When her son was in kindergarten, Kimberly Johnson-Evans noticed that 5-year-old William struggled to communicate with his classmates. She took him to a series of doctors, who eventually diagnosed him with pervasive developmental disorder and speech delay.
Bedford’s teachers at his low-income Chicago Public School could not cater to the non-verbal boy’s needs. They focused so much on his social skills that there was hardly any time for academic improvement, Johnson-Evans said.
With the help of an attorney, Johnson-Evans moved Bedford to a specialized program at Henry Clay School. This educational move also became a physical one; she found an apartment in the suburbs – 30 miles from their home in the city – and relocated to place her autistic son at Henry Clay.
Johnson-Evans, who is now the president of the board of the Chicagoland Autism Connection, and her son are educational immigrants. They are part of a growing trend involving the relocation of special needs students to schools that have programs better suited for their needs. According to the most recent statistics from the U.S. Department of Education, 2.9 percent of students with disabilities attended specialized schools in 2008. By 2012, that number had increased to 3 percent. The number of students with disabilities attending private schools increased from 1 percent to 1.2 percent. The number of public schools dedicated to special education in the United States increased between 1990-2013, giving families more options in regards to their child’s education and prompting many to relocate for these new academic opportunities.
“What Henry Clay had that the other school didn’t have was a program and teachers who had been trained in autism,” Johnson-Evans said. “For him to be in a classroom with kids who have a variety of abilities, he wasn’t going to get the attention that he needed.”
Marlene Grossman is the principal of Park School, a learning facility in Evanston, Illinois that serves students with disabilities and provides them with the opportunity to receive a well-rounded education that is tailored to their individual needs, Grossman said.
“You are accountable to provide a program that challenges the kids and gives them access points into the educational system wherever you can find them,” Grossman said. “You are accountable for that and you are accountable to make sure that the children are making progress.”
Grossman has seen families uprooting to send their children to superior special education schools. One family recently moved from Washington, D.C. specifically to Evanston in order for their child to attend Park School, she said.
There is a lengthy, and typically expensive, process involved in achieving an Individualized Education Program, which is a personalized plan that guides a special need student’s academic career, Grossman said. Not all families, especially those in underserved communities, are affluent enough to either migrate to a new school or go through the daunting legal process of acquiring special education assistance, she said.
“It’s not equitable,” Grossman said. “People know that and so they just move where they need to move to get what they need for their kids because it’s not the same everywhere. There’s a lot of inequity.”
Johnson-Evans’ extended family was able to provide financial resources that allowed her to make the challenging suburban move. However, not all families with whom she works have the economic means to allow their child to receive the education he or she requires, she said.
It is dangerous for families to expect their child to easily adjust to a new environment, Pamela Cleary, an Indiana and Illinois attorney who focuses on special education legalities, said. Reinstating their Individualized Education Programs at a new school is often heavy baggage for both the family and the school or school district’s faculty, she said.
It’s increasingly challenging to fight a system that is so much stronger than an individual family, especially those who identify as working and middle class, Cari Levin, executive director of Evanston Community, Advocacy, Support and Education, said.
“I’m someone who had resources and education to bear,” Levin said. “And I realized that people who didn’t have that were probably gonna be a whole lot worse off than me.”
A trained teaching staff is often a compelling factor when families are contemplating relocation, Grossman said. That was what drew Johnson-Evans to Henry Clay School.
Bedford began communicating verbally around 8 or 9 years old, while working with speech therapists and explicitly trained educators at Henry Clay School, said Johnson-Evans. He was successfully mainstreamed for high school and graduated with honors. Johnson-Evans credits his success to their relocation during the early stages of his educational trajectory.
Andrea Tisza and Susan Mercon teach special education at Henry Clay School. Bedford is one of their many success stories. He was also one of many students whose families moved to place their children in Tisza and Mercon’s combined classroom. The students remained with these instructors from ages 6 to 15, allowing uninterrupted growth, Mercon said.
“When students come to us, it’s like ‘wait a minute, your child’s not independent and we need to make them the most independent person they could be,’” Tisza said.
There are few moments as satisfying as witnessing a student’s success, Levin said. She has dedicated her career to helping Chicagoland families access special education.
“If I can come in to a situation and help a parent feel empowered on their own, to help a parent understand that they have the skills to advocate for their own child, that feels wonderful,” Levin said.