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A Special Ed Alternative

A new private program for special education students helps administrators breathe easier and puts students on track for a successful future.
Ombudsman staff members play a game with a student to facilitate personal interaction and build relationships.


For years, administrators at Waukegan (Ill.) Public School District 60, located on Lake Michigan and just south of the Wisconsin border, had been using an alternative educational program to serve students who needed extreme discipline or had been expelled from school. But they also needed an entirely different program to help special education students who had aggression or academic weaknesses that prevented them from being successful in traditional classrooms but who did not need restrictive private placement.


Ombudsman Educational Services, which has provided ombudsman programs to schools nationwide since 1975, including the Alternative Learning Opportunities Program, created Ombudsman PLUS to cater to those special students. It uses small classes, support services and incentives to encourage students to show up to class, according to Allison O’Neill, senior vice president of operations. “The majority of our students in these types of placements have emotional issues, can be outwardly aggressive or personally aggressive, or have mental struggles in terms of coping and having proper social skills,” says Mary Lamping, the district’s chief academic officer.

The brand-new program, which was rolled out in the 2008-2009 school year, serves 28 students in grades 6-12 in the 17,000-student district. The PLUS program was also used in another Illinois district this past summer, O’Neill says. Each student in the program has an individualized education plan.

The school day, which is spent at a building about two miles from the high school that has its own cafeteria, computers and office, includes much of the traditional classroom work but also requires reading intervention and social skills instruction, to teach appropriate behavior. The teachers, all of whom are high-quality, certified teachers, sometimes do role-playing and have students evaluate their social skills.


Special education staff members also help students meet their everyday needs, says Janine Gruhn, the district’s special education director. “It [Ombudsman PLUS] has incentive programs to ensure that students are working at their behavioral level,” Gruhn says. “It’s always working toward goals and objectives.”

For example, students who are seen being kind to other students can earn “pride bucks,” which are not real dollars but can earn them time to attend, for example, trivia games or art clubs during school time, she adds. And students relish such prizes, Gruhn and Lamping say.

Students develop portfolios, which include all of their assignments and tests, and they learn how to interview for a job or for higher or vocational education. “It’s to get them ready for life after school,” Gruhn says, whether it is vocational school, college or work. A transition counselor also helps students, when they are ready, to return to the traditional school. Parents are involved throughout: They undergo the placement process with their child, learn what the program will do and how it will meet their child’s goals, and receive regular updates on their child’s progress.

Clear Improvements

The program, which costs $17,000 per student in Waukegan and is paid for by special education funds, is key to these students’ educational success. On average, the students gained a year and a half in reading, and attendance hovered around 80 to 95 percent, which Gruhn says is “excellent for high school students, especially in our socio-economic area.”

One student graduated last spring, and two others took classes both at the high school and at Ombudsman PLUS, meaning they were in the process of transitioning back to high school. “Without this program, I think the attendance rate for some students would be very low and many of them would not have the credits needed to graduate,” Gruhn says.

Angela Pascopella is senior editor.