cinder blocks and a lot more bodies moving through the hallways, he said.

“If a kid has sensory issues, it’s going to be exacerbated there,” Green said.

That’s Moriarty’s son.

“He’s one of those where he can’t handle music on in the car, he can’t handle any whistling,” she said. “It’s like nails on a chalkboard for him.”

Mary Hughes of 19th Ward Parents for Special Education has been formally making a case to the Board of Education since November for the addition. She returned last week to ask them to find a way to make good on an “implied promise by CPS that Cassell would be getting an intermediate autism cluster program in conjunction with the addition.”

Reached by phone, Hughes said the decision to expand the cluster falls solely to CPS.

“And the principal is absolutely on board. The community wants it. It doesn’t have to be this hard. All the parents involved have been trying to work with CPS and it’s just like hitting the head against a brick wall.”

Moriarity said the neighborhood needs more room for its autistic children so they aren’t bused elsewhere or placed in less-supportive classrooms where they don’t belong, she said.

“That’s stressful too, to be put into an environment in which you’re not going to succeed,” she said.

Moriarity has spoken with Clissold parents. Some were happy there; a few were so unhappy they moved out of Chicago. But Moriarty’s husband is employed by the city — as is the case of many families in the 19th Ward on Chicago’s far southwest edge — so that’s not an option for her son.

“We can’t just pack up and move somewhere else that’s a better fit for him,” she said.

Contributing: Becky Schlikerman


Twitter: @bylaurenfitz

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