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New Special Education Advisory Committee Convenes for Inaugural Meeting

01 August 2023

Committee of Parents, Educators and Administrators to Help Improve the Culture of CPS Office of Diverse Learner Supports and Services 

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CHICAGO — A new Special Education Advisory Committee of the Chicago Board of Education, with support from Mayor Brandon Johnson’s administration, convened Tuesday night for its first meeting. The committee shared its goals to transform the culture of Chicago Public Schools’ (CPS) Office of Diverse Learner Supports and Services (ODLSS) and improve services to families. One of the committee's first priorities will be to solicit and provide feedback on the search for a new chief of ODLSS.

This advisory committee will be led by Board Member Fahey Hughes and consist of CPS parents, special education advocates, CPS educators, and other stakeholders with a broad range of experiences within special education. The committee convened at Rudolph Elementary Learning Center and will determine their future meeting dates and locations, and share the schedule in the coming weeks.

“We’re grateful to all those who agreed to volunteer their time on this committee to listen, reflect and recommend next steps for the Board of Education on this critical work to improve the climate, culture and delivery of services for our families,” said Fahey Hughes. “We look forward to gathering feedback from families across the city on how we can best achieve our collective goal to improve outcomes for our students with disabilities.”

A brief biographical summary of Committee Chair Fahey Hughes and each of the advisory members are as follows:

Mary Fahey Hughes is a special education advocate and grassroots community organizer who has been an outspoken supporter of students with disabilities in Chicago Public Schools (CPS). Ms. Fahey Hughes began her special education advocacy work in 2007 as the founder and director of 19th Ward Parents for Special Education and went on to work at Raise Your Hand, as a Special Education Parent Liaison. As the parent of two CPS graduates and two current CPS students, three of whom have disabilities, she has the lived experience of navigating special education on behalf of her children and as a special education advocate. Ms. Fahey Hughes has a deep knowledge of ongoing areas of weakness and the need for systemic improvements to special education procedures and services.

Nicole Abreu is a child of immigrants from the Dominican Republic and the parent of three CPS students, including two with disabilities. She currently serves on the board of Raise Your Hand and volunteers with the Pediatric Epilepsy Surgery Alliance. She has served on her children’s school’s Parent Advisory Council, Bilingual Advisory Council and Local School Council, and helped to establish a school-level Diverse Learners Committee. Ms. Abreu is passionate about inclusive practices for students with complex support needs.

Stephanie Anderson is a Detroit native, the proud parent of two CPS students and the current principal at Vaughn Occupational High School, which serves students with developmental disabilities who require a special education setting in order to meet the goals outlined in their Individualized Educational Plan (IEP). Prior roles include assistant principal, Diverse Learner support leader and intervention specialist/school psychologist, inaugural fellow in the ADA 25 Advancing Leadership Institute. Principal Anderson’s lived experiences growing up as a student with a vision disability help to drive her commitment to equity, student and family voice in the educational decision-making process.

Rachel Arfa is the first deaf Commissioner of the City of Chicago Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities (MOPD), where she’s served since July 2020 and one of the few high-ranking deaf leaders nationwide. As Commissioner, Ms. Arfa has increased services to disabled Chicagoans and works collaboratively with fellow departments and sister agencies to advance accessibility and opportunities for people with disabilities to live independently. She brings over 15 years of experience as a disability and civil rights attorney, and held numerous civic and leadership roles, advocating for meaningful disability access.

Katherine Buitrón-Vera is a proud immigrant, CPS graduate and parent, with almost two decades of advocacy experience in education, health and immigration. She has been offering advocacy support to parents and students in the special education process since 2004. In addition to her many years of experience supporting families in their community, she brings lived experience raising a child with a disability.

James Cavallero is currently an organizer for the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and a CPS special education teacher for 26 years. Mr. Cavallero believes that good student learning conditions and teacher working conditions are complementary to each other and he has been a long-time advocate for both. He was born and raised in Uptown and currently resides in Andersonville.

Barb Cohen is the proud parent of two CPS graduates who learned how to navigate Chicago’s special education landscape while advocating for her autistic daughter. She’s also a certified teacher with nine years of experience and works at the Legal Council for Health Justice as a legal advocate. She addresses special education from three perspectives: parent, teacher, and advocate. Ms. Cohen believes that while our system for delivering special education services may never be perfect, we can better support our children and the adults who help them grow by working in true collaboration.

Dee Fedrick is a special educator with over a decade of experience serving children all over Chicago, focusing the last seven years of the South Side. She also serves as an assessor, evaluating children who may be identified as having a visual impairment as well as three year olds entering school. Ms. Fedrick is passionate about equity and making sure all children across the city have the same opportunities and resources no matter what side of town they reside. In her spare time, she serves as an early intervention therapist helping children 0-3.

