When John (not his real name) first showed up at the Southern School a few years ago, he was so miserable he wanted to kill himself. “This was a teenager who had been sexually abused by his mother,” says Michael Johnson, education director at the north-side private school for children with emotional and learning disabilities. “He talked about walking close to cars. But he got himself together, graduated, and is now in the Navy.”

Johnson fears that there may be no more success stories at the school at 1456 W. Montrose. Like other special-education schools across the area, Southern faces a cash crisis brought on by a policy change by the Board of Education. At issue is the tuition-reimbursement program: the board spends $48 million a year on private tuition for roughly 3,700 children who can’t find the care they need in the public schools.

Under the direction of Thomas Hehir, associate superintendent for special education, the board last year started mainstreaming more of these children–that is, keeping them in the public schools. In a separate but related matter, the board decided last year to reimburse private schools on the basis of attendance instead of enrollment, which would mean even less money for the schools. Lawyers for both sides are now negotiating the issue.

“Both issues–attendance versus enrollment and the dwindling referrals–could seriously cripple schools like ours and Southern,” says Pamela Barnet, director of education services at Lawrence Hall Youth Services, a facility at 4833 N. Francisco. “We get our money from the board. If they cut back, a lot of good schools could go out of business. And then you have to ask yourself, what happens to the children?”

Barnet is also president of the Illinois Affiliation of Private Schools for Exceptional Children, which has long fought the board on the reimbursement issue. Board officials contend that the affiliation has distorted the consequences of mainstreaming. “First of all, let me say that I believe there will always be a need for private schools in special education,” says Hehir. “I understand that many people in the private schools are concerned about their futures. But we are required under the law to see that children with emotional disabilities learn to get involved with the rest of the world, and it may not be in their best interest to segregate them in a private school.”

The children affected in the struggle are what Southern’s officials call “misunderstood youth.” Some have learning disabilities, others have been physically or emotionally abused by their parents and family. “Almost all of our students have made it clear that they would rather not go to school than go to a public school,” says Jonathan Kaplan, clinical director at Southern. “They may feel intimidated by the size or feel lost in the classroom. In any event, it’s clear that if they weren’t here at Southern they’d be out on the street.”

Southern was started as an alternative school in 1969 by Patrick Zimmerman. According to the school’s publicity brochure, Zimmerman was a public school teacher who “gave up his pension to start a school. The students were eight transplanted Appalachian and minority youths. Poor and uneducated, their future held little hope for a better life.”

Then as now, Southern’s operators did not promise immediate results. But they did offer smaller classrooms–no more than eight kids per teacher–and much more counseling than other schools. Of the 47 people Southern employs, five are social workers, two are case managers who visit homes, one is a group therapist, and one is a vocational coordinator. The school has a budget of $1.6 million, 75 percent of which comes from the board.

“If you think you’re going to reach kids like this in a classroom of 30 or even 20 you’re fooling yourself,” says Johnson. “You have to lower the class size. These kids are bringing a lot of trauma to the classroom. You have to offer as much individual attention as you can.”

Students are referred to Southern by officials in the public school system, which then reimburses Southern on a per-pupil basis. “Our goal is to see to it that many of them can return to the public school,” says Kaplan. “We want them to be better able to handle the world.”

A few years ago Southern outgrew its original storefront facility on Montrose, and school officials bought and then converted an abandoned warehouse across the street. “That was a capital program that took two and one-half years to complete and cost about $1 million,” says David Wiercinski, director of development at the school. “We’re very proud of that effort.”

Ironically, they now have more space than they can fill. “We have the room for 40 more students–it’s a shame not to be able to help them,” says Wiercinski. “We know there’s a need for our services, but we are dependent on the board for referrals.”

Since August, however, Southern has received no new referrals. “I don’t want to say we’re going out of business,” says Wiercinski. “But if this keeps up, we could be in serious trouble.”

Hehir says the board has delayed new referrals to Southern because the school was in the midst of an internal crisis. He would not elaborate, but Southern officials acknowledge that they recently had to dismiss their previous education director for being too authoritarian. “We’re back on the track,” says Wiercinski. “But that may have hurt us with the board.”

The drop in referrals also reflects Hehir’s strategy for revamping special education. “State and federal law requires us to place students with disabilities in schools that meet their needs,” he says. “We have had a historical reliance on private schools, which means there has been an exclusion of some kids from public schools. Many of these private school programs are excellent, and some are not. The point is that almost all are segregated. And what we are trying to do is serve children in the least restrictive environment, which means as close to their nondisabled peers as possible.”

Hehir’s critics contend that he’s also following school superintendent Ted Kimbrough’s directive to cut the cash-starved system’s budget. Southern’s social workers and teachers make less than their public school counterparts. But because of its lower class size, the school’s per-pupil costs are almost five times higher than the public schools’.

The board may think cuts would save money, says Johnson. “But you have to look at the overall cost to society if these kids are kept in the public schools. Our kids see a social worker at least three times a week, privately or in group. We are trying to meet the needs of kids who have been battered by life. We had one kid whose mother drank a fifth of gin on a regular basis when she was pregnant with him. She said she drank the gin because she wanted to lose weight. I’m sure all that alcohol retarded the child’s development. He’s very violent. What happens when you put him in a class of 32? It’s disruptive. No one benefits.”

Hehir dismisses such comments as uninformed. “We are not dumping children into hostile environments. We’re expanding our special-education programs. Our budget is about $400 million, and we’re hiring new staff. We have hired 77 new teachers, 20 more social workers, 20 more psychologists, 20 more speech therapists. We have good programs too.

“Yes, it’s a bit cheaper to keep kids in the public schools, but that’s not why we’re doing this. We believe that all the research shows that students benefit from integration, and therefore we are integrating the public schools.”

Nonetheless, many private school administrators remain skeptical, particularly in light of their long-standing battle over what reimbursement should be based on. For years the board reimbursed each private school on the basis of how many students actually attended rather than how many were enrolled. Then last year, after negotiations and threats of lawsuits, the board changed its policy and started paying on the basis of enrollment. A few months later, however, the board flip-flopped again and began paying on the basis of attendance–much to the chagrin of private school operators. “The big issue has always been the truant kids, who do not tolerate school in any form,” says Pamela Barnet. “They’re ghosts on the books of the public schools. We work hard to make our schools places where they would want to come–and we should be compensated.”

Hehir says it makes sense to pay based on attendance because that’s how the state pays the board. Lawyers for both sides have been haggling for months, and a compromise may soon be reached.

But the strain between public and private schools is far from over. “We’re hoping to survive,” says Johnson. “We hope the board’s initiative doesn’t wipe us out. If that happens, it’s the kids who are hurt the most.”

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