By David Jackson and Gary Marx, Chicago Tribune reporters
November 13, 2012
Sometimes, Yajaira Rivera would storm out of school in frustration during the middle of the day.
Other times, she was told to leave.
And then there were the many days she simply stayed at home, avoiding both trouble and the classrooms where she was falling behind.
As a seventh-grader last year at Nobel Elementary School in Chicago, Yajaira missed 68 days out of 170. She'd already lost an additional 213 days since second grade, far more than a full year of classes, records show.
But Yajaira is not just any difficult student needing discipline. She is coping with learning and emotional disabilities that explain why a child described as "motivated to learn" by a school social worker has so many conflicts with teachers and fellow students.
Attendance data provided by Chicago Public Schools show that students like Yajaira who are diagnosed with a learning or emotional disability — and there are thousands of them in grades K-8 — miss far more school days on average than children without a disability.
That disparity, along with the details of Yajaira's school experience, raise questions about how the district is handling the difficult but vital task of giving these students a shot at a decent education and a real future.
Education experts note that there are effective strategies for managing and nurturing students like Yajaira. But too often, disability advocates say, officials simply push these youth out of school or let them slip away.
A 2012 Nobel school report provided by Yajaira's family states that "an intervention for minor infractions has been for her mother to bring or keep Yajaira home with her in order to avoid further escalation of Yajaira's anger and behavior."
That intervention — which advocates for the disabled called a potential violation of federal law — "has resulted in poor exposure to the general education curriculum," the school's report noted.
Yajaira's mother, Maria Figueroa, told the Tribune that she reached "an agreement with the principal at Nobel: When Yajaira is upset, I will not send her to school."
Nobel Principal Manuel Adrianzen denied that, telling the Tribune in a written statement: "We have always worked hard to help this parent and her daughter and at no point did I or any member of my staff ever tell her to keep her child at home."
CPS spokeswoman Robyn Ziegler also disputed that Nobel staff allowed Yajaira to miss school as an intervention strategy.
"Behavior management is not a valid cause of absence," she said in a statement.
Whether or not Yajaira's absences were condoned by Nobel administrators, her case fits into a grim pattern.
Consider the 17,000 students in grades K-8 whose "primary diagnosis" in CPS' database is a learning disability — a disorder generally affecting the ability to use or understand language. On average, each of these students racked up two weeks of truancy and excused absences in the 2010-11 school year — about 20 percent more than those with no disability.
Also frequently gone from school were the 1,500 elementary students with an emotional disorder as their primary diagnosis — children whose behavior or feelings impede their learning and ability to get along with others.
On average, K-8 students with an emotional disorder missed about four weeks of school because of truancy and other absences, the Tribune's analysis found. They also accrued 10 times as many suspension days as children without a disability.
Federal law requires schools to provide these students with counselors, aides and other support to help them succeed, and it specifically protects students with disabilities from being excluded from school through excessive suspensions or informal push-outs.
But in Chicago, advocates for the disabled say, many children with learning and emotional disabilities go undiagnosed for too long and are then given inadequate assistance. Alienated from classrooms they find humiliating and unrewarding, students like Yajaira tend to tune out or lash out, leading to suspensions and other missed days.
After hearing details of Yajaira's case from the Tribune, Equip for Equality attorney Rachel Shapiro said keeping Yajaira home potentially violated her right to a public education.
"Regardless of whether the mom suggested it, I do not think it is something that the school should have allowed to happen," said Shapiro, whose group serves youth with disabilities. "The school owes the student a free and appropriate education, and if she is not in the classroom she cannot receive that. The school is supposed to tell a parent: 'This is not appropriate and we can't provide your child with a public education if she's sitting at home.'"
While not commenting specifically on Yajaira's case, Harvard University education professor Thomas Hehir said excessive suspensions and informal exclusions from school are a nationwide problem for youth with disabilities.
"Once you get into that pattern, the implicit message you're giving the child is that school is not important; you don't need to be here," Hehir said. "It becomes a vicious circle."
Students with learning and emotional disabilities "are kids who have a lot of potential," Hehir added. "It's a myth that they can't be highly successful in school, if given the appropriate supports."
First signs of trouble
At stake is the future of a 13-year-old slip of a girl with dark eyes, thick brows and a shock of dyed red hair whose desire to learn and be accepted shines through her troubled record.
One 2010 school report described a girl who liked to sing, dance and watch the children's sitcom "The Suite Life of Zack & Cody." Yajaira told the Tribune she aspires to be a veterinarian because she likes animals.
As a young child, Yajaira met all of her early developmental milestones — walking and speaking in phrases at a year old, quickly learning how to dress and later running errands for her mother, records show.
But her mother, who complains of migraines, back pain and the pressures of raising six children on public aid in an impoverished West Humboldt Park neighborhood, had trouble getting Yajaira to school starting in kindergarten. In second grade, Yajaira missed five weeks, records show, and that year she deliberately tripped a teacher.
Figueroa tried to find counseling to help with her daughter's learning troubles and explosive temper but was foiled by insurance and money problems. Yajaira mostly wound up on psychologists' waiting lists, school reports show.
