For four years Mary Andrews sent her son to neighborhood public grade schools, and it was almost always a disaster.

If he wasn’t getting beat up by bullies, he was being ignored by the teachers–cast adrift in a system too big and beset by too many problems to keep track of his needs.

Her son is what social workers call mentally disabled: his low IQ makes it difficult for him to follow directions or retain information.

When she enrolled him as a freshman at Jacqueline Vaughn Occupational High School (formerly known as Wilson High School), which has special programs for students like him, things finally started to turn around. But now Vaughn finds itself in the middle of a battle with central office bureaucrats, and Andrews is afraid for her son’s future.

In most cases, enrollment in schools like Vaughn is voluntary; placement is determined according to something called an IEP (individual education program). “An IEP is written in conjunction with the student, the parents, and the student’s teachers, counselors, and psychologists,” says Jay Mulberry, Vaughn’s principal. “The point is to determine what kind of a program would best meet that student’s needs.”

Vaughn has concentrated on teaching kids like Andrews’s son. “These are students who have traditionally scored between 50 and 63 on IQ exams,” says Mulberry. “They might have extreme memory problems or emotional problems. Studies show that most of these students, when left in neighborhood schools, eventually drop out.”

By and large, Vaughn offers its students training in job-related skills. “Students in our English classes do not study the difference between nouns and verbs, but they will study newspapers to learn the words they will need to use in everyday life,” says Mulberry. “There’s a strong emphasis on preparing the students for the work world. They will work with our kitchen attendants and janitorial staff to get used to the ethic of work. In their junior and senior years, there’s a greater effort to get them jobs outside the building.”

Vaughn has found its students jobs with catering services, fast-food restaurants, and local grocery stores. For its efforts, the school has been widely praised by local politicians and is fervently supported by its parent body.

Despite the praise, the school constantly has had to fend off central office efforts to close it. In the early 1980s, most of these moves came from the budget office as part of larger cost-cutting measures. But in the last few years, the attacks have come from ideological foes in Special Education, who are skeptical of Vaughn’s benefits to students like Andrews’s son.

Proponents of inclusion maintain that rather than being set aside in separate schools, mentally disabled students should be given special services in their neighborhood schools, where they can mix freely with so-called normal students. The debate over inclusion involves thousands of Chicago public school children with a wide range of disabilities. Some have serious mental or emotional problems, such as schizophrenia. Others are violent, having consistently attacked classmates, friends, family, and even teachers. These students are classified as E/BD, which is social science jargon for “emotionally or behavior disabled.”

In 1992, charges against Vaughn were filed with the state board of education by Joy Rogers, an education professor at Loyola University and an inclusion activist, accusing it of improperly enrolling students who would be better served in their neighborhood schools. As a result of those charges, the Vaughn local school council signed a corrective action plan with the Chicago Board of Education in which they agreed, among other things, to notify parents that they had a right to send their children to neighborhood schools and to notify the central office of all incoming students.

Within a year, however, the parents and staffers at Vaughn were hearing rumors that the Special Education Department wanted to divert most of their students to other high schools and replace them with E/BD kids. Some of Vaughn’s critics contend that the school has been too selective, denying admission to E/BD students. Last month Charlene Green, associate superintendent of the board’s Department of Special Education, called on Mulberry to submit for central office review the IEPs of incoming freshmen. Once again rumors swirled that the board intended to close Vaughn, or at least radically change its mission.

“This has nothing to do with what’s good for my son,” says Andrews. “If it did, he and all the other kids like him would be allowed to go to Vaughn, where they have been flourishing. This is about the Special Education Department’s philosophy of inclusion. They have something to prove, and they want my son to be the guinea pig in their experiment.”

“Most parents will tell you that students are more stigmatized when they attend the neighborhood school,” says Mulberry. “Our students can grow and gain strength. They get to take part in all the activities of a school. They can write for the newspaper, assemble a yearbook, set up a prom, serve on the LSC. They have a rich range of opportunities that it’s unlikely they would have at a regular high school.”

Although Green would not respond directly for comment, Dawn Simmons, a CPS spokesperson, said that the Special Education Department has no ability to close a school and that it is standard operating procedure for the department to review the IEPs of Vaughn students when they are initially enrolled and to reexamine them periodically throughout their high school careers.

Nonetheless, Mulberry and the LSC responded by spreading word of their plight to reporters and school reformers, and they flooded the Special Education office with letters and phone calls. They contend that their school is the victim of central office political correctness cops who have taken it upon themselves to determine what is best for mentally handicapped children.

“The office of Special Education doesn’t know my son, they can’t tell me what’s best for him,” says Andrews. “When they say that the neighborhood schools can meet his need, they don’t know what they’re talking about. They don’t know the struggles he went through in those schools. He’s been beat up. Kids make fun of him. He had his face stepped on and his nose broken. When my son left the eighth grade he was set to go to Amundsen, and when I went there to visit they told me frankly, ‘Your son would be at the bottom of the list here.’

“But here at Vaughn, it’s self-esteem city. The kids all know each other. Everything is about respect–respect of parents and teachers and each other. Brian’s working with the janitor, and he has a whole new self-esteem about himself. Now some stranger in Special Ed, who’s never even met him, wants to take him out?”

Andrews contends that the central office is being inconsistent. They promote the theory of local control–which is what school reform is all about–while dictatorially telling Vaughn how to run its affairs. In addition, they allow some high schools, like Lane Tech and Whitney Young, and the Baccalaureate Program at Lincoln Park High School to limit their enrollments to the highest achievers.

“Special education is embarrassed that there are so-called segregated schools for students like my son–well, excuse me,” says Andrews. “What about segregated schools for so-called gifted kids? If you’re going to shut down Vaughn, then let’s get rid of all the gifted programs and the magnet schools and throw everybody into the same school. Remember, all kids are the same, right? Oh, but they’ll never touch those gifted schools. The hypocrisy really bothers me.”

So far Green has not indicated which, if any, of Vaughn’s students will have to attend other schools. But she has made it clear that she will tolerate no more dissent from Mulberry, treating him the way central office power brokers generally treat school employees who question their authority. She asked that disciplinary procedures be initiated against him on several charges, including failing to “follow the procedures established through [the] corrective action plan.”

“They’re playing tough, they’re letting us know that even in the age of reform, they tell us what to do,” says Andrews. “We’re not saying that all parents have to send their kids to Vaughn. If someone wants to be a part of inclusion, more power to them. But they shouldn’t take someone like my son out of one of the few schools in the system that really works for him and stick him in a school where he will be destined to fail.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.