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Report on special education in charter schools seeks to counter misconceptions

Sarah Favot | October 27, 2016

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In an effort to counter the misconception that charter schools don’t accept special needs students, the California Charter Schools Association released a report Thursday highlighting how 10 charter schools in the state serve students with disabilities.

The qualitative study included best practices based on interviews with charter school leaders and staff and focused on how the independent public schools include special needs students in general education classes.

“We wanted to make sure the public understands, that families understand that charters are welcoming to all students. The approaches might look different and that’s OK,” said Kate Dove, a special education advisor at CCSA and one of the study’s authors.

The Los Angeles-area schools included in the study were CHIME Institute’s Schwarzenegger Community School in Woodland Hills, Gabriella Charter School, Magnolia Science Academy 7 in Northridge, Multicultural Learning Center in Canoga Park and KIPP Raíces Academy in East LA. The schools were chosen based on their academic performance and reputation. There were 1,228 charter schools in California in the 2015-16 school year and 228 in LA, the highest number of any district in the nation. The study examined less than 1 percent of charter schools statewide.

Charter schools are publicly funded but have autonomy in the way they are operated. Under state and federal law, charters are required to accept all students no matter their disability.

A criticism often levied against charters is that they have exclusionary admission practices in order to maintain high test scores. This summer ACLU of Southern California and Public Advocates released a report that flagged 253 schools for discriminatory admissions practices. (Since the report was released, a number of schools have updated or clarified their policies and have been taken off the list.)

In the past, charter schools in Los Angeles have lagged behind the district when it comes to the proportion of students with disabilities they serve.

However, a report released in July from LA Unified’s independent monitor of special education programs found that after five years of gains, the district’s independent charter schools enrolled nearly the same proportion of special needs students as the district (11.04 percent to 11.96 percent, respectively), but the district tends to have more students with moderate to severe disabilities (2.1 percent to 4.72 percent, respectively).

One reason why the district has more students with moderate to severe disabilities could be because children are often identified at a young age and can get services from LA Unified starting in preschool or even earlier in some specialized programs, according to Robert Perry, administrative coordinator of the district’s Charter Schools Division. The vast majority of charter schools do not offer preschool.

“Why would you take them out of a system that has met their needs for many years and risk being the only student with that disability?” Perry said. 

“It’s not about choice or pushing out or training,” Dove said. “It’s just these historical circumstances.”

Some charter schools pay local school districts for special education services. In recent years, the number of charters that have independent special education programs has grown, according to the CCSA study.

The study cited a recent analysis by the California Department of Education that found charters that operate independent special education programs educate nearly 90 percent of students with disabilities in general education classrooms for 80 percent or more of their school day, compared to 53 percent statewide.

Academic research has repeatedly shown the benefits of including students who have disabilities with their peers in general education classrooms, called “inclusion,” and the district and charters strive to incorporate this model.

Perry said many charters are successful at using data to identify students who may have special needs early on and intervening because data are charters’ “bread and butter.” Student data are a main component of how charters are evaluated by the district, he said. Because of the use of data, many charters do not misidentify or over-identify special needs students, he said.

Because charter schools are smaller, some consisting of only one school, and have autonomy, the study’s authors argue that charters can be more flexible in serving the individual needs of a student.

For example, Multicultural Learning Center was able to provide a student who has cerebral palsy a tricycle to more easily get across the campus.

The Canoga Park school also has a culture of celebrating differences among students and conducts “community circles” to hold discussions among students and a teacher, or a teacher and students facilitated by an administrator, or students, parents and administrators.

When the student received the tricycle the school conducted a community circle for her classmates in which the girl’s doctor came in to talk about cerebral palsy and explained why the tricycle was needed and why the students couldn’t ride the girl’s tricycle, Dove and her co-author Bridgette Dutra said.

One challenge charter schools face in implementing some programs is a lack of facilities, especially for charters that are co-located, Dove said.

While charter schools do have autonomy, the district’s Charter Schools Division ensures students’ Individualized Education Plans are being enforced in a timely fashion, Perry said.

Perry said the district has not received any complaints recently that students with special needs are screened out of charter schools or are discouraged from enrolling.

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