Stephanie Tarr, a paraprofessional/SECA at Chicago Public Schools, poses for a portrait with her daughter (who wish to not be identified) in Hyde Park. Tarr, who SECAs duties involve consistent communication with teachers, worries teacher shortages and burnout from the pandemic can lead to a gap in vital resources for diverse learners in the future. Credit: (Sebastián Hidalgo)

Chicago Public Schools’ policy states special education classroom assistants can be invited to individualized education program meetings — a legally required conference for students with disabilities.

But local activists and parents say this policy isn’t widely known or enforced, and some think CPS discourages the assistants from participating.

Parents, teachers and experts say that leaves these children — some of the most vulnerable in the city — without their most knowledgeable advocates in meetings that determine the course of their learning.

District officials would not comment, but parents and teachers think the problem stems from staffing shortages and a lack of consideration toward paraprofessionals.

“I don’t think that CPS’ goal, when it comes to diverse learners, is to be helpful,” said Shani Blackwell, a mother to a disabled child. “I think that they are looking to do the very least that they have to do.”

The lack of transparency from CPS has cost Blackwell thousands of dollars per year, as she refuses to attend IEP meetings alone and insists on attending them with a lawyer instead. Blackwell went to the meetings for nearly five years before learning in July the district has an official policy allowing special education classroom assistants, or SECAs, into the sessions.

Another CPS mother stated she was frustrated to learn about this policy after having numerous IEP meetings for her three children. The mother did not want her name included in this story because she fears retaliation toward her children.

Blackwell and others who spoke to the BGA said mandating SECAs in these meetings would help students by providing a fuller view of needs and progress — a crucial component of their education.

The union that represents these assistants, Service Employees International Union Local 73, stated the involvement of SECAs in IEP meetings has been discussed in the past with CPS, as the topic comes up “frequently” among members.

“Our position is that one, parents should know that they have the right to request for their student’s SECA (to be) present in the IEP. And two, our SECA should be able to request to attend the meeting and not vice versa, which is what it currently is,” said Stacia Scott, executive vice president of SEIU Local 73.

The issue is vital to a substantial number of Chicago’s students. Nearly 50,000 CPS students, or 14% of children in the district, require IEPs, according to 2021 state data.

The SECAs “see themselves as advocates for diverse learners, and if they’re left out of the equation, in the space where these services, needs, growth and goal get determined, they can’t effectively advocate for the students that they work with,” Scott said.

SEIU Local 73 said it is preparing for its next contract and hopes SECA inclusion in IEP meetings will be considered.

A Complete Picture

James Shriner, an associate professor in the department of special education at the University of Illinois Urbana at Champaign said IEPs are crafted to address individual student needs, which can include academic help, behavioral and emotional learning.

“It’s information sharing, and it’s a very good thing,” Shriner said about IEPs. He emphasized the creation is “a team effort and not an individual teacher writing a program.”

However, these meetings can fail to provide a complete picture of the student, something SECAs know very well, said Kary Zarate, a teaching assistant at the University of Illinois Urbana at Champaign.

“The paraprofessionals are often the folks that spend the largest chunk of the day with kids,” said Katie Osgood, a CPS special education teacher. “The special ed. teachers or general ed. teachers are obviously interacting with the kids too, but often, it’s the paraprofessional that is the constant throughout the day.”

Although not part of the required staff for IEP meetings, paraprofessionals can be invited by parents or school staff, as noted by a CPS procedure manual.

Osgood suspects because it isn’t a requirement, the district does little to enforce it.

“I don’t think it’s being done maliciously by schools. I think it’s just like, ‘That’s not a thing that you have to do, so we don’t do that,’” she said.

Some parents say they want the additional perspective of the people who work closely with their children.

The CPS mother who feared retaliation said she was frustrated when her child’s school resisted including the classroom SECA at their latest IEP meeting. School officials said it wasn’t required, and they wouldn’t do it, the mother said.

She also said she was told SECAs are “just an extension of the teachers, and they do what the teachers tell them to do.”

The mother, who mostly speaks Spanish, said she only learned through her lawyer that paraprofessionals could be at these meetings.

It wasn’t until her lawyer emailed the district’s attorney notifying them of the request that the SECA was made available, the mother said.

CPS and the child’s school declined to comment on this specific interaction.

According to the latest BGA data, during the 2018 to ’19 school year, 4,013 SECAs worked in CPS, compared to 3,808 special education teachers. The following school year of 2019 to ’20, that number increased by an additional 395 SECAs and 167 special education teachers.

And as of August, SEIU Local 73 represents 4,800 SECAs, said Jazmine Salas, a communication specialist for the union.

The Backbone

At 7:30 a.m., Stephanie Tarr arrives at a Southside CPS school to begin her day as a SECA.

“We are the first to come in, and we’re the last to leave,” Tarr said.

Within 40 minutes of her arrival, Tarr sets up the classroom for the day and is ready to greet students as they trickle into the classroom.

Tarr said she was saddened to learn the district fails to inform parents that SECAs such as herself can be invited to IEP meetings.

“I’m quite sure that the parents who don’t know would request it,” she said.

She also said the inclusion of SECAs in IEP meetings would demonstrate respect for paraprofessionals, a gesture she and SEIU Local 73 often say is missing.

Stephanie Tarr, a paraprofessional/SECA at Chicago Public Schools, poses for a portrait in Hyde Park. Tarr, who SECAs duties involve consistent communication with teachers, worries teacher shortages and burnout from the pandemic can lead to a gap in vital resources for diverse learners in the future. (Sebastián Hidalgo)

“You are most likely considered just another body there (at schools) and not that you have a skill set that you are ready to utilize to the best of your ability so that you can help the students,” Tarr said.

Tarr has two master’s degrees but said she thinks SECAs are not viewed as professionals because of inaccurate beliefs that they’re less skilled. Currently, an associate’s degree is required of CPS paraprofessionals.

Describing herself as a “lifelong educator,” Tarr said the role of a SECA allows her to create internal change, despite not having teaching credentials.

“Students call all of us teachers. Students don’t say ‘SECA’ and ‘teacher;’ they say ‘teacher’ because that’s what they see,” Tarr said. “They see an adult who is in charge of helping them to learn something.”

Scott said she hopes this inclusion can help create internal changes on how paraprofessionals are viewed.

“I think for most people when they think of a school, they think of just the teachers or the principal,” Scott said. “But we know that the support staff really are the backbone to public school. And so we’re undoing a lot of assumptions about the value of support staff in public schools.”

Brendan Cole, a now CPS special education teacher, formerly worked as a district miscellaneous employee for five years. He said many of his responsibilities mirrored those of a SECA, as he worked with students who required special education services.

Cole said the experience has informed him on how to be a better educator.

“The special education teacher draws a picture, but the SECA is the one to color it in,” he said.

Jewél Jackson is a multimedia investigative reporter who focuses on K-12 and higher education for the Illinois Answers Project. She has covered higher education for El Paso Matters in El Paso, Texas and various social justice movements in her hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. Jackson has produced numerous radio segments for local National Public Radio stations and is an alumna of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.