District 109 union: Teacher’s struggles exemplify problems
Stephanie Horwitz \Courtesy of Horwitz
Updated: March 17, 2012 8:05AM
Stephanie Ernsteen, the mother of twin preemies now excelling in college after receiving the help they needed in the district, has given much of the credit for her boys’ success to Deerfield District 109 special education teacher Stephanie Horwitz and another teacher.
But the special education program Horwitz used, as well as the teacher herself, seem to have fallen out of favor.
Horwitz, who has taught at Caruso Middle School, said the program Ernsteen valued was a program she was hired to establish 11 years ago.
“But two and a half or three years ago, it was discontinued,” Horwitz said. “I was not even told by district administrators. I was told by special education coordinators. And slowly from there, I became viewed as not such a good teacher.”
When asked about Horwitz, Superintendent Renee Goier said she couldn’t comment on specific personnel, because of confidentiality requirements.
Mark Stein, UniServ director for the Illinois Education Association, stressed that while Horwitz’s treatment is not an issue in the ongoing teachers’ contract negotiations, the union believes it exemplifies what is happening to special education and to teachers’ evaluations in the district.
And these issues are the teachers’ greatest concerns in the struggle between the Deerfield Education Association, the teachers’ union, and the School Board.
During the years Horwitz worked in the district, she received 10 evaluations with “excellent” ratings and one with that was “satisfactory.”
“Two years after I received the ‘satisfactory,’ an administrator waited until the day before final evaluations were due — which was against the rules — to tell me I would be receiving an ‘unsatisfactory,’” Horwitz said.
“The union supported me whole-heartedly and we agreed on a settlement in August of 2010 and that I would receive a new evaluation from an unbiased evaluator,” Horwitz said.
That turned out to be another new administrator in a different school, and again Horwitz received an ‘unsatisfactory’ grade.
One also accused Horwitz of requesting an accommodation for a student without having the data to support the need, which was considered a negative against her, Horwitz said. When the teachers union investigated the claim, it discovered the administrator had requested the accommodation, not Horwitz, she said.
“One of the things I told the union was I could have stood on my head doing headstands and cartwheels, and the kids could be laughing and cackling and learning a lot, and that still wouldn’t have been good enough,” Horwitz said.
Displeased with method
Horwitz is not a fan of the way special education is implemented in the district now.
“If a teacher pulls special ed students out to pre-teach a subject, the students have missed five minutes of educational instruction. If it doesn’t go well, they miss up to 10 minutes, because the teacher has to make sure they understand the concept well enough to go back into the classroom to participate,” Horwitz said.
“If the kids don’t participate, a teacher doesn’t know if they understand it. And when are they supposed to reteach those concepts?” she asked.
Horwitz noted this was previously done in the middle school during pull-out services time. She would reteach the concept, make sure the students understood their assignments, knew what to do, and break down the assignments for them, as well as teach self-advocacy skills.
Goier said special education students are taught according to a flex model designed to meet the needs of individual students, so it’s hard to generalize what would affect all students.
As far as a student missing general education time in favor of getting special attention outside the classroom, the result would be specific to the student, what the student missed and how the two teachers involved worked together, she added.
“Special education is so complex and so individual for every student that it’s hard to generalize,” she said.
Communication and “the semantics of things” have been an issue during recent discussions of special education, Goier said.
“The terminology being bantered around is generalizing terms that are very specific, and different people are using different meanings for them,” she said. “I often find myself answering a question, or someone on the staff answering a question that we inferred meant something, and what someone was asking was completely different.”
Miscommunication has been one of the reasons that trying to improve the district’s special education programming has been frustrating, Goier added. That’s why the administration has held meetings for parents, to discover their specific concerns.
A staff survey was done in the last three weeks just to identify teachers’ concerns, Goier said.
“We’re making some real progress in reaching an understanding of what it is that staff and parents are seeing as problems, and working very hard to make improvements, both immediate and over the next few months and years,” she added.
Out of action
In the meantime, Horwitz hasn’t been in school since September, though parents still seek her out for information regarding their children’s futures. Former students also still ask her to go over their papers to tell them if they make sense, Horwitz said.
“I am on medical leave right now, because I’ve developed anxiety issues … I very much want to go back to teaching again, but not under the present circumstances,” she said.
She noted those circumstances include administrators:
Making special education changes that take away resource services and cause the children to lose one-on-one support;
Pushing special ed kids to take a foreign language, because it is “mandated by law,” though they are challenged by reading and writing English;
Putting pressure on both special and general ed teachers to meet the needs of all their students as a result of reducing services for special education students.
Goier stressed that one-on-one support is determined by a student’s IEP. As far as special education students taking a foreign language, that is part of the core curriculum. And special education students are required to take the core curriculum, although possibly modified, unless they are excused.
She is investigating complaints of teachers feeling pressured by trying to accommodate both general and special education students in their classes.