Despite Yajaira's years of classroom absence, suspensions and academic failure, she was not evaluated for special education services until the middle of fifth grade, when she was nearly 11. She was diagnosed with a learning disability.
CPS spokeswoman Ziegler told the Tribune that the district handled Yajaira's case correctly and that officials believe there were no delays in getting her evaluated.
The 2010 evaluation describes Yajaira as friendly and talkative, a visual learner and a "sweet girl who apologizes and feels remorse when she does something that is inappropriate."
At the time of her evaluation, Yajaira was only a little behind in math, easily matched colorful pictures based on common characteristics to achieve a "high average" score on an IQ subtest, and had no problems expressing herself verbally. But she needed to have word problems read to her and had "deficits in reading, decoding and fluency." The fifth-grader scored at the second-grade level in spelling.
Yajaira was given an Individual Education Plan that required the school to remove her from general education classes for about 12 percent of the school day, put her in specialized classes and provide her with social-emotional counseling.
But beyond the paperwork was a challenging girl in a hard-pressed school, and records show Yajaira continued on a downward spiral of academic failure and lashing out with curses and threats.
"I make myself go to the (principal's) office," she told the Tribune. "I'll curse off the teacher or throw something at another student or walk out and just walk to the office and tell 'em I don't want to go to school, and they'll call my mom."
She said of school: "They don't want me to be there, and I don't really care because I don't want to be there. I stay home, watch TV, eat, listen to music, relax, play Xbox and card games, read."
Twice when Yajaira was sent to the principal's office last year, she disappeared out the front door of the school, Nobel records provided by her mother show. In one incident, when the seventh-grader was placed in a kindergarten room to cool off, "the lady at the front desk just looked at me as I walked out," she told the Tribune.
"I feel for the teachers," said Emily Runyon, a social worker at another CPS school who lived in the neighborhood and helped the family access services. "I'm sure Yajaira is difficult to manage in class. What she needed was relationships and therapy — somebody helping her cope in those situations when she is angry and upset. Sending her away and giving her no skills to address those problems in the moment is not going to help her."
Figueroa told the Tribune that Nobel staff more than once sent her a list of Yajaira's absences and asked her to provide an excuse for each missed day.
"The office sent me a list of the days that she didn't go to school. The office said to put whatever I wanted as an excuse ... she had a headache, a fever, whatever thing," Figueroa said. "They gave me a piece of paper with all the days, I filled it out and took it back. All the days were excused."
Such a change could have transformed days of truancy into excused absences, lowering the Nobel's school's overall truancy rate as well as Yajaira's.
Figueroa said she wasn't concerned about the practice, which benefited everyone involved.
"The school has a very good disciplinary reputation, and part of that is based on kids being in school," she said. "For them it's good because it makes them look good."
Adrianzen, the principal, denied in his written statement that he and Nobel staff ever directed Figueroa "to falsify information ... related to her absences."
Finding an alternative
Despite the array of services prescribed for Yajaira, her seventh-grade term got off to a rocky start.
By the end of November 2011 she already had "22 school absences, due to out-of-school suspensions, and her mother's attempts to keep her out of school so Yajaira will not engage in inappropriate behaviors," according to an evaluation from that month.
That year, Yajaira was suspended for two days for refusing to take off her hoodie in a classroom, then cursing. Days later, she got another two-day suspension for swearing at a teacher before walking out of class.
"The general education teacher finds it 'impossible' to teach when she is in the class," the school report said. "Sometimes she will sit quietly and not work, those are the times when teaching can occur."
At the time, Yajaira was under tremendous stress. The brother to whom she was closest was incarcerated on homicide charges. "Brother is in jail. Yajaira verbalizes wanting to stay in bed all day to deal with the pain. Mother does not send to school," one school social worker's report said.
By May, Yajaira had missed more than 50 school days. That month, a Nobel official called police after Yajaira threw a plastic spider at a girl and threatened to "beat" and "kill" her."
The school social worker's report from that month stated that the principal was "verbalizing intent to remove Yajaira from his school."
About that same time, the school conducted another special education evaluation of Yajaira and this time diagnosed her with an added disability — an emotional disorder.
Yajaira's new education plan required the school to remove her from general education classes for 100 percent of the school day — making it impossible for her to stay at Nobel.
With Runyon's help, Yajaira was enrolled for eighth grade in September at Near North Elementary School, a therapeutic day school serving about 90 students who have failed in regular education because of behavioral problems and truancy. The goal was for Yajaira to return to a regular public school during the year or as a high school freshman, her mother said.
As the school year began, Yajaira displayed a newly purchased knapsack, proudly unpacking pristine notebooks with Tinker Bell covers and a quiver of markers, highlighters and colored pencils.
"I am going to a new school. I don't have the bad friends that I had. I can control my temper," Yajaira said.
Yajaira's first interim report card, issued at the end of October, showed she got A's and B's with only one C, in physical education. She had missed five school days at Near North — two of them after a second brother, age 15, was locked up while facing attempted murder charges in juvenile court.
On a recent afternoon, Yajaira carefully completed an enrollment application to five Chicago high schools, noting that she wanted to focus on health sciences, a step toward her dream of becoming a veterinarian.
"I'm doing a good job in school," she said. "I need to keep it up."