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A (therapeutic) school away from schools

Teacher Mrs. Joanie reads class January 25 2013 Camelot Therapeutic Day School Hoffman Estates.  The school serves multi-need students

Teacher Mrs. Joanie reads to a class January 25, 2013 at Camelot Therapeutic Day School in Hoffman Estates. The school serves multi-need students with different levels of autism that are orthopedically impaired or developmentally delayed as well as Severely Emotionally Disturbed (SED) students. January 25 , 2013 | Michael Smart~Sun-Times Media

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By the numbers

25: Number of U46

students at Camelot

29: Number of Dist. 300 students at Camelot

$35,355 -


Amount to educate a student at Camelot annually


Amount U46 spends to educate students at Camelot each year*


Amount Dist. 300 spends to educate students at Camelot each year*

*All costs before state reimbursement.

Source: 2011-12 data, Elgin School District U46 and Community Unit School District 300.

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Updated: March 11, 2013 6:41AM

This is the first in a series looking at where students are placed when their home schools can’t meet their needs.

From the outside, it could pass for any other business in the Prairie Stone Office Park in Hoffman Estates. But the mural on the lobby wall gives some clue to its actual purpose.

The artwork is a collection of colorful handprints left by the students and staff who have passed through its doors.

During a recent visit, one of those students was sitting in a lobby chair, his ears covered in noise-cancelling earmuffs to block out all the overwhelming background sounds, an aide watching, working with the boy as he calmed. Later, a younger boy, with the encouragement of another aide, came up to give the receptionist a hug.

This is Camelot, an example of one of the many off-site facilities where Illinois school districts — including Elgin School District U46 and Community Unit School District 300 — place children whose needs cannot be met within the walls of their respective schools.

“You come inside, and it looks like a school because it is,” said Michael Gurley, head of clinical services for Camelot’s Chicago-area campuses.

“You see kids moving between classes, artwork, staff talking to kids about stuff, kids having a snack, classes learning — that kind of thing.”

In Hoffman Estates, Camelot operates what is called a therapeutic day school, working with students ages 3 to 21 with social, emotional and learning disabilities, as well as other health impairments, according to Principal Wendy Murphy Musielski. Many are on the autism spectrum.

Camelot has seven such facilities across the country, one in Pennsylvania and six others besides Hoffman Estates in Illinois, including sites in Naperville, DeKalb, Mount Prospect, Bourbonnais and Oak Park.

The 40-year-old company says it operates in five states and runs turnaround schools “for failing schools in need of transformation,” transitional schools “for high school students with behavioral issues,” and accelerated schools — including one in Chicago — “for off-track students who need to catch up and graduate.”

‘Is any cost too much?’

The Hoffman Estates building is split, with one side for working with multi-needs students who are more severely disabled. On the other side of a door leading to the other part of the building, educators work with students who have social-emotional disabilities in what look more like typical classrooms.

Between the two sides is what might have been an office break room that’s been converted into a makeshift gym and a “bridge” classroom. The latter is where students learn both school lessons and life skills, such as grooming, as they transition out of the program.

In Hoffman Estates, Camelot works with 100 students who come from about 30 school area districts. Most of the students are boys, as it can be more difficult to identify girls who need help, according to Gurley, based out of the Naperville facility.

Last school year, they included 29 students from Districts 300, and 25 from U46.

That cost each district just over $1 million in tuition, about half reimbursed by the state of Illinois, according to district officials. On top of that, transportation costs total more than $100,000 per year for each district to bring students to and from the Hoffman Estates campus.

The tuition at Camelot is $35,355 each year for a student with social-emotional disabilities, and $52,355 for a multi-needs student with more severe disabilities, according to information from District 300. Those costs all are set by the Illinois State Board of Education, said Charlene Cross, an education services generalist in the Carpentersville-based district.

Meantime, the average amount District 300 spends on instruction for each student is $5,333 a year, and $5,455 in U46, according the Illinois Interactive Report Card data.

One reason the cost is so high is the smaller class sizes at Camelot. It employs nearly 80 staff, at least two in each classroom with many working one-on-one with students, Musielski said. The school also has additional support and related services staff, as well as more comprehensive therapeutic strategies it can implement in addition to instruction, according to U46 Director of Special Education Pamela Harris.

As Gurley said, “They’re in the public schools, and they’re trying to keep them in the least-restrictive environment, but if they’re failing, is any cost too much?”

Meeting needs

A student placed at Camelot typically is there because a school district has exhausted all other efforts to educate him or her or because the cost to meet the student’s needs at his or her home school simply is too high.

The placement process involves meetings between district officials and the student’s parents or guardians to discuss his or her needs and what facilities best might meet them, then visits to several facilities recommended by the district.

“We do not generally receive students who have been home-schooled,” Musielski said. “We do, however, have students that are in between placements and may be waiting for a couple of months at home.”

Some of Camelot’s students arrive with court records.

“We evaluate each case individually and gather as much information as possible,” Musielski said. “We have releases to communicate with probation officers so we can, hopefully, be consistent. Most of the offenses include drug charges, vandalism, theft and such. The more violent offenders would most likely not be accepted into this particular program.”

Measuring success

The line of buses heading to doors behind Camelot is a long one by 8:30 a.m., when the check-in process starts at the building, and again by 2:30 p.m. when the school day ends. It might be longer still, but some students are dropped off by family members or taxicabs.

Many students also come and go throughout the day, involved with extracurricular activities through the Chicago Area Alternative Education League or the public schools that educators hope they one day can attend full-time, according to Gurley. Some even spend a half day of classes at their home schools.

The rate of placing such students back into the public school system — transitioning them back to their home schools a class or two at a time — is about 6 percent, Gurley said. Four students had transitioned out of Camelot just the month before, Musielski added.

Five to seven of those students transition back into a U46 school each year, based on their progress, Harris said.

To help make that transition smooth, Camelot focuses on socialization and skill set development: “what positive things happen when you use your skills in a positive way,” Gurley said.

That’s emphasized through posters hanging in classrooms, small incentives for positive behaviors, and a morning “townhouse” meeting where students can discuss and get feedback on their progress and problems.

Family support is emphasized, too, with open houses, special events and frequent meetings with parents and guardians part of the program, especially as students make the transition to their home schools. That’s because the more families are involved, the more success the school sees with its students, he said.

‘School environment’

As at most schools, standardized testing is part of the Camelot program, too. Those who can take the state-required ISAT or PSAE exams, their scores counting toward their home schools in U46 and District 300; others take the Illinois Alternative Assessment, Musielski said.

Camelot also gives its students MAP (Measures of Academic Progress) tests three times a year to mark progress, which is one of the reasons Cross said District 300 likes placing its students at the school: the district also uses MAP testing. That means, she said, “We have something to compare to, apples to apples.”

The school also is mirroring its program with the Common Core Standards that all Illinois school districts are adopting, she said.

And its students are making progress: Some start school at Camelot performing as much as five to seven years behind their age level and leave caught up or close, he said.

“We have a very solid behavioral system and educational system that we’re always working on improving to make it just like a school,” he said.

“It’s a school environment.”

Next: A broader look at who is served by these programs — and how much they cost those districts in tuition.

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