CPS Testimony from Curtis Harris on the 30th Anniversary of the CPS Autism Program

Curtis Harris, second from right, with other Access Living friends in the summer of 2014.
Below is testimony from Curtis Harris. Curtis Harris is a disability advocate and was the first autistic person in the Chicago Public School Autism Program.

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Good Morning. It’s been over 30 years since the Board of Education opened the autistic program for students like me. I was the first student enrolled in the Chicago Public School autistic program at Le Moyne Elementary School. I only stayed at Le Moyne until October 1987 when the Office of Specialized Services designed Le Moyne as the school for students between the ages of 3 to 10, and Agassiz Elementary School for students from 10 until they graduate at the maximum of 15. I was transferred by the Office of Specialized Services to Agassiz where I spent three years, until my father took me out of the autistic program because I wasn’t mainstreamed into general core classes enough.

The Office of Specialized Services had me attend Brown Elementary School in September 1990 until I graduated in June 1992. I was only mainstreamed with non-disabled students in the 8th grade. I was put together with students with severe learning disabilities. After graduation The Board opened the severe profound program for students with severe autism, severe developmental autism and emotional mentally handicapped into one program at Steinmetz High School in July 1992. I was in the severe profound program, also known as the Inclusion Program, for my freshman and sophomore years and was completely mainstreamed into regular learning disability program for my junior and senior year. CPS Special Education was inadequate and left me unprepared for college and life. I didn’t learn anything until I got into college.

Today students with higher functioning autism are mainstreamed into regular learning disability classes at Agassiz, Brown and the high schools of Walter Payton College Prep, Lane Tech, Steinmetz College Prep, Von Stebuen High School and Lindblom. Most of the classes at Steinmetz are rigorous. At the time, I didn’t have rigorous classes at Steinmetz.

Some progress has been made in the autistic program over the last 30 years. There still needs to be more progress. There still aren’t a lot of qualified special education teachers to deal with students with autism, emotional and other disabilities. We still have a long way to go for CPS and the Board of Education to be fully educated about students with autism in the “lease restrictive environment” so that students can reach their full potential. CPS destroyed the program that was like a close-knit family at Le Moyne with the closing of the Early Childhood Autistic Program in 2005 and closed the school in 2007, moving the Inter-American Magnet Program into the Le Moyne building a year before closing the school itself. CPS also closed Lafayette, which had a good autistic program, in 2013 as part of the Mayor’s closing 50 schools.

You need to seriously consider the needs of students with disabilities, especially autism, before you close schools. Closing schools is not the answer for underutilization or under-enrolled with students with autism getting more attention from their teachers and the aides. The Hope Institute School is well and good for students with autism. You need to continue to integrate students with autism at Hope. Closing schools with students with autism will disrupt their growth, causing them to regress to their older behaviors or worse in high school degenerate to join gangs or other criminal activity and severe autistic students to perform anti-social behavior.

In closing, we need to work together for a better tomorrow for students with autism, severe autism, emotional disabilities and others with disabilities. Happy Anniversary to the CPS Autistic Program. Let’ see what the next 30 years look like.

Curtis Harris