District 202 functional needs team updates Board of Education


Daily file photo by Angeli Mittal

Evanston Township High School. The Board of Education listened to a variety of updates on the functional needs system in the district Monday.

Aviva Bechky and Jessica Ma

Evanston Township High School District 202’s Board of Education heard updates on support systems for students with intellectual and learning disabilities Monday night, including a system allowing case managers to form longer-term bonds with students and their families.

A team of the district’s functional needs professionals gave a presentation covering future goals and the past two years of district operations — which included long periods of virtual instruction. The group addressed the school’s comprehensive plan for supporting students with a number of different needs throughout their time in high school.  

Demographics of ETHS

According to a memo sent to Superintendent Eric Witherspoon by Diona Lewis, ETHS’ director of special education, as of Dec. 1, 2021, 533 students in District 202 have an Individualized Education Program. An IEP outlines the support a district is mandated to provide to a student with disabilities.

Of those students with IEPs, 36.2% are Black and 26.3% are Hispanic — disproportionate numbers considering ETHS has 24.6% Black students and 20.1% Hispanic students according to its 2021-22 report. Nationwide, Black and Latine students are often disproportionately diagnosed for certain learning disabilities. 

The district also places some students in residential programs in Illinois as well as out-of-state programs. Between this school year and last, the number of students in those programs increased by four to a total of 10. 

“We know that is a direct result of the pandemic and the specific needs of the students, which are mounting due to a lot of different factors: mental health, environment and those types of things,” Lewis said.

Therapeutic Day School

ETHS’s Therapeutic Day School opened in summer 2019 and has 23 students enrolled. 

The goal of the school is to provide individualized support for students who otherwise would have been placed outside Evanston to continue their education in a more structured therapeutic environment. The school also partners with community organizations like Kids Create Change, Rebuilding Warehouse and the Center for Independent Futures to offer students independence and vocational training.

Lewis said the school added a full time social worker for the 2021-22 school year. Her team also assembled more data on the students who attend the Day School.

The school focuses on avoidance behavior, emotional regulation and coping strategies. Lewis also said the district was starting a dual enrollment model in which students can spend part of their time at a therapeutic school.

Vocational skills training

Lewis also gave updates on Transition Education and Mindfulness for Success, an ETHS program dedicated to helping students develop academic and vocational skills. TEAMS,  formerly the Transition House, partners with organizations like Youth Job Center and ETHS Career & Technical Education. Lewis said the school hopes to offer expanded access to employment training before students turn 18. 

Like TEAMS, Educating Developing and Guiding Empowered Evanstonians helps students achieve post-secondary employment goals but is geared toward students with more developed social skills than the students in TEAMS. Lewis said EDGE2 is expected to reach its capacity of 12 students by the next school year. 

Staffing and department changes

Starting this year, student case managers will oversee a maximum of 45 cases each. Instructional facilitators — whose role was newly defined — focus on class content, including in classes co-taught by a general and a functional needs teacher.

The district also restructured administrative roles and responsibilities, creating the position of assistant director of special programs. 

“(Our staff) have reported to us on multiple occasions that the new structure has reduced burnout,” Lewis said. “Increased collaboration allows for stronger student-teacher related relationships.”

Lewis said the district plans to increase co-taught classes. Her memo to the superintendent said ETHS expects to see 24 co-taught classes next school year. 

Lewis said the new plan has teachers continue to teach in their preferred areas instead of switching into different classes, maximizing their strengths. 

The district also added more development programs for paraprofessionals. In the future, the district plans to continue with paraprofessional cohort groups and push paraprofessionals to obtain teacher certification.

Building student relationship and independence

Lewis said case management would start incorporating looping, where case managers stay with the same students year to year. In the past, students had a new case manager every year. Through the new model, which began this year, case managers accompany students through high school, getting to know them more personally. 

To encourage independence, she said students will ideally begin leading the discussions around their own IEPs by senior year.

Assistant Director of Special Education-Programming Deanna Gill also said the functional needs team wants students to develop their own paths. 

“(Our staff is) working with students specifically on what their interests are and how we can utilize the resources within our own community here at ETHS,” Gill said. 

Board member Patricia Maunsell similarly emphasized the importance of integrating student voices.

While she agreed with Gill and Lewis’ efforts, she also wanted to give students the opportunity to express themselves beyond the context of their disabilities.

“It’s very important for (students) to be involved in the IEP process and learn how to self advocate, but they aren’t only their disability,” Maunsell said. “To hear their voices in other places and ways, I think it’s very empowering.”

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @avivabechky

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @jessicama2025

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