Near North Elementary is one of three therapeutic day schools in Chicago serving the most psychiatrically and emotionally disturbed children in the city. The children have been diagnosed with psychiatric conditions ranging from Bipolar Disorder, Schizophrenia, Attention Deficit Disorder to Oppositional Defiant Disorder. While each requires a specialized learning environment, some may present as a danger to self or others and require special handling to manage their explosiveness and other challenges. About 70% of the students at Near North are medicated. If they are unable to be managed in this school environment, they may be sent to residential facilities. These are children who were unable to tolerate a typical school environment. Classes at Near North may be even smaller than the 13 students per class mandated for special education programming by CPS.
“The majority of our students come from unsettled or abusive home environments and may be living in foster homes or group homes. They haven’t received a fair shake at life, and they have good reason to be angry.[…]The next step for many of our children is a residential facility. That’s why everything we do is geared toward helping our students deal with their emotions to improve their behavior, so they can eventually return to a general education school. […] This is without a doubt the hardest environment in CPS to work in. It takes a lot of courage, energy, and mental strength to work here, but come the end of each day you know your efforts and devotions positively impacted the students’ lives in some way. The staff members of Near North Elementary are the true heroes of the public school system.” —Peter Gayford, Near North librarian
Near North serves 95 students, all of whom are bused in. The majority are African American. It serves 10-12 girls at any time and is the only CPS therapeutic day school that does so.
These include girls like Yajaira Rivera, whose diagnosis with a learning disability and an emotional disorder requires 100% of her school day spent outside of general education classes, a requirement her home school couldn’t fulfill—a school where Rivera had had years of problems. Rivera began her 8th grade year at Near North last fall:
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.”
“I’ve worked really hard. Before, every little thing would bother me. But now, I either walk away [from confrontations] or count to 10. I also draw or write down what I’m feeling. I keep improving every day, and I’m turning around things both at home and school.” –Chris, Near North student
If successful at Near North, a child may enter a program that allows them to attend their home school part time, a crucial way to built confidence, academic and social skills, and to begin the transition to their home schools.
“We try to return students to the schools they attended before being referred here, but often times students have negative or hurtful associations with their prior schools. If that’s the case, then the students are sent to one of two schools we are associated with – Peabody or Brown.” –Lucy Very, Near North principal
Unfortunately, Peabody School is also slated for closure.
“Near North has been, and currently is, a major stabilizing factor for our students. Due to a very caring and nurturing environment by staff and faculty, Near North staff knows how to manage students when they are in crisis; but more importantly, they know how to educate students with special needs. Near North should be viewed as a model of how to educate students in a therapeutic educational setting. To close the school, in my opinion, would be a major blow to educating students with special needs.” —Chris Carroll, Near North LSC and mental health professional
A staff member at Near North stated that the children are the staff’s number one concern. They are worried about the transition to a new building with new staff in the Fall when these children return to school. The staff member stated, “We know them. We know how to handle them and how to teach them.” The staff member believes that their school is being closed due to old building requiring repairs. (Near North is located in an historic building that was originally named Motley School when it was built in 1884.) In addition, their test scores were lower than another of the CPS therapeutic day schools. “They say we were underutilized, but that’s because of the population. Some of the kids are so explosive, we can’t have the regular number of students in each class.” The staff member noted that they only have one unused room.
“Near North is a special education school, which I truly think the Board of Education has treated them as a stepchild because they don’t have any resources. The building is old. The building is in terrible condition. The gym is small. It’s just real bad, and I think they’ve been treated unfair, and we should not treat our kids, I hope you all not treating them like that because they are special ed kids. They should not be treated like that. They need resources at their school. There’s only three special ed schools in the City of Chicago, from what I understand, and we can’t afford to close any of them.” –Alderman Walter Burnett
Post Author: Leah Harp with contributions from Cassie Creswell