Sandra E. Heidt is a Chicago resident and proud, single parent of two adult children; including a son living with autism, an intellectual disability, and speech delay, who attended CPS. Sandra is also a retiree who served 33 years at several City of Chicago departments in the areas of administrative hearings management, law enforcement, and social services. She has received a multitude of relevant training and certifications, and serves as a member for various committees and community organizations. As the sole caregiver of a person living with a disability, Ms. Heidt has developed an interest in autism awareness and acceptance, transition in education, respite, diversity, cultural competency, and inclusion, along with a passion for legislation, policy, and systems changes.

Frank Lally works as a policy analyst at Access Living, Chicago's Center for Independent Living. Drawing from his own experience as a student with a disability and IEP, in this role, Frank monitors developments in education policy and advocates on behalf of students with disabilities. Prior to joining Access Living Mr. Lally coordinated internship and civic engagement opportunities for CPS high schoolers at the nonprofit Mikva Challenge.

Dr. Miquel Lewis served in leadership roles across the Cook County Juvenile Probation Department for more than ten years before being appointed Acting Director/Chief Probation Officer of the Cook County Juvenile Probation and Court Services Department. He has also led as a project manager, probation officer, and a private practice clinical professional counselor. Dr. Lewis participated in the Applied Leadership Network Fellowship Program of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and taught psychology courses to graduate students and professionals pursuing continuing education.

Kalaveeta Mitchell is a parent advocate with 14 years of experience in special education focusing on due process, state complaints, FERPA, IEP development, independent educational evaluations and IDEA in the general education and instructional settings. She has testified before the Illinois General Assembly, the City of Chicago’s Education subcommittee, and the Illinois State Board of Education Inquiry. She wrote and won a due process summary judgment and assisted with two due process in-district and out-of-district placements. Ms. Mitchell is the mother of three CPS graduates, two with autism. Her youngest, who has autism, made international news in June after receiving over a half million in scholarships and 19 college acceptances.

Christine Palmieri has devoted significant time over the last decade volunteering and advocating for special education families and staff throughout the District. Ms. Palmieri is currently the special education advocate at Matt Cohen and Associates, a group that consistently advocates for special education students in CPS. This group's advocacy resulted in ISBE's inquiry and corrective action including ISBE monitoring of the CPS special education department. To date, families have received over $22 million dollars in Student Specific Corrective Action remedies. Christine has been passionate about supporting people with disabilities. She grew up with an aunt who had intellectual disabilities, two public school teacher parents; her mother a special education teacher, and is raising her own autistic daughter.

Olga Pribyl is the vice president of Special Education Clinic and Pro Bono at Equip for Equality. She has more than 27 years representing families with special education matters in federal court and at administrative hearings. She has served as lead counsel on a systemic action related to language access issues and as co-counsel for students with special education needs in juvenile detention centers. Ms. Pribyl was one of the lead attorneys on two of the first successful cases brought in Illinois under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Ms. Pribyl has provided training to law firms, parent groups and other organizations on special education issues, the ADA, and guardianship matters. Ms. Pribyl serves on the Illinois Attorney General’s Committee on Special Education. She was formerly a Level I hearing officer for the Illinois State Board of Education.

Tenesha Rawls is a field representative at CTU with more than a decade teaching in the Public and Charter sector. The last five years of her teaching experience was working with our most vulnerable population as a special education teacher. She has extensive experience in special education, related services, and supplementary aids that are all needed to ensure the success of our students. Tenesha is a proud graduate of Kenwood Academy.

Alyssa Rodriguez, a Chicago native and a proud product of CPS, serves as a school social worker and advocate for educational equity. She strongly believes that while children are the most resilient of us, if we are not actively trying to create a world where those skills are not necessary we are not doing enough for future generations. Her experience started while attending college where she worked with psychology doctoral candidates to support families and children with experience in the foster care system while working at an ABA Specialty Research School for children with Autism.

Tracey Stelly has served as principal in Chicago Public Schools for 15 years at the Mildred I. Lavizzo IBMYP World School. She is a CAHN Distinguished Principal Fellow and has served as a CPS executive principal. As a graduate of Louisiana Tech (B.S., General Sciences) and Governor’s State University (M.A., Education Administration), Principal Stelly began her career 34 years ago as a substitute teacher and after her first day in front of children, she knew she was meant to be an educator. She has since served as a school counselor, senior manager over the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Program (IBMYP) program, an assistant principal, and principal. Because of her persistence and collaborative leadership style, Lavizzo is the first and only IBMYP World School in the community it serves. It is and will continue to be the school’s mission and Principal Stelly’s vision to empower and prepare all students for the challenges in a global environment and society.

Kimberly Weston-Dodd is a resident of the southside of Chicago, a wife, and mother of two adult children, and has worked for CPS for more than 26 years. She began her career at Holden Elementary School as a bus aide/child welfare attendant and went on to serve as a special education classroom assistant, LSC non-teaching staff member, SEIU union steward, and a SEIU union delegate. With this expertise, she has learned to develop positive relationships with students and families to foster academic and social/emotional growth for all students. She’s a strong advocate for individualized education for all students with disabilities and uses the power of collaboration to advance her